In the fifth essay in this series, writing about the crime novelist Michael Gilbert, I discussed the triumph of right over wrong in such fiction, as well as in Westerns, remarking that those moral judgments are more simplistic than the ones we make in life, or than are portrayed in great imaginative fiction. Speaking just about Westerns, such moral expectations are one of the characteristics that attracts readers -- and repels those who like to think of themselves as too sophisticated for such "naivete." We suspend our disbelief in order to enjoy (among other qualities) certainties that we know we cannot expect in life. Unfortunately, modern writers striving to seem sophisticated, try to make Westerns morally complex, thus contributing their mite to the destruction of a fine genre, because a Western by definition cannot be morally complex -- it is a romance.
Before we get into an argument about that, it would be sensible to understand the shape of the subject. The West begins to grow in the American mind with the Lewis and Clarke expedition of 1804-06. Within a year, trappers were on the scene. A first rate account of the heyday of the trapping business in the 1830s is Bernard DeVoto's Across the Wide Missouri (1947), beautifully illustrated with contemporary paintings of Western Indians. This is an unforgettable description of the life and skills of the mountain men and their significance in the history of the West (the matter of skills will come up again). The 1840s and 50s are the decades of emigrants and gold seekers. All of these figures have left traces in our history and culture, but when you saw the title of this essay you thought immediately of cowboys and Indians and cattle and mustangs, and that story didn't start until after the Civil War, when Texas veterans returned to find a ruined economy and the brush full of cattle, multiplied and gone wild during the four years of neglect. They conceived the idea of driving cattle to market at the steadily advancing railheads -- Kansas City, Dodge, Abilene. That era lasted barely thirty-five years, but it was the one that produced, and keeps producing, countless thousands of books we think of as Westerns.
The first Westerns, what we should call proto-Westerns, published in the 1850s, were the crude dime novels of Ned Buntline (a pseudonym) who wrote about Buffalo Bill Cody, giving him his start to fame and fortune, but the first real Western, a classic, published in 1902, was The Virginian by Owen Wister, a prominent Philadelphian who summered for twenty years from 1885 in Wyoming and published some good Western stories in Harper's before he wrote his novel. What makes The Virginian the first real Western is its romantic quality, something that has nothing to do with the hero getting the girl in the end. Westerns are romances in the first place because Good always triumphs over Evil, and those caps are justified: as soon as a character is introduced, you know where he stands (rare equivocal characters are always killed). In the second place, the story unfolds in a natural landscape that molds and reflects the lives of the characters and helps to make them understood by the reader, the same role that Nature plays in Wordsworth's poetry. Finally, the characters are exalted, or debased, beyond customary norms; they are made heroes and villains.
Although mediocre writers sometimes turn out a good Western novel or story, the perusal of any anthology of Western stories will show how rare that is. I will say, intrepidly, that there have been only four good Western writers: Wister, Zane Grey, Ernest Haycox, and one step down, Luke Short. These are men who not only write well, but write with feeling, a quality too often lacking in Westerns. There is no point in analyzing the work of any of these men; if you're a Western reader, my analysis would be superfluous, and if you aren't, nothing I can say will mean much.
But I want to introduce you to a nonfiction Western which I think you'll enjoy and from which we can learn much about Westerns. The Log of a Cowboy (1903) is the factual narrative of a trail drive from Mexico to Montana in 1882, written by Andy Adams, a young Texan who was on the five month-long drive. It is regarded by historians as the most authentic account of cowboy life on such a drive, but it is more than that: it is the most basic quintessence of the romantic Western. If The Virginian, still on the bestseller list when The Log was published, represents the highly colored Western, Adam's book is the prototype of the plainest version.
That should not surprise us, because the Western idiom at its best is terse and straight forward. Note this self-description:
. . . I took to the range as a preacher's son takes to vice. By the time I was twenty there was no better cow-hand in the entire country. I could, besides, speak Spanish, and play the fiddle, and thought nothing of riding thirty miles to a dance. The vagabond temperament of the range I easily assimilated.
The keynote is self-deprecating irony, giving an impression of forthright lightheartedness, but notice how it is done in such a low key: Adams impresses by not trying to do so.
There are often trail scenes in Westerns, but because fiction tells a story, they can be only scenes. Here, however, the trail and everything about it is the story, and it must be made as interesting and compelling as fiction. One way he deals with the problem is to say, when nothing interesting is going on, "There was no incident worth mentioning" and pass on, a good device to move the narrative along without faking something to create factitious interest. In a small way it increases our respect for the narrator. Similarly, he fills in the narrative by sketching the atmosphere around the campfire when the cowboys swap all kinds of stories, the favorites of imaginative but unlettered men on every American frontier, told in every key but never far from self-deprecating irony, the tone we remember from Huck Finn. Adam's work, on the trail and in the book, thus becomes part of the American saga, again raising our estimate of him.
Another factor that maintains the reader's interest is the demonstration of expert knowledge -- about cattle, horses, weather, men, and the landscape -- not in tedious detail, but enough to know we are in the presence of men who know their craft thoroughly. So when Adams talks about choosing horses out of the remuda, we are aware of his knowledge, but he is not showing off; we feel that he is unselfconscious about it because he does not realize its extent.
At one point a rear wheel breaks and the foreman uses a sapling to make a sort of crutch, enabling them to drive the wagon to a town where a new wheel is made. This instance of frontier hardihood and ingenuity reminds me that during General Sherman's march through the Carolinas in the late winter of 1865, his army had to cross several rivers in flood and march through drowned lands. Companies of axe-men were formed from Michigan regiments, lumbering being a main activity there then, to fell trees for bridges and corduroying roads. I have always been impressed by that (just as Bernard DeVoto impresses us with the skills of the mountain men), by the great skills of ordinary Americans, which persist today, especially in the rural working class. It was all in a day's work for a cowboy.
We also see much more of the vagaries of cattle than in a fictional Western. The stampedes, for instance, are more complicated and lengthy than the ones in novels, which are usually straight runs soon turned by the herders. Here the herd splits up and its parts go every which way, resisting repeated attempts to turn them. It is not until the afternoon of the next day that the herd is gathered -- and that's only the first stampede. The problems the cowboys have to deal with when it comes to crossing rivers with cattle will be astounding to anyone not familiar with cattle. On one occasion they, with another crew from a nearby herd, actually build a bridge to cross the cattle, and then the ornery critters won't even step on the bridge! Patiently, every device is tried unsuccessfully over a couple of days until finally a cowboy suggests lassoing a calf and leading it onto the bridge where the mother will follow -- and the rest of the herd. It works, and we are greatly relieved because the narrator, in his quiet way, has made us feel the galling frustration. Then there are quicksands and bogged cattle, and the efforts which must be made to get them out astonish us by the expertise required, again, all in a day's work for the cowboys.
They cross a river with their herd and another, swimming the cattle, and the foreman of the other crew drowns. There is a quietly moving scene at the funeral, when the man is buried on the plain by a preacher from a nearby emigrant train. Two of his granddaughters sing a hymn.
I had heard the old hymn sung often before, but the impression of the last verse rang in my ears for days afterward.
"When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
For I will be with thee thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress."
Then at the end:
After the discourse was ended and a brief and earnest prayer was offered, the two young girls sang the hymn, "Shall we meet beyond the river?" The services being at an end, the coffin was lowered into the grave.
In between the hymns Adams summarizes the discourse, the standard Christian response to death, made more impressive by the cowboy's plain description and the two hymns which enclose it.
Adam's writing is so subtly effective that we are not sure if he achieves his effects by intuition or design. The funeral description is an example, and another occurs in the second chapter when he makes some summary comments about his side partner Paul Priest, also known as The Rebel.
He was fifteen years my senior at this time, a wonderfully complex nature, hardened by unusual experiences into a character the gamut of whose moods ran from that of a
good-natured fellow to a man of unrelenting severity in anger.
Then, a paragraph later, he quotes a funny story Priest tells him when they return from a spell as night guards on the herd. The curious humor of the story puts the seal on Priest's character, confirming the narrator's summary judgment.
At the end, after the herd is delivered, the remuda is sold to a ranch and the cowboys must part with their horses. There is page of description of what the men have been through with the horses, how much they mean to them, and it closes thus:
Their bones may be bleaching in some coulee by now, but the men who knew them then can never forget them or the part they played in that long drive.
We have lived five months in the company of men we have learned to respect for their skill, knowledge, patience, hard work, and good fellowship; we have seen them struggling with natural forces, in the rain and sun and wind, and in the end their sentiments go out to their horses, just as Wordsworth's went out to a flower.
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
These are romantic heroes indeed, denizens of the American imagination, along with Leatherstocking, Huck, Ishmael and Ahab.
This essay owes much to that ardent student of the Old West, H. Leonidas Bass, who gave me The Log of a Cowboy on the centennial of the trail drive twenty-eight years ago, and who made a map of the drive, identifying all the rivers, which I'll send to any reader who asks.
In the next issue: Devices of Belief: E. F. Benson and Dornford Yates. *
"Work as if you were to live 100 Years, Pray as if you were to die To-morrow." --Benjamin Franklin