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Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance by Dorothy M Johnson

For as big as the western genre once was it doesn't have a lot of awards. Other genres have multiple awards, each with a different focus, that offers a broader cross section of that genre. What the western does have is the Western Writers of America. The WWA was founded in 1953, and its main award, The Spur, has been given since then. On one hand the Spurs give some guidance and stability to the genre, offering up a body of nominees and winners going back 60+ years. On the other hand, since the genre is filtered through only one lens, important western stories get missed.

The WWA has convened and surveyed its members three times to vote on categories like: Best Western Authors, Best Best Western Novels, Best Best Nonfiction Books, Best Western Films, Best Western Short Stories, Best Western TV Series, Best Television Mini Series. The results provide a great jumping off point for the genre, taken with the grain of salt mentioned above.

One of the more interesting categories is Best Western Short Stories. There were five spots and Dorothy M Johnson placed in four of them. That's how this book came about. It gathered the four stories that placed in the vote into one edition: "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance", "A Man Called Horse", "The Hanging Tree", and "Lost Sister" (It's worth mentioning as a quick aside that "The Hanging Tree" clocks in at approximately 140 pages in a trade paperback so to call it a short story is a stretch).

These stories are ones that western fans are likely familiar with, even if they haven't read them, since three of these stories were made into movies.

I want to focus on "Lost Sister". One of the realities of life on the frontier was that people were captured by Indians. There is a large body of work, much of it primary source material, about these captures. And the reality is far more nuanced than the fiction. The life of one woman in particular, Cynthia Ann Parker, became a largely influential national obsession. Captured as a child, she lived with the Indians for 24 years. She was married and had children. The life she knew, prior to living with the Indians, was forgotten. Then she was "rescued" by Texas Rangers and returned to her family at the age of 34. Her story, and the story of her son, Quannah Parker, are worth studying and knowing and has been portrayed, or was an influence of, many stories, novels, plays, and movies.

Westerns are, by and large, a male dominant genre--male protagonists and male authors. The male response, as clearly demonstrated in the many stories told about Indian raids, is revenge, violence, and bringing the civilized white woman back into proper society. One of the greatest American movies of all time, The Searchers, focuses on this topic and was largely influenced by Parker's life.

In "Lost Sister", published in 1957, Dorothy Johnson, brings a different approach to this story. Johnson chooses to focus on the affects of the forced relocation back into a now unknown world. She recognizes the great sorrow that his woman would have felt for her only known life and her strong desire to return to it. I think that Johnson recognizes the loss and pain in a way that male writers of the time were unable to.

Dorothy M Johnson is a great writer and one of the very best that the western genre produced. Her work is marked by a great amount of research, empathy, and a broader representation of all who lived on the frontier.

Highly recommended





Friday, April 28, 2017

Comanche Vengeance by Richard Jessup

Before becoming a writer Richard Jessup was a merchant marine for 11 years. He taught himself how to write while at sea by copying War & Peace on a typewriter, correcting errors, then throwing all of the pages into the water. His most popular book was The Cincinnati Kid, published in 1963, and made into a movie in 1965 starring Steve McQueen.

In the 50's and 60's he wrote some westerns under his own name and the name "Richard Telfair" and in 1957 he published Comanche Vengeance. The 50's were a period of strong growth for the genre with a lot of the heavyweights of the genre getting their start or coming into their own. What makes Comanche Vengeance interesting is that it has a strong, competent, female protagonist in a role and a genre typically dominated by male protagonists, especially at that time.

After her family is murdered by Indians, Sara Phelps sets out, seeking revenge. She meets up with Gibson Duke who insists on helping her out because he doesn't think a woman is up to the task. Sara asserts her independence and capability.

-“And I told you I didn’t want, or need a man.” Her voice was cold, but not biting. “Why did you follow me?”
-“I don’t want no man—and the first time you make a move toward me that isn’t proper..."

Even buried among the Indian hating typical, and in some cases necessary, for publication in the genre at the time, there are a some small moments where, likely, the author's true feelings assert themselves.

"This is a hard country, and there ain’t no getting around it, regardless of how you look at it, the Injuns were here first.”
Like I said, it's the the protagonist (at her best) and the relationship that she has with Duke that are the highlights here. The relationship is mature, without traditionally defined gender roles, and is mutual. They are equals, in every way.

They knew each other well enough and had been on the trail long enough now to do their camp chores and ride trail for days without speaking.
This extends past domestic roles at camp. Sarah is the better shot of the two, and is often the one to rush into battle, sometimes without a plan. One of my personal pet peeves in fiction is what I call "wait in the car syndrome", where the male character tells a female character to wait while he checks the safety or danger levels of a situation. In the fight and battle scenes in Comanche Vengeance, both characters are equal.

“Shut up!” Sarah hissed. “I think I heard something.”
“Over to your right,” Duke replied. “Circle around, and come up in back. Shoot first and don’t worry about hitting me!”

Comanche Vengeance is an imperfect and sometimes formulary western, that has moments and characters and relationships that help to elevate it from other westerns of the time. It is not an forgotten classic of the genre but deserves to be remembered for it's early, fair treatment of an adult, mature, female character. At her best, Sarah is a character that doesn't deserve to be forgotten. It can be had for a buck on the Kindle.

Here are some other passages from the book.

“If I’m right, that hardtail on the calico pony is a friend from the other side.” Sarah’s eyes studied the figure. “Other side of what?”
Duke hesitated. “The law, Miss Sarah.”
“Have you ever been on the other side, Mr. Duke?” she asked carefully.
“I reckon some people might care to call it that. It was only a case of gettin’ or being got by a no-account.”
***
At the instant Duke yelled for Sarah to gain cover, he slipped his saddle and fell flat and hard into the dust, the carbine up and ready. “Drop your iron, Red,” he called. “I got witnesses to prove you threatened me—and I got the drop on you. Now drop your iron!” The crowd around the young gunfighter faded into the sunbaked street and found refuge in buildings and behind wagons. Suddenly there was silence—dead, baking, fly-buzzing silence and the redhead was alone. Duke pulled down on the young man’s head. “I’m giving you a count of three, Red—drop your iron and walk away or I’ll kill you.” A fly landed on Duke’s nose and crawled around leisurely in the sweat-grimed creases of the cow man’s face. “One!” Red did not move. “Two!” Red’s hands began to inch for his gun. Duke did not count three. The young man drew and Duke shot him neatly between the eyes. The bright new pearl-handled Colt had not even cleared leather. Duke got up slowly and walked toward the figure in the dust. Slowly the others began to edge out and walk toward the dead gunfighter. Duke stared at the first of the arrivals. “I shot him in a fair fight. You all saw me try and walk away from him, and then I gave him a chance to drop his gun—”

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Cycle of the West by John G Neihardt

Earlier I wrote about cowboy poetry as apart of poetry month. This is the second work I wanted to write something about this month.

As a child John G Neihardt had two loves the Missouri River and the frontier way of life surrounding it and epic poems of the Greeks. He came to believe that the time in American history that expanded west was a Heroic and epic age and should be written about accordingly.

"The period with which the Cycle deals was one of discovery, exploration and settlement--a genuine epic period , differing in no essential from the other great epic periods that marked the advance of the Indo-European peoples out of Asia and across Europe. It was a time of intense individualism, a time when society was cut loose from its roots, a time when an old culture was being overcome by that of a powerful people driven by the ancient needs and greeds. For this reason only, the word "epic' has been used in connection with the Cycle; it is properly descriptive of the mood and meaning of the time and of the material with which I have worked. There has been no thought of synthetic Iliads and Odysseys, but only of the richly human saga-stuff of a country that I knew and loved, and of a time in the very fringe of which I was a boy."

Frederick Jackson Turner was a very influential historian. He wrote an essay, "The Frontier in American History", that was the backbone of the so called Frontier Thesis which dominated historical thinking for a long time and is still debated today. Turner believed that the expansion west and the western frontier largely shaped Americans (as a people and a country) and American democracy. He is worth mentioning in any discussion of westerns because of his influence on the non-fiction field of western studies and because clearly Neihardt was influenced by Turner's thinking. (Turner's work is in the public domain and is well worth seeking out)

John G Neihardt spent 28 years of his life writing five epic songs of poetry that cover the period of time from 1820 - 1890 (the expansion west due to the fur trade to the massacre at Wounded Knee). He did a tremendous amount of original research and spoke to as many people, from as many walks of life as he could, in person, collecting oral histories from Indians, old Indian fighters, farmers, Cavalry men. People that he knew and grew up around.

The West as Neihardt saw and knew it, fired up his imagination in an original way. The full Cycle of the West won't be for everyone but it is unlike anything else. Neihardt's Black Elk Speaks is also worth reading (highly recommended).

Recommended  

Friday, April 21, 2017

Red Runs the River by Lewis Patten

John Sessions peered over the edge of his shallow rifle pit to look at the Cheyennes massing. They had the tiny band of army scouts surrounded, and were readying for the kill.  
The chances of breaking out of this bind were a hundred to one. And if those odds weren't bloody enough, even as Sessions waited for the Indian's head-on charge, he knew that three traitors' guns were trained dead on his back. 
To live or die wasn't the question. Sessions' only choice was which way to shoot when the showdown came.... 

Lewis Patten was a prolific western writer. His work was consistently of a higher quality, especially given his prolific nature. He served in the Navy, graduated from the University of Denver, and was a cattle rancher before turning to writing. His first published story, "Too Good With a Gun", appeared in Zane Grey's Western Magazine in 1950. His first novel, Massacre at White River, was published in 1952. Before his death in 1982 of lung cancer he had published over 100 novels in just about every traditional western sub-genre.

Like a lot of the peak western era writers, and other pulp-era writer, Patten had, and believed in, a strong work ethic, and believed that hard work trumps talent every time.

"I have always maintained that there are thousands of potential writers with more talent than I have. What they don't have is guts: the will to sit down at the typewriter and write, whether the copy that comes out is worth a damn or not." -- Lewis Patten

Patten's best known work is likely The Death of a Gunfighter which was made into a movie in 1969 starring Richard Widmark (behind the scenes battles resulted in the creation of Alan Smithee). Other movies made from his work include Red Sundown (1956), Don't Turn the Other Cheek (1971).

His work generally is psychologically dark and more complex, aligning with the growth of the genre at the time, and deals with the darker side of humanity with open eyes in a direct, matter-of-fact style.

Red Runs the River is, in part, inspired by the Battle of Beecher Island, or at least uses the framework of that battle for the purposes of the story.

Sessions is a rancher who comes home to find that his family has been murdered, raped, and scalped. He also discovers that a stash of gold that he had hidden in the cellar is gone. The death of his family was made to look like an Indian attack but five pages in he realizes that it wasn't Indians that killed his family. The details just aren't right.

He tracks the three riders to a town where the Cavalry is signing up men to go fight the Indians. A little bit of leg work tells him that the three men signed up, so he does also. The first engagement with the Indians doesn't go well and the unit of 50 men are trapped on a small island, surrounded. This is the setting for Sessions' to find the men that killed his family, if he can survive.

The engine of the narrative is powered by conflict happening on multiple levels. Part of it is interior, Sessions is battling his grief and his desire for revenge and, by extension, what will happen after the act of revenge is complete. Externally, Sessions in on a very personal mission where he tracks the three men responsible for killing his family to a Cavalry unit going after a group of Indians. He ties the fate of his mission to the larger mission, and these two missions won't always be compatible. The tension further escalates when the Cavalry unit gets into an impossibly tight situation. Survival and revenge play out against each other, as do taking orders and working within the established military system while trying to conduct non-military business.  The level of tension brings about a narrative uncertainty, just not knowing how things are going to play out, that compulsively pulls the reader to the end.  

In a genre filled with lean and mean books Red Runs the River is leaner and meaner than most. At one point, about 60 pages in, I marveled at just how much story had taken place in that span. Regardless of genre, a truly lean and mean narrative is something to behold and can make a reader question his lengthier reading choices (or at least those that aim is undercut by padding). Patten keeps his foot on the gas to get Sessions to the men who killed his family and then trapped on the island. Then he eases off the pedal some to allow Sessions time for his investigation proper to unfold, the reader can use the breather.

Patten is one of my favorite western writers and his work is mostly out of print. Writing under his own name and other pseudonyms, he worked with 26 publishers (Double Day & Co. being the longest relationship), he was published in both hardcover and paperback, his work was constantly being reissued. You can't overstate how huge the western market was at one time, so there were a lot of books being published.  He was an unfortunate casualty of the collapse of the western market.

For years, in mystery/crime fiction a kind of Auteur Theory has been applied to the pulp era. That from the pulp publishing machine truly great artists can rise above the mass of production with an individual voice. Decades later we reappraise and hold above others certain authors like Jim Thompson, Chester Himes, David Goodis, and Charles Willeford. You can do the same with the western writers, the mass of western books published in that genre's heyday are mostly forgotten and waiting to be re-discovered. For those readers willing to do some sifting and panning there is gold to be found.

Formulary is a word that gets used a lot in discussion of westerns. And it fits. A lot of the books are a kind of disposable fiction. Which isn't to say unlikable, because they are enjoyable and do have their charms. The best of those were those that were doing something different, deeper, and challenging, and that retained a high level of consistency even though they may have been prolific. Lewis Patten fits that bill.

Highly recommended





Sunday, April 16, 2017

Cowboy poetry

This is the first of two posts I have planned for April, to celebrate National Poetry Month.

When I decided to explore the western genre I committed to reading the genre in all of its forms, modes, sub-genres, and types. Which lead me to cowboy poetry (which I assure you is a thing), once I saw this anthology

Cowboy poetry comes from the oral tradition of Cowboys who, at the end of the day, would tell tales and stories, spin yarns and tall tales, and sing songs as a means of entertainment and communication.

Cowboy poets assure us that they are taking part in a rich heritage extending back many generations. And I believe they are, partially. I have no doubt that cowboys, in a pre-technology era, had their own oral tradition. But cowboy poetry as a genre seems, to me, to be a part of the romanticizing of the image that came in the 20th century.

I want to go back where the greasewood grows,And the sagebrush smell is rank and sweet;Where the desert wind o'er the mesa blows,And the buttes and sand-dunes my vision greet.
I want to forget the sight and soundOf city traffic and city roar,And hurry away to my stamping-groundIn God's great open--the West--once more.

The poems themselves usually follow a traditional structure. And the verses romanticize the life of the cowboy and yearn for a time gone past. They are also overly sentimental. There is also an artifice at play as modern poets try really hard to emulate another, earlier time.

It is big and wide and roomy, and it's solid, every bit,And there's forty pounds o'substance in the makin' up of it;It isn't nothin' fancy, cuz it ain't built fer display--It is just the cowman's workshop where he spends a busy day.

Cowboy poetry, however, is not without its charms. It listens much better than it reads, which makes sense given its oral tradition roots. In this form it is much more like a performance art piece. Maybe that's the point? Maybe listening to cowboy poetry is the intended way to enjoy it.

Recommended as a curiosity.

Here is a documentary about cowboy poetry that is worth a look.

If you are willing to stretch the definitions of cowboy poetry (and I am) than my favorite is "Everything's OK at the OK Corral by famed underground New York poet Bingo Gazingo (which arguably, is more authentic).


Saturday, April 8, 2017

Times Like Dying - western short film

Here's a cool little western short. A simple story, simply told. Definitely worth 20 mins of your time. Jim Cody Williams really shines here.

TIMES LIKE DYING | Western Short Film from Evan Vetter on Vimeo.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Rise of the New Western in the 1960s: E.L. Doctorow’s Welcome to Hard Times

On the New Western:

In these circumstances, the Western managed to survive by parodying its own formula restrictions and distorting the classic reader’s expectations of the genre. The Western also became part and parcel of the artistic innovations at hand as it was taken up even by traditionally non-Western writers such as Thomas Berger (Little Big Man, 1964), Ishmael Reed (Yellow Back Radio Broke Down, 1968) and E.L. Doctorow, to name a few. These authors turned to the most popular genre of the time with a double mission: to both deconstruct it, and to use it to revive the traditional novel-writing process through the use of Western elements. The traditional novel, like the Western, was commonly regarded to have exhausted itself.