Friday, May 31, 2013

Frank Norris, McTeague (1899)

This is a cunningly harsh story of ignorance and avarice. It barely qualifies as an early western, and
then only in its last three chapters. The previous 20 chapters take place in a small neighborhood in San Francisco.

Readers of Cornell Woolrich’s Waltz Into Darkness will find much that’s familiar in this dark tale of obsession. It takes place in an amoral world among ordinary people with little more than a gift for self-preservation. Its central character, McTeague, is a man of brute strength and minimal intelligence. Self-employed as a dentist, he is set on the road to ruin when the girl he is to marry wins $5,000 in a lottery.

Plot. Like any good tragedy, the plot of the story is a simple one. McTeague falls in love with Trina, the girl friend of his best (and only) friend, Marcus. Generous to a fault, Marcus steps aside so that McTeague can court her. When she wins the lottery, Marcus feels the first twinges of jealousy. Not only has McTeague taken his girl; he has suddenly become a rich man.

Zasu Pitts and Gibson Gowland, Greed, 1924
Or so both men think. Trina has other ideas. The money awakens her inner Silas Marner, and she refuses to spend a penny of it. All goes well enough until Marcus’ resentment erupts into an open feud with McTeague. When Marcus leaves San Francisco to be a cowboy in southern California, the Health Board shuts down McTeague’s practice. Seems he’s never been to dental school. He blames Marcus for reporting him to the authorities.

Unable to get and hold another job, McTeague slides into a decline that has the couple living in abject poverty. Trina’s continued refusal to spend any of her lottery money enrages him, and his treatment of her grows abusive. Eventually, he kills her and makes off with the $5,000.

A fugitive now, McTeague fetches up in southern California. Restless with anxiety that there is safety only in moving on, he strikes out alone across Death Valley. There on the alkali flats under a blistering sun, a member of a sheriff’s posse catches up with him. The man turns out to be Marcus, eager to settle scores with McTeague.

Trina and McTeague, the wedding, Greed, 1924
Afoot and out of water, they engage in a life-and-death struggle over the bag of stolen money. When Marcus is killed, McTeague discovers that in his last moments Marcus has handcuffed the two of them together. So the story ends, like a Shakespearean tragedy, with all three of its central characters either dead or about to be so.

Character. In writing this novel, Norris deliberately places his narrative far outside the usual world of popular fiction. It offers up a coldly realistic view of his characters, who have few if any redeeming qualities and lack the intelligence to reflect with any depth on their lives. With only limited powers of reason, they are unable to resist their impulses and desires, often acting on animal instinct.

Literary history places Norris in company with French novelist Emile Zola and other naturalist writers. Trapped by heredity and social conditions, McTeague and Trina live insignificant lives amidst the great mass of the proletariat. Norris elevates them by casting them as principals in a tragedy. But he does not dignify or romanticize them. They are dead souls in a soulless world.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Robert W. Service, The Trail of ’98:
A Northland Romance

Robert W. Service (1874-1958) was already a household name when his first novel was published. He’d become famous as the writer of verse about the Klondike gold rush of 1897-98. Unlike Jack London, he had not been there himself and was relying on stories told by those who had.

This hefty, 514-page novel is a compendium of those stories, woven into what reads like first-person reportage. Its central character, Athol Meldrum, is a young Scotsman, adventuring in the American West and swept up in the stampede to the Yukon. A steamer trip takes him to Skagway and we follow him on the long perilous trail to Dawson City.

He teams up with three other men, and despite a tenderhearted temperament and the flagrant immorality of the mining camp, he works claims that produce a respectable fortune. Over the course of three years, he toughens up, but only at the cost of his idealism. And he has close encounters with death, being hospitalized with typhoid and nearly dying from starvation while lost for weeks in the wild.

Berna and Athol in the rapids
Plot. Athol’s adventures are the through-line of the novel. One follows on the heels of the other. What holds our interest is the gamble he is making against the odds to survive and make good. Pitted against him is the hostile terrain, where the 37-mile trail from Skagway to Dawson is lined with the graves of men who have succumbed from accident and exhaustion.

Then there is the climate, where the Yukon River freezes over each winter and isolates Dawson from the rest of the world for eight months of the year. And a man without a fire to warm himself will freeze to death in fifteen minutes.

Athol is also the prey of fraudulent officials and corrupt politicians eager to make a fortune through graft and duplicity. After a mad dash to stake a claim in a new field and waiting hours to register his claim, he discovers that someone has already jumped it. Meanwhile, the mining camps, with their dens of iniquity, always threaten to siphon off every ounce of gold he may have in his poke.

Romance. The two hearts on the book cover are a clue that it is about more than a quest for gold. While still on the boat to Alaska, Athol takes note of a sweet damsel, Berna, who is in considerable distress. She is traveling with her grandfather and a larcenous aunt and uncle, the Winkelsteins, who want the old man’s money. When he dies in an avalanche on the Chilkoot trail, they finally get their hands on it.

Berna meets Athol's brother
Athol keeps trying to rescue Berna, but the Winkelsteins have welcomed the attentions of a wealthy gold miner, Jack Locasto, who wants to marry her. Interfering with Locasto, Athol wins the man’s murderous contempt. The rivalry goes on hold temporarily as Locasto is challenged to a fight and gets thoroughly beaten by one of Athol’s friends.

Berna first wants Athol to marry her, for protection from Locasto. He demurs, insisting that theirs can hardly be true love since they scarcely know each other. He wants to wait a year. Then when he changes his mind, she has changed hers. No, she agrees, you were right. Let’s wait a year.

When a year passes, he is delirious with love for her but falls ill with typhoid and misses the wedding. Finally reviving, he finds that Locasto has won her away, and she is working in a dancehall. A fallen woman now, she feels unfit to be a bride. And so it goes, until Locasto has left the Yukon, physically shattered by near death in the snow, one hand amputated.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Old West glossary, no. 65

Here’s another set of forgotten and obsolete terms gleaned from early western fiction. Definitions were discovered in various online dictionaries, as well as searches in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of the American West, The Cowboy Dictionary, The Cowboy Encyclopedia, Cowboy Lingo, The Dictionary of Victorian Slang, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from Jack London’s A Daughter of the Snows, Arthur Stringer’s The Prairie Wife, Frank Norris’ McTeague, and Robert W. Service’s The Spell of the Yukon. Some I could not track down are at the bottom of the page.

back channel = the smaller of two channels in a river that diverge to form an island. “The next island below Split-up was known as Roubeau’s Island, and was separated from the former by a narrow back channel.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

Chatelaine and attachments
bean = a foolish, silly notion. “What’s the matter with you these days, Mac? You got a bean about somethun, hey? Spit ut out.” Frank Norris, McTeague.

bilge = the lowest internal portion of a ship’s or boat’s hull. “An old sailboat lay canted on her bilge.” Frank Norris, McTeague.

chatelaine = a pendent hooked to a housekeeper's belt with short chains for attaching keys, watches, sewing items, scissors, note pads, pencils, button hooks, and other household items. “Marcus Schouler—after impressing upon Trina that his gift was to her, and not to McTeague—had sent a chatelaine watch of German silver.” Frank Norris, McTeague.

chuck tender = in mining, a workman who replaces drills in the drilling machines. “When ken you go to work? I want a chuck-tender on der night-shift.” Frank Norris, McTeague.

Harriet Beecher Stowe
“Coral Ring, The” = a temperance story for women published in 1843 by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896). “This isn’t a twenty-part letter, my dear, and it isn’t a diary. It’s the coral ring I’m cutting my teeth of desolation on.” Arthur Stringer, The Prairie Wife.

Cousin Jack = a Cornishman. “The other seemed unsatisfied. ‘Are you a “cousin Jack”?’ The dentist grinned. This prejudice against Cornishmen he remembered too.” Frank Norris, McTeague.

Crème Yvette = a very sweet violet-flavored liqueur. “At the bar Heise and Ryer ordered cocktails, Marcus called for a ‘crème Yvette’ in order to astonish the others.” Frank Norris, McTeague.

dished = shaped like a dish or a pan, concave. “Under its lee lay an abandoned gravel wagon with dished wheels.” Frank Norris, McTeague.

druggeting = a heavy felted fabric of wool or wool and cotton, used as a floor covering. “Already the lights were being extinguished and the ushers spreading druggeting over the upholstered seats.” Frank Norris, McTeague.

duck = a fellow, a person. “I promised a duck up here on the avenue I’d call for his dog at four this afternoon.” Frank Norris, McTeague.

fash = to vex, annoy, bother, trouble. “‘Who’s afeared?’ Frona laughed. ‘Weel,’ he deliberated, ‘I was a bit fashed.’” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

fell = of terrible evil or ferocity; deadly. “A lone wolf howls his ancient rune—The fell arch-spirit of the Wild.” Robert W. Service, The Spell of the Yukon.

Sparrow with quill feathers
flag = a quill feather of a bird’s wing. “Say, ain’t he a bird? Look at his flag; it’s perfect; and see how he carries his tail on a line with his back.” Frank Norris, McTeague.

flossy = excessively showy. “Minnie, you devil, I’ll kill you if you skip with that flossy sport.” Robert W. Service, The Spell of the Yukon.

Man wearing gaiters, 1901
gaiters = a shoe or overshoe extending to the ankle or above. “‘What’s the matter with these old shoes?’ she exclaimed, turning about with a pair of half-worn silk gaiters in her hand.” Frank Norris, McTeague.

gibbous = a lunar phase between half and full moon. “A year has gone and the moon is bright, A gibbous moon, like a ghost of woe.” Robert W. Service, The Spell of the Yukon.

gomme / gum = a sugar syrup with gum arabic as an emulsifier used in many classic cocktails. “You’ll get your death-a-cold if you stand round soaked like that. Two whiskey and gum, Joe.” Frank Norris, McTeague.

Gibbous moon
Gorham Silver = a manufacturer of sterling and silverplate, founded in Providence, Rhode Island in 1831. “This evening she went so far as to make tea for two, laying an extra place on the other side of her little tea-table, setting out a cup and saucer and one of the Gorham silver spoons.” Frank Norris, McTeague.

grayling = a silvery-gray fresh water fish with horizontal violet stripes and a long, high dorsal fin. “The grayling aleap in the river, The bighorn asleep on the hill.” Robert W. Service, The Spell of the Yukon.

Arctic grayling
hit the ties = to walk along the railway tracks. “It lies with thee—the choice is thine, is thine, To hit the ties or drive thy auto-car.” Robert W. Service, The Spell of the Yukon.

Kiralfy = a ballet company in San Francisco. “The former occupant had papered the walls with newspapers and had pasted up figures cut out from the posters of some Kiralfy ballet, very gaudy.” Frank Norris, McTeague.

lightning artist = an artist-entertainer who sketches subjects very rapidly. “A lightning artist appeared, drawing caricatures and portraits with incredible swiftness.” Frank Norris, McTeague.

Mastiff = a plug cut tobacco sold by the J. B. Pace Tobacco Company of Richmond, Virginia. “Trina had made him come down to ‘Mastiff,’ a five-cent tobacco with which he was once contented, but now abhorred.” Frank Norris, McTeague.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Two Rode Together (1961)

John Ford brings a light touch to this story of a subject he treated once before in The Searchers (1956). James Stewart is the “searcher” in this film, out to find women and children kidnapped by Indians. But unlike John Wayne’s darkly driven character in the earlier film, Stewart is comically larcenous and unprincipled. His services go to the highest bidder.

Plot. The two riders of the title are Stewart, the town marshal of Tascosa, Texas, and Richard Widmark, an Army lieutenant who enlists the reluctant Stewart in the rescue mission. Several white families are petitioning the Army to find the survivors of Comanche kidnappings. Stewart would rather work alone, but Widmark is ordered by Major Frazer (John McIntire) to go with him. The two are to make a deal with the Comanche chief, Quanah Parker (Henry Brandon), to exchange money for captives.

Richard Widmark, James Stewart
Among the many obstacles, including Stewart’s cynical distaste for the Army and his lack of regard for Widmark, there is a more troublesome fact. The children they are commissioned to find were lost many years ago. When found, a captured white boy has become a fierce young warrior beyond any hope of “deprogramming.” A white man’s wife doesn’t care to return, for reasons that become clearer later in the film.

In trade for weapons from Stewart (not money as agreed), Quanah Parker gives them the boy and a Mexican woman (Linda Cristal). She is the wife of another warrior, Stone Wolf (Woody Strode), who is drumming up a revolt against the chief. Escorting the two back to the fort, Stewart and Widmark are followed by Strode, who is shot dead by Stewart.

Civilization is not receptive to either returned captive. The boy commits an act of savagery that quickly has him in the hands of a lynch mob. The pretty señorita is shunned by the officers and their wives who regard her as damaged goods, degraded by being taken as an Indian’s wife.

Linda Cristal, James Stewart
Stewart defends her to no avail. Returning with her to Tascosa, he finds that during his absence a dimly incompetent deputy has been elected to his old job as marshal. And Cristal is scorned by a truculent saloon owner (Annelle Hayes). Fed up with the frontier, Stewart and Cristal board a stage and head for California.

Romance. A surprising face to appear in the cast is Shirley Jones, remembered more for movie musicals, Oklahoma! (1955), Carousel (1956), and The Music Man (1962). She plays the grown sister of a boy stolen nine years before. All she has of him today is a music box with a song he used to love.

Richard Widmark, Shirley Jones
She knows the effort to find him now is fruitless, but she feels guilty for not making more of an attempt to save him the day he was taken. She tells this story to Widmark, who has been in the Army for as many years as the boy has been missing. Widmark gets her to let go of the past by persuading her out of her pigtails and the men’s pants she’s been wearing and into a dress. He asks her to come with him to the dance at the fort.

Up until that point, two rubes (Harey Carey, Jr., and Ken Curtis) have been noisy and dim-witted rivals for her hand. In a farcical scene they are once and for all discouraged in this effort by being doused with flour. At the dance, Widmark awkwardly proposes marriage to her and she accepts.

Monday, May 27, 2013

John D. Nesbitt, Dark Prairie

Review and interview

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, this western is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. The enigma in this case is a man who rides in to a small Wyoming ranch, the Little Six, and gets a job as a cowpuncher. The puzzle for everyone, including the reader, is what he’s really up to.

Like Shane in many respects, he goes by a single name, Dunbar, and he offers no other information about himself. He pokes around a dam-building project that will bring irrigation to the rangeland. And when he doesn’t disappear for days on his own, he hangs out in a nearby town. There he might be found in the saloon or on the front porch of a woman whose husband, Tut Whipple, is in charge of the dam project.

We witness all this through the eyes and ears of a young cowhand, Grey Wharton, who narrates the story. Is Dunbar a range detective? Some kind of troublemaker? Or just a drifter? The other cowboys at the ranch get to resenting him, and Grey is unhappy to find him in the company of Ruth, Whipple’s wife. Seems the motherless Grey is more than a little sweet on her himself.

Powder River Pass, Wyoming
Plot. The plot thickens as Dunbar becomes certain that the ranch owner’s cattle are being rustled and butchered to feed the crews working on the new dam. There’s also reason to believe he might be looking for a cave where robbers once stashed the take from a robbery.

Whipple surrounds himself with tough guys who try to intimidate Dunbar into minding his own business. But Dunbar is a powerful fighter and needs only a couple good punches to handily dismiss anyone who wants to get in his way. Matters take a nasty turn when one of the Little Six cowboys is provoked into drawing his gun and gets shot dead.

The town fathers are yet another matter. They are unconvinced by Dunbar’s claims of cattle rustling, and they close ranks when he says a town marshal would provide some much-needed law enforcement. They have much to gain by the success of the dam project and balk at interference by an outsider.

Little Laramie River, 1905
Character. As it turns out, Dunbar is a man on a mission. Like Shane he is a frontier knight errant, come to bring justice where, by design or neglect, injustice has been permitted to prevail. He has a code of conduct that is revealed in one of the several thoughtful talks he has with the young Grey.

Unlike the black-and-white code of the West, his is what might be called situational ethics. Actively defend what is right, he advises. But don’t take on more than you can handle. One on one, a man might stop a wrongdoer and hold him to account. But it’s no good going after the Big Guys, like the railroads. They’ll just crush you.

Meanwhile, do your work, the work you believe in. Be honest, be fair, even when the world is full of dishonesty and unfairness. In dealing with others, steer a middle course between the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule. In other words, temper law with mercy.

Oregon Trail, Wyoming, 1870
Romance. The novel ends with a flash-forward, and we know that Grey grows up and 20 years later has followed in his dead father’s footsteps, becoming a lawyer. Happily married, he has weathered the trials and tribulations of young love and courtship.

But during the course of the novel, he is still sorting through a young adult’s hormonal urges that make sense only in retrospect. The pretty Mexican girl who serves him meals at one of the saloons in town draws him like a magnet. And then there is the married woman, Ruth, who mothers him without fully realizing the claim his heart has made on her.

Wrapping up. Nesbitt writes so familiarly about these characters on the high plains of Wyoming, you feel transported back to their time and their world. The dialogue he writes has the easy naturalness of everyday speech. And that dialogue sparks with life when people are suspicious of each other or yielding to a rising surge of anger.

He also reproduces the rhythms of talk likely to be heard among the “fraternity of men who had the common interests of cattle, horses, work, and weather.” We listen in as the Little Six men discuss the changes being wrought on the plains by speculators and reclamation projects. And we hear from them how progress means the loss of a way of life.

Dark Prairie will soon be available at amazon and Barnes&Noble. For more about John Nesbitt, visit his website.

John D. Nesbitt

John Nesbitt has generously agreed to spend some time here at BITS to talk about writing and the writing of Dark Prairie. So I'm turning the rest of this page over to him.

John, we last talked here in July 2012. How has the last year been for you as a writer?
It has been a good year, especially after being on the street, as I have called it, as a result of the collapse of Dorchester Publishing. I had been with them for thirteen years and had achieved some good continuity with them in addition to winning some awards, and then they imploded.

My last two novels with them did not go very far, and I had the rights to two manuscripts returned to me. It took me a while to find another publisher, and I am glad to have done so with Dark Prairie. Five Star is a very good company, with good professional attention to all aspects from editing to cover design to marketing and promotion.

Also during the last year I have had a collection of poetry published with Western Trail Blazer, a publisher of e-books with corresponding print format. WTB has done several of my works ranging from short story to novella to book reprint, and this poetry collection, my first, is a very special little thing for me. For those interested, it is entitled Thorns on the Rose.

Talk about how the idea for this novel suggested itself to you.
As often happens, I had a few different ideas converge. One idea was that I wanted to have an almost-mythical main character who works for the noble purpose of justice but who is not perfect. That's where I got Dunbar. Because he would be somewhat mysterious, I needed to present him through the eyes of a narrator.

That's where I got Grey Wharton. I wanted to have Dunbar deal with a problem that, as I noted to myself, threatened the social body. Several years ago, a crime like the one that Dunbar investigates took place not far from where I live.

Like many people, I was very disturbed by what happened (it seems so flat when I write about it in this way, but I would feel like even more of a traitor if I were more specific), and it gave me the emotional base to write a story in which I wanted to see justice served. So that's where I got Annie Mora.

Is the published version of the novel closely similar to your first draft, or was the revision process extensive?
The revision process was, I would say, moderate. The version I submit to the publisher is usually the third draft, and then it goes through editing. In the editing of this novel, there were no big changes such as adding or taking out pages at a time.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

BITS is three years old

Desert morning sky, moon over vapor trails
Somehow three years have come and gone—and a gazillion words posted here. Blogger traffic data, for
what they are worth, noted a couple weeks ago that page views here passed a total of 300,000. And BITS, which started out on an impulse with fairly vague ambitions (read here), has evolved into whatever it is today.

And that’s been chiefly reviews of what I’ve been calling “early westerns” (1880-1915) and reviews of recent western novels plus interviews with their writers. I’ve also been discovering writers who published during the 1960s-70s, a favorite of them being John Henry Reese. Patti Abbott kindly includes links to these on her weekly Friday’s Forgotten Books.

Then there’s been a western movie review each week for Todd Mason’s Overlooked Movies and TV. Gleaning obsolete and forgotten words and names from the early westerns, I’ve kept a running Old West glossary going, now going on 65 pages. For a while, I put up a lot of photos, vintage ones of the Old West and many of LA today and the desert where I live, snapped with my cell phone.

During the past year I retired from a lifetime of paying jobs that started with radio announcing and measuring cornfields for the Agricultural Stabilization Commission, and ending with a teaching gig at a major West Coast university. I had long dreaded retirement, and as I said here a year agoblogging has helped keep me from dissolving into a blur.

The pleasures of the text. I enjoy reading, and I like writing about what I notice as I read. I find ideas embedded in the words of a novel and the plot and dialogue of a film. I’m looking for intelligent design, I suppose. The ideas may originate with the writers themselves, or they may be just part of the zeitgeist that slips into the story.

A writer asked me once whether I could review more books by living writers. It would help build their audience. I understand that but don’t see my main purpose to be selling books. A lot of reviews today are like that—a sales pitch, trying to rev up your interest like a movie trailer. But as someone who hates being endlessly sold to by every channel of the media, I don’t want to be adding to all that noise.

I’d rather share something that will cost readers nothing. And that something is a sense of wonder in the magic of storytelling—how every writer goes about it in their own way. I also marvel at how the western has gone on materializing itself and evolving over more than a century. And if I can, I’d like to show some of the many ways to take pleasure from a western story. If that makes you want to read a book yourself, I'll be pleased, but it's not necessary.

So, yeah, my “reviews” get pretty long. I give credit to anybody who reads them to the end. Long before we lost Roger Ebert (and I’m sure going to miss him), I realized that I was trying to talk about western novels the way he talked about movies. I can’t say for sure what way that is, except that plot is only one of many elements that go into the telling of a story. And taking readers outside the box of their expectations (like coloring outside the lines) is the gift of a writer, added value and not a drawback.

The year that was. Anyway, I thought I’d close by listing the posts that have drawn the most readers over the past months, going back to January 2012. You can see it's a mixed bag. But if you are curious about what others have clicked to at BITS, here are the top 10 pages, in descending order:

Wrapping up. A couple years ago I set a goal of reading the first books of fiction set in the West by every writer who began publishing between 1880 and 1915. A list that started with 35 writers expanded to well over 100, but I’m now reaching the last of them. With a reading of Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona (1884), I hope to be done.

Thanks to the encouragement of many who have taken the time to post comments here and send email, I will then set to completing a book about all of them—the writers who invented frontier fiction. It looks to be a major project, and I’m planning to spend the next two months at work on it. So as the posts slow down to a stop here, worry not. . .

. . . I’ll be back before long.

Image credits:
Photos, Ron Scheer

Coming up: John D. Nesbitt, Dark Prairie

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Saturday music, Elvis

"Treat Me Nice" from Jailhouse Rock (1957)

Coming up: John D. Nesbitt, Dark Prairie 

Friday, May 24, 2013

Robert W. Service, The Spell of the Yukon (1907)

Robert W. Service (1874-1958) burst upon the scene in 1907 with this collection of poems, published first in Canada as Songs of a Sourdough, where it was an immediate success. Born of a Scots family in England, he was living at the time in Whitehorse, Yukon, as an employee of the Canadian Bank of Commerce. He had already knocked about the West from Mexico to Vancouver. The bank job seems to have been an attempt to settle down and draw a regular paycheck.

He had been writing poems from boyhood and was encouraged to begin setting stories and impressions of the Great White North to verse. Thus originated two of his most famous story poems: “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” Those and more poems harked back to the 1898 gold rush that centered on Dawson City, 330 miles (532 km) down the Yukon River, which Service had yet to visit.

Success allowed him to eventually quit his day job and live as a writer, composing more books of verse and a novel, The Trail of ’98 (1910). He acquired material for this book while living for a time in Dawson, before settling in France with a French wife.

Klondike Camp, Yukon, 1898
The poems. Many of the poems are lyrical ballads, about the spell that the Yukon casts over the men who come to find a fortune there. The North is portrayed as a harsh mistress, luring many to their doom while bestowing her rewards on only the strongest and fittest.

This theme is spelled out in “The Law of the Yukon,” which tells of the merciless fate that waits for the weak, unfit, crippled, palsied, and infirm. In the voice of the Yukon herself, it laments the influx of the “dissolute, damned and despairful” men and women who are “the spawn of the gutters.” Send no misfits or failures, she warns. Only the strong and the sane will be granted treasures and sustenance.

The mining camps with their saloons and gambling are “plague-spots” that serve only one good purpose, to weed out the foolish and feeble. The Yukon will reward only those who risk all in the “uttermost valleys, fighting each step as they go.” Pregnant with “the seed of cities unborn,” she will be won by “men with hearts of Vikings and the simple faith of a child.”

“The Parson’s Son” provides a character study of a man ruined by the gold rush. After 20 years in the Yukon, trading in skins and whiskey, he remembers the days when the few white men there had “such a wild, free, fearless life beyond the pale of the law,” each with his “squaw.”

Gold miner at work, Klondike, Yukon, c1898
But the gold rush has been his ruin. Of Dawson he says, “No spot on the map in so short a space has hustled more souls to hell.” He has spent thousands on women, drink and gambling, ending up for a while in the “bughouse.” Now he lies dying on his bunk, and when he’s dead, we learn, his body will be eaten by his sled dogs.

Similarly, a fallen woman laments her lot in life in “The Harpy.” It matters not, she says, whether you are married or offering your body for hire. Either way you must serve the will of men. In “The Low Down White,” a man with half a lung waits for the return of his Siwash woman, who has been out trading sex for money. She’ll bring back three bottles, one for her and two for him.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Old West glossary, no. 64

Montana cowboys, c1910
Here’s another set of forgotten and obsolete terms and expressions gleaned from early western fiction. Definitions were discovered in various online dictionaries, as well as searches in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of the American West, The Cowboy Dictionary, The Cowboy Encyclopedia, Cowboy Lingo, The Dictionary of Victorian Slang, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from James B. Hendryx’s The Promise, Willa Cather’s The Troll Garden, and Jack London’s A Daughter of the Snows. Some I could not track down are at the bottom of the page.

Man with alpenstock
all standing = suddenly, unexpectedly. “He turned into the blankets all-standing, and as he dozed off Vance could hear him muttering.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

alpenstock = a long, iron-tipped staff used by hikers and mountain climbers. “She waved her alpenstock, and as he doffed his cap, rounded the brink and disappeared.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

“Ben Bolt” = a traditional song based on a poem written by Thomas Dunn English in 1848, set to music by Nelson Kneass in 1848. “She contributed her quota by singing ‘Annie Laurie’ and ‘Ben Bolt.’” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows. [Listen below.]

between blankets = sleep. “Corliss yawned in reply. He had been on trail all day and was yearning for between-blankets.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

block system = a system of railroad signaling that divides the track into sections and allows no train to enter a section that is not completely clear. “Little things, insignificant in themselves, but in the light of his present understanding, looming large as the danger signals of a well-ordered block system.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

cash boy = in large retail stores, a messenger who carried customers’ money from salespersons to the cashier and returned with the change. “He was interested in the triumphs of these cash boys who had become famous, though he had no mind for the cash-boy stage.” Willa Cather, The Troll Garden.

catch a crab = in rowing, to make a faulty stroke by failing to make contact with the water or plunging the oar blade in too deeply. “The boatman shot nervily across her bow, and just as he was clear, unfortunately, caught a crab.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

drill / drilling = a fabric in various weights used for work clothing and uniforms, e.g. khaki. “Her short skirt of heavy drilling came only to her knees.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

dump = a pile or heap of rock or ore. “In a single sitting, she gambled away thirty thousand of Jack Dorsey’s dust,—Dorsey, with two mortgages already on his dump!” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Spoilers (1942)

This 1940s gold-rush western is jaw dropping. For one thing, it has John Wayne in black face swapping “colored” jokes with African American actress Marietta Canty. What was probably meant to be cheeky and rib-tickling in 1942 looks just plain racially insensitive today.  For another, the movie has Randolph Scott as a slick crook. And it’s no fun watching him use his patently pleasant and winning persona to trick honest folks into trusting him.

Another thing. Veteran actor Harry Carey is more or less wasted in a small two-dimensional role. And while that makes three strikes, The Spoilers isn’t quite out. It has the saving grace of Marlene Dietrich as a sultry and spectacularly dressed saloon owner. Her scenes with both Wayne and Scott are steamy with flirtatious bantering and sexual innuendo.

Plot. Another point in the film’s favor is its plot. Based on a bestselling Rex Beach novel of the same name, published in 1906, The Spoilers tells a ripping story of claim jumping in the Alaska gold fields. John Wayne and Harry Carey are mine owning partners whose claim to their mine is being challenged in court.

Randolph Scott, John Wayne, Marlene Dietrich
A crooked judge (Samuel S. Hinds) promises to clear up the cooked-up dispute and puts the mine and all its assets into receivership. He’s in cahoots with the local gold commissioner (Scott), who takes a safe full of gold from the mine’s offices as soon as they can lay hands on it.

Wayne is first trusting that the case will be settled fairly, while Carey trusts no one, and the two men part company for a while. When it’s clear they are being had by a bunch of “spoilers,” they engineer a bank robbery and, after dynamiting the front door, make off with their safe.

But during the robbery, the town marshal is accidentally shot dead by another man, and Wayne is blamed for the killing and thrown in jail to face murder charges. Scott arranges with the jailer to allow Wayne to escape, intending to have him shot dead as he attempts to ride off. But Dietrich foils that plan and gets Wayne safely out of jail herself.

To take back their mine, Wayne and Carey drive a train locomotive through the barricades set up around the perimeter and shoot it out with the armed men on guard. That leaves only a matter to settle with Scott, and the two men have a knock-down-drag-out fistfight that demolishes most of the saloon. When it’s done, Scott lies battered in the street, and Wayne comes around in the arms of Dietrich, bloody but smiling.

John Wayne, Marlene Dietrich
Romance. At the film's start, Dietrich and Wayne have been an item of long standing, but there’s trouble between them as he arrives in town on a ship from Seattle. On board, he’s befriended the judge’s daughter (Margaret Lindsay), unaware that she knows of the plot against him. Dietrich suspects him of being untrue, and the scenes between the two are less than sanguine.

Wayne plays tough with her, hoping she’ll relent, but he’s disappointed her once too often. She tosses him out of her apartment, a comfortably furnished retreat upstairs from the saloon. One of her employees, a gambler by the name of Bronco (Richard Barthelmess) has romantic hopes for her himself, but she keeps putting him off.

Enter Scott, who sets his eye on her, too. She strings him along for reasons of her own. As an investor in Wayne and Carey’s mine, she has an interest in keeping the mine in their hands. While Wayne is in jail, she pays a call on Lindsay, the other woman. By this time, father and daughter know the jig is up and are packing their bags to get out of town.

Why are you running away, Dietrich wants to know. A woman sticks by the man she loves. And that’s exactly what Dietrich does, breaking Wayne out of jail. Having learned of Scott’s scheming, she pretends to grant him some privileges. Thinking Wayne is dead, he is quick to take advantage.