Sunday, August 31, 2014


Dawn sky
Eleven days out from the last round of chemo, I feel something like my old self again. Despite another desert heat wave (107° yesterday), I took the dog for a 20-minute walk around the neighborhood, sticking to the shade wherever it could be found. Later, my wife gave me a splendid haircut (see below), and I did something else I haven’t done in a much longer time. I wrote a poem, which had been percolating through the night in my head as I half slept.

This resulted from the influence of finding and listening to the poems of Robert Bly on YouTube. It was spring of 1984 when I spent a weekend in the Poconos at a workshop with him, as he talked of Grimms’ fairy tales and the ideas that were going into his book Iron John (1990). As an advocate of what came to be called the men’s movement, filling what then seemed to be a waiting space next to the women’s movement, Bly was attempting to fathom gender issues as a poet, not an academician.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: addenda
(drop one’s watermelon – minié ball)

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of frontier fiction, 1880–1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.” (The following are additions, turned up since these weekly postings began a year ago.)

drop one’s watermelon = to make a serious mistake. “That’s where Coyote makes the mistake of his c’reer; that’s where he drops his watermelon!” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville Nights.

Edward Eggleston
Eggleston, Edward = American author and historian (1837-1902), best known for novels set in Indiana. “This serial (which involved my sister and myself in many a spat as to who should read it first) was The Hoosier Schoolmaster, by Edward Eggleston, and a perfectly successful attempt to interest western readers in a story of the middle border.” Hamlin Garland, A Son of the Middle Border.

fan = to drive away or scatter like chaff. “There was a kind of a Death March into the dining-room from which Mrs. Terriberry had unceremoniously ‘fanned’ the regular boarders.” Caroline Lockhart, The Lady Doc.

fice-dog = a Feist dog, used for hunting, believed to be a cross between Native American dogs and dogs brought by the colonists. “While grub’s cookin’ and Crawfish an’ me’s pow-wowin’, a little old dog Crawfish has—one of them no-account fice-dogs—comes up an’ makes a small uprisin’ to one side.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

Friday, August 29, 2014

James Lee Burke, Heartwood

Totally deconstruct F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby; swap around the characters; add drugs and some Native American magical realism; make the narrator a former Texas Ranger; set the story in the hill country west of San Antonio, and you will have something close to this crime novel from the fertile mind of James Lee Burke.

It even ends with a dead body in a swimming pool and a melancholy closing image much like Fitzgerald’s—not “boats against the current,” but a boy and girl in a customized car speeding into the night, unaware of any rough road that lies ahead:

Esmeralda twisted sideways in the oxblood leather seat and grinned at him, pumping her arms to the beat from the stereo speakers, she and Ronnie disappearing down the highway, into the American mythos of gangbangers and youthful lovers and cars that pulsed with music, between hills that had been green and covered with sunlight only an hour ago.

The Tom and Daisy Buchanan of Burke’s story are Earl and Peggy Jean Dietrich, who live in comfortable wealth outside a West Texas town called Deaf Smith, where the novel’s narrator, Billy Bob Holland, works as a lawyer, typically defending clients in the clutches of brutal law enforcement and a dubious legal system. As Burke’s Nick Carraway, he is the one nursing a long smoldering love for an unattainable boyhood sweetheart, Peggy Jean, who left her blue-collar upbringing to marry into money.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Richard Wheeler, Flint’s Honor

This is the third in Richard Wheeler’s series about frontier newspaper editor, Sam Flint. We catch him this time arriving in a silver mining settlement in Colorado. He’s been drawn there by a cruel editorial in the town newspaper, The Silver City Democrat, which smugly reported the suicide of a prostitute as a victory for the town’s morally righteous and a blow at the corruptive influence of vice.

Flint discovers that real estate is at a premium in town, and he has to settle for rental space in the very apartment where the prostitute took her life, harassed by the sheriff and his thug deputies, and unable to pay the heavy taxes levied by the town on those deemed undesirable.

Plot. Setting up shop as a rival newspaper, The Sentinel, Flint learns that his competitor, Digby Westminster, has the town sewed up, with a monopoly on the news and the advertising revenue. He manages a virtual cartel of local merchants, permitting them to avoid competitive pricing of their goods and services. Local law enforcement is also all too friendly with Westminster, and judge and prosecutor use their influence to keep Flint uninformed of any shady mishandling of public trust.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Luck of Roaring Camp (1917)

Bret Harte
Based on a story by Bret Harte, this short silent film tells of prospectors in a California mining settlement, who adopt the infant son of a woman who has died in childbirth. They take the boy’s arrival as a turn in their luck, which has not been good, and they welcome him with a shower of gifts.

Three years later, according to the film, a vengeful “half-breed” attempts to kidnap the boy but is stopped by a gambler, Oakhurst (Ivan Christy). Seeing the gambler being held at gunpoint, one of the miners shoots the villainous abductor. 

Rescuing the boy, they find him playing with gold nuggets he has discovered on the ground around him—the camp’s luck now unexpectedly improved. (Harte ends the story more melodramatically with a flood that takes the boy’s life—the camp’s luck turned instead for the worst.)

What to look for. The clip of the film below includes the gift-giving scene, as the prospectors comically drop items in a hat, including spurs and a pint of whiskey. The following scene is shot in snow-covered woods along a stream where the men are placer mining. 

Director Floyd France makes the most visually of the location, contrasting the vertical lines of the trees with the diagonal flow of the stream and his actors’ movements over and across downhill slopes.  A product of Thomas Edison’s film production company, the movie is striking for its use of snow, a notable difference from the sunbaked and dusty images coming from studios in California.

With quick cross-cutting, the story follows several threads of action: (1) Oakhurst’s walk through the woods, turning suspensefully at times when he seems to hear something, (2) the miners working in the stream, (2) the boy being stalked by the kidnapper. With intercutting from several different angles, the editing produces a good deal of tense excitement.

Wrapping up. The Luck of Roaring Camp had been produced once before by the Thomas Edison film company in 1910, directed by Edwin S. Porter, who is best remembered for his early film, The Great Train Robbery (1903), often considered the first western. For more Overlooked movies and TV, click over to Todd Mason’s blog, Sweet Freedom.

Further reading/listening:
Bret Harte, “The Luck of Roaring Camp”

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: TBD

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Time and survival

Another day begins
I have been missing anniversaries on these cancer blog posts. So I’ll start by noting that this week it will be 7 months since I was diagnosed with the tumor that has taken up residence in my brain.

What I notice instead of months is the passing of the days. Each morning I wake to another one I think of myself as a cancer survivor, though you don’t survive GBM cancer anymore than you survive life. To the extent that I can put those two on equal terms, I guess I can call myself a survivor. We all get just one day at a time anyway.

Actually it’s too early to tell about today just yet. I can’t seriously complain about the quality of living, just that after a 5-day round of chemo I can look forward to several days of heavy-duty fatigue. So for most of the past two days I have run out of energy by about 7 a.m. and spend the rest of the day lying in bed, sleeping for hours at a time and reading a novel during periods of waking in between, maybe with ear beds tuned in to Tibetan bowls on YouTube. (Yesterday this followed a trip to the local animal hospital where our dog Zoe had oral surgery.)

Wall mural, Desert Hot Springs Animal Hospital
Also pretty much absent is any desire to eat. This part is hard to explain, but while I remember the taste of food, I need only remind myself that what registers now is something as bland and off-putting as library paste or wet cardboard and I lose interest in snacks or meals. 

The exceptions, sometimes, are fruit (grapes mostly), crackers, tomatoes, and salad dressing, which you could probably create a weight-loss program around as effective and trendy as the Paleo diet. It’s just weird enough. After the steroids I’ve been prescribed made my weight shoot up 20 pounds, I’m off about 4–5 again. Who knows, I may be able to squeeze into a pair of jeans again some day.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: addenda
(air-tights – dornick)

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of frontier fiction, 1880–1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.” (The following are additions, turned up since the weekly postings began a year ago.)

air-tights = canned goods, e.g. tomatoes, peaches, milk. “At last Crawfish, havin’ turned his little game for flour, air-tights, an’ jig-juice, as I says, gets into the Red Light, an’ braces up ag’in the bar an’ calls for nose-paint all ’round.”  Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

alcalde = a town official, e.g. mayor (from Spanish). “We-alls is organized for a shore-’nough town, an Jack Moore is a shore-’nough marshal, come with Enright for alcalde that a-way, an’ thars a heap of improvements. Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

Allen’s Cherry Pectoral  = a patent medicine. “These advertising bulletins could be seen in heaps on the counter at the drug store especially in the spring months when ‘Healey’s Bitters’ and ‘Allen’s ‘Cherry Pectoral’ were most needed to ‘purify the blood.’” Hamlin Garland, A Son of the Middle Border.

almarjal = rain-fed boggy ground. “Even the rude rancheros and tradesmen who were permitted to enter the walls in the exercise of their calling began to speak mysteriously of the beauty of this garden of the almarjal.” Bret Harte, Frontier Stories.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Stephen Crane, The Western Writings of Stephen Crane (1979)

It’s been too long since I read The Red Badge of Courage—if I can say that I really read it the first time. (Literature gets wasted on the young.) I remember the irony of the novel’s premise, but I have no memory of Stephen Crane’s mastery of style, tone, and narrative flow. 

This collection of his western writings, compiled in 1979 for the New American Library, awakened in me both an appreciation for him as a writer and a deep sorrow that his creative life was cut so short, by consumption, at the age of only 28.

The handful of stories (nine, depending on how you count them) are wonderfully told, bright with wry wit and a sensibility that finds dark humor in the lives of ordinary people wading without knowing it into big trouble.

Themes. “The Blue Hotel” is the finest example of that, as four men gather by a stove to play cards in the parlor of a hotel during a fierce Nebraska blizzard. One of them, a Swede, behaves strangely. New to what he believes is the Wild West, he fully expects to be killed by one of the card players.

Emboldened by his fear he accuses the hotel owner’s son of cheating. After beating the boy soundly in a wind and snow swept fistfight outdoors, the Swede leaves the hotel and finds death waiting for him instead at the hands of a gambler at a nearby saloon.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Patricia Grady Cox, Chasm Creek

Fans of historical western romance should find enough to like in this novel set in an Arizona mining camp. The central character, Esther Corbin, has been abandoned by her unreliable and, we learn, faithless husband, leaving her with four children on a hardscrabble farm.

Plot. We quickly learn that this story is a romance because we are soon introduced to a man much kinder and gentler than the run-of-the-mill males who populate the immediate vicinity, the Chasm Creek of the book’s title. Morgan Braddock has been deeply wounded by life on the frontier, and when we meet him, he is a wanted man—wanted for the bloody killing of another man in a fit of rage. 

Cox does not reveal the circumstances of that rage until much later in the novel. By then he has won the heart of the heroine, Essie, who would give both heart and soul to him if she were not already married.

Character. Cox takes an unusual step in her characterization of Braddock by giving him a close friend, a Navajo kidnapped in boyhood and raised in Mexico, where he has grown up with a Spanish name, Rubén, and adopted the Roman Catholic faith. He is now an old man and Braddock’s mentor and traveling companion. They are deeply bonded in their loyalty to each other.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Ruth Roland, The Sheriff of Stone Gulch (1913)

Ruth Roland
Ruth Roland (1892-1937), along with Pearl White, was the queen of the early movie serials. She came from a show business family, and had been a child vaudeville performer when she began a movie career at Kalem Studios in 1909. Over the following two decades, she appeared in more than 200 films and was especially good in westerns and comedies.

In 1915 she had the lead role in a 14-episode adventure serial titled The Red Circle (a birthmark, on the hand of the heroine, noticeable only in times of stress and excitement, forces her to steal, leading to multiple complications and intrigue). After the success of this series, she formed her own production company, making six more multi-episode serials that also proved to be moneymakers. She continued in the movie business until 1930, when she made the first of two talkies before retiring from the screen.

In the following one-reeler, she plays the sweetheart of a man (Pat Hartigan) wrongly involved in a robbery. Her father (Vincente Howard) is the sheriff of the film’s title, and her sweetheart—with a little help from her—has to act fast to clear himself of the crime.

Sunday, August 17, 2014


Summer morning clouds
I do not speak of God in this cancer journal because I know the word is problematic for a lot of readers—as it is for me. Yet I have to admit that reading the words of others, who have given a lot more thought to this subject than I, has helped me come to terms with my mortality and the cancer itself.

A little background: I was brought up in a conservative branch of American Lutheranism I have long characterized as 95% law and 5% gospel. It fostered in me an image of the Almighty as not just a bearded old man in the clouds, but a nearly featureless block of clear ice, aloof and floating in the stratosphere.

I understand that this is as much from biblical teachings absorbed in eight years of parochial school (“I the Lord thy God am a jealous God…”), as a projection of my own excesses of hubris and judgmental disconnection from most of my fellow beings. I even persuaded myself that I was so superior in my perfectionist brand of faith that I planned to go into the ministry myself. Thank God, though I waited for it, I never felt the call.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: XYZ
(Yale Mixture – zanjero)

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of mostly frontier fiction, 1880–1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.”

Yale Mixture = a smoking tobacco sold by Marburg Brothers of Baltimore, Maryland. “He preferred Yale Mixture in his pipe.” Frank Norris, McTeague.

yap = a simpleton; a contemptible person, irrespective of class or background. “That yap up there at the top of the hill could have done this for you long ago.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

Yaqui = an Indian tribe originally in northern Mexico and now also in Arizona. “My Gosh, he can eat! And a complexion like a Yaqui.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.

yarder = a winch or system of winches powered by an engine and used to haul logs from a stump to a landing or to a skid road. “The yarder came snorting grotesquely down from the dip behind the first ridge.” Vingie Roe, The Heart of Night Wind.

yeggman = safe cracker, burglar, thug. “Observe, the gentleman still keeps his sawed-off yeggman’s delight in his pocket.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

B. M. Bower, The Phantom Herd (1916)

Novels about the early days of western movies are few and far between. B. M. Bower more than makes up for that in this story of a Hollywood filmmaker, much like William S. Hart (see this week’s BITS review of his Wagon Tracks).

In Bower’s novel, director Luck Lindsay wants to make a film about the real West of the open range days, not the shoot-em-up “bunk” currently being released to the public. As Luck explains:

            For film purposes, the West consists of one part beautiful maiden in distress, three parts bandit, and two parts hero. Mix these to taste with plenty of swift action and gun-smoke, and serve with bandits all dead or handcuffed and beautiful maiden and hero in lover’s embrace on top. That’s your West, boys – And how well I know it!

Scenes, he complains, are shot on cheaply built sets and in scenery no grander than nearby Griffith Park.

Plot. Luck has a script for a feature-length film about real cowboys herding cattle and invites the cowhands from the Flying U ranch in Montana to be his cast, but the studio turns down his script and puts them all to work on another western instead, which they trash by making a farce of it. Thoroughly enjoyed by the usually jaded viewers in the studio screening room, there’s little doubt it will be a moneymaker with the public.

Monday, August 11, 2014

William S. Hart, Wagon Tracks (1919)

Thomas Ince. When he came to Los Angeles from New York in 1911, Thomas Ince (1882-1924) was a 29-year-old actor and aspiring filmmaker. He was hired on by the Bison Life Motion Picture Company to make one-reeler westerns. The Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch Wild West show was wintering in Venice, California, when he arrived. Ince hired them, and in one stroke had himself an entire stock company. Next he acquired an acreage in the Santa Monica Mountains for shooting pictures.

Production expanded to the making of two-reelers, the first of them War on the Plains (1912). In Ince’s hands, the scope of the western expanded as well. He wanted to portray the drama of westward expansion and in particular its impact on the native populations. He had empathy for what he saw as the tragedy of the red man. It was an attitude he would share with William S. Hart, a fellow actor he had known in New York.

William S. Hart. In 1914 actor William S. Hart (1864-1946) joined Ince’s company to make westerns of his own. By this time, the market was already becoming glutted with westerns, and Ince had lost interest in them. But he let Hart make two two-reelers, The Bargain (1914) and On the Night Stage (1915). Both did well at the box office, and at the age of 40 Hart began a career as a cowboy actor in the movies.

Hart is often given credit for bringing a depth of new realism to the western. But film historian Jon Tuska argues that Hart’s western setting is little more than a backdrop for a morality drama. We get an example of that in his feature-length film Wagon Tracks, released in 1919.

Sunday, August 10, 2014


Street art, LA
I put off retirement until I was 70 because I couldn’t see what or who I’d be without a job to go to. The unstructured time always looked like a Black Hole waiting to swallow me up. I finally realized that all I needed was to be and feel useful, and blogging allowed me to do that. Cancer hasn’t so much changed that as made me see that being useful takes a lot more energy than I’d anticipated. There are days when hours slip away with little that I used to think of as accomplishment. I don’t like to say it, but cancer has become its own Black Hole.

That may sound like complaining or woe-is-me misery. Believe me, I can still joke and laugh. In fact, I continue to turn to humor as the best and most satisfyingly wholesome response to illness. I cringe at the horror cancer seems to instantly trigger in people. I’m convinced that fear of it causes the widest collateral damage.  The brain chemistry, as we know from the evidence of science, is flooded with damaging surges that make us even more physically vulnerable.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: W
(whipstock – wurrah!)

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of mostly frontier fiction, 1880–1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.”

whipstock = the handle of a whip. “John replied, fingering the whipstock of the doctor’s buggy.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

whiskey jack = the gray jay or Canada Jay, a North American bird found in coniferous forests. “A whisky jack flitted from branch to branch of the under brush—always just a step ahead.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

whit leather = a leather that has been treated with alum and/or salt. “He is as sound as a dollar, as tough as whit-leather, and as to his gentleness he speaks for himself.” John C. Bell, The Pilgrim and the Pioneer.

white alley = in the game of marbles, a white marble used for shooting. “I make a distinction between gunman and gunfighter, the former being practically a murderer, while the latter always gave a foe a chance for his White Alley; in short, a gunfighter was not a hired killer.” Jack Thorp, Along the Rio Grande.

Exposition, Chicago, 1893
White City, The = Chicago, which gained the nickname during the 1893 World’s Exposition, illuminated at night by the extensive use of a new invention, electric street lights. “Like everyone else who saw it at this time I was amazed at the grandeur of The White City and impatiently anxious to have all my friends and relations share in my enjoyment of it.” Hamlin Garland, A Son of the Middle Border.

white-eyes = Indian term for white people. “The Indians, being wicked, ungrateful, suspicious characters, doubted the promises of the White-eyes.” Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Richard Bissell, High Water (1954)

Elmore Leonard once said that he learned to write humor from this novel about Mississippi River bargemen. The plot of the novel is suspenseful, while its cast of 20 or so characters drives eight loads of coal upriver from St. Louis to St. Paul during a flood.

Bissell immerses the reader in the world of these workingmen, all of them nervous in the ever-rising waters and agitated in each other’s too-familiar company. The narrator is Duke, a first mate, who has known many years of commercial transport on inland waterways, a single man with a girl in every port.

There is a well-defined hierarchy of authority onboard from the towboat’s two pilots, Ironhat and Casey, down to the cook, engineers, mess boy, and deck hands. Duke and Jackoniski, the two mates, are often at odds.

Trouble creeps up on the crew in increments as they work their way from lock to lock, the pilots sometimes complaining that the boat is not steering well. Then one of the eight barge loads mysteriously sinks and a deck hand disappears, apparently drowned.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Benjamin Dancer, Patriarch Run

I wasn’t sure what to make of this novel when I was approached by its author to read for a possible review. It sounded to me like YA fiction, though that turned out to be only one element of its active blending and bending of genres: coming-of-age story, cautionary tale, international espionage thriller, and kill-or-be-killed western set in modern-day Colorado.

In an afterword, Dancer says the novel is about fathers. We are given a clue of that already in the title, and though the pivotal character is an 18-year-old boy, it would not be misleading to claim patriarchy and fatherhood as themes underlying the narrative.

Father. So let’s start with the father in the novel. He is in many ways a man of heroic stature that any boy might even romanticize about: skilled with weapons, an operative in the service of national security, his missions cloaked in secrecy. The problem is that he is an absentee father, having mysteriously disappeared, except to materialize on the news from surveillance footage as a suspected terrorist bomber.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Amenity, perplexity

Silver Lake morning
We spend a few days this week in LA, house sitting for friends who are vacationing. The relocation gets us away from the desert heat to the more temperate summer weather of the older but trendy neighborhoods near Hollywood. There had been talk of taking in some urban amenities, like a visit to LACMA for a leisurely look at what’s up there these days, or the Getty, where there’s a favorite Van Gogh of irises that just lights up a whole room.

But fatigue had the better of me. I hardly stepped outside the house to take a couple snapshots of it from the street. On Saturday, I was finally able to take a 45-minute walk over to Sunset and back with my wife and the dog. By mid-afternoon I was tired again and napped into the early evening.

One amenity we have enjoyed is the proximity of good food that you can have delivered to the door. Chinese one night and Italian on two others. (If you are ever in Silver Lake, I definitely recommend Tomato Pie on Hyperion for their New York-style pizza and ravioli.) For my wife, the chief cook, that alone has been worth the 2-hour drive into town.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: W
(waddy – whipsaw)

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of mostly frontier fiction, 1880–1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.”

waddy = a cowboy; also, a rustler. “A genuine rustler was called a ‘waddy,’ a name difficult to trace to its origin.” Emerson Hough, The Story of the Cowboy.

wady = dry riverbed. “I worked in the other direction by spells till I got to a little wady.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

walk Spanish = to follow an unwelcome order. “He’d meet your representative like a gentleman, and step around lively and walk Spanish for you, if you so much as winked.” Samuel Merwin, The Road-Builders.

walk-a-heap = Indian term for a foot soldier. “The army is goin’ to come up agin’ us—pony soldiers, and walk-a-heaps, and twice guns, to take our water-holes.” Roger Pocock, Curly.

walk-down = a method of catching wild horses by following them until they are exhausted. “They were so worn and tired they marched up to and through the corral gate like a bunch of wild horses after a ‘nine-day walk-down.’” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman.

walking beam = on a steam engine, a lever that oscillates on a pivot and transmits power to the crankshaft. “When ‘Walkingbars’ got down to earnest pitching it seemed—and usually proved—as hard to stop him as to stay the mighty swing of a side-wheeler’s walking-beam.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman.

walking boss = the superintendent of two or more logging camps. “He and Wright held council with McKenna, Tobin, Deever, and MacNutt, the former being Kent’s walking boss and the last three his foremen.” A. M. Chisholm, The Boss of Wind River.

Wall tent
wall tent = a canvas tent with four vertical walls. “The Britons has got up a wall tent an’ is shorely havin’ a high an’ lavish time.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

wambling = wobbling, rolling. “Whenever he spoke, Dan had a habit of wambling and grinning, thereby disclosing his tobacco-colored teeth, and quivering like a creature in convulsions.” Willis George Emerson, Buell Hampton.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Bret Harte, Frontier Stories (1887)

Born in Albany, New York, Bret Harte (1836–1902) was not a Californian most of his life as I have long thought. He arrived there in 1853, just after the gold rush, and left again in 1871. While there, he began a writing career, publishing his best-known short stories, “The Luck of Roaring Camp” (1868) and “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” (1869). In later years, he took overseas assignments in the foreign service, and at the end of his life, he was living in England.

Frontier Stories is a collection of seven short stories and novellas, all set in the 1850s –60s, in or not far from San Francisco and the gold fields. The storytelling style owes much to literary predecessors like Robert Louis Stevenson and Walter Scott, who specialized in historical romance with an element of mystery. For me, two stories held the most interest, both of them novella-length.

“A Ship of ’49.” In this story, a French ship called the Pontiac was run aground on the muddy shore of the Bay during the excitement that flooded the settlement of San Francisco with new arrivals during the gold rush. Warehouses and commercial buildings have sprung up around it. Broken up into apartments, it is now used as rental space for tenants with various degrees of success in often dubious enterprises.