The Wild West

IT was mid-afternoon. The thermometer at the ranch-house had shown a temperature of 108 in the shade on my last round of the ditches. All the ‘sets’ were flowing freely in the north end of the ‘eighty,’ and at noon George had relieved me of the south end. At last I could make the best of a thin line of shade along Vogler’s orchard, where the alfalfa that had been missed in the first cutting was flowering in deep purple, and myriads of sulphur-colored butterflies, like great motes of sunlight, were dancing over the blue-green hay. I slashed the long-handled shovel into the moist earth along the head ditch, and drew from my shirt the soggy and dog’s-eared copy of the July Atlantic Monthly that I had been carrying there since noon.

Leaning against Vogler’s hog-tight fence, I broke my fast on William James’s letters, and then turned hungrily to ‘The Spirit of the West,’ by Mr. William T. Foster, an article which I might have ordered àa la carte. For it was this very Spirit of the West that I had been pondering and attempting to define ever since, on a hazy morning in early May, I had entered the Toppenish Valley in central Washington. Here it would be interpreted for me by a man who, like myself, had fretted himself for a number of years in a far Eastern community and had sought the larger, freer air of the great Northwest.

Yes, here were the stride and clamor and the extravagant good humor of the Pacific Slope, distilled into such telling advertisement of all that is fine in the region that I seemed to be reading the work of a first-rate literary man turned publicity agent. The goods were displayed for the Eastern buyer in a way that would prove irresistible to many a young man of Atlantic seaboard traditions who had returned from service in France with a flux of impatient energy that the older communities could not contain. It occurred to me that the Chambers of Commerce of the Far West might well reprint in circular form, with suitable fine-screen electrotypes, this latest version of the post-war commandment, ‘Go West, young man!’

The quondam publicity man and hack editor in me applauded this article as literature and as ‘blurb.’ But I was the buyer, I remembered, not the seller or ‘ booster.’ I was exploring the Northwest with the desire to found a farmhome, to make a living out-of-doors because indoors had become intolerable after the war experience; and I had not approached the land through the portals of the real-estate agent or the local board of trade. I had stolen in the back way, so to speak, through the dingy door of the Pastime Pool Hall as a ‘working stiff’ or harvest hand — my way of letting the buyer beware, and of seeing at first hand the subject of Carleton Parker’s ‘ The Casual Laborer.’

For ten weeks I had been down in the foundations of Western society, Carleton Parker my Virgil in that Inferno; and the Spirit of the West that Mr. Foster celebrated so engagingly seemed as distant and unreal as the shining cupola of Rainier jutting over the Ahatanam Hills which bounded the north end of this steaming field of alfalfa. I knew that the mountain existed, for I had worshiped on the altar of Paradise Valley. I knew what a delightful reality Mr. Foster’s Spirit of the West can be, for I had moved at the social altitude of the middle and upper-middle classes, too. But from the Toppenish Bench, as a ‘working stiff,’ Mount Rainier and the Rainier Club were equally incredible.

Yes, it seemed to me that this Spirit of the West that Mr. Foster celebrated was merely the sparkling, rarified atmosphere that may be breathed at the upper levels of Western society. Who can withhold admiration from the initiative of Seattle business men who have moved mountains and made real estate of them on the floor of Puget Sound? And who can move with the tide that floods Market Street, San Francisco, on a May morning, without abandoning himself to the flush of vigor and power that sweeps up from the Oakland Ferry like a strong, clean wind off the sea? But this is the Spirit of the West that flows in free channels for the young business men and the gentlemen of the boards of trade. What of the noisome and dangerous concentration of this freely flowing energy, the baulked, convulsive power of the lower levels where dwell the long logger and the short logger, the miner and mucker, the railroad boomer, the fruit glummer, the roustabout, the longshoreman, and the great armies of the migratory agricultural laborer? Surely, these are the vast majority. What is their spirit?

During the first cutting of alfalfa, as a shocker and spike-pitcher, I had had my first contact with the casual laborer of the Far West. Swinging down the windrows of freshly cut hay behind a giant ‘ pacer,’ who was paid double the wages of the ‘stiffs’; wretched with fatigue that became grievous pain before the end of the day, I heard for the first time the heavy undertone of a will to revolution that growls in the underpinning of Western society. If I had not offered my services from the same ‘slave-market’ in Wapato, while the filthy lodging-house and ‘hash-house’ consumed the wages I had well earned at hand-mixing concrete; if I had not slept in the same haystacks or verminous bunkhouses, and seen the same look of contempt for the ‘working stiff’ in the eyes of the haute et petite bourgeoisie; if I had been a detached observer and listener, in short, I might well have been horrified by the thunder and lightning of blasphemy and hatred that sounded and played over the shockers as they stumbled along the windrows of the bonanza hay-ranch.

It was the same in the second cutting and in the barley and wheat harvest. One found one’s self working with men whose single hope of rehabilitation and human dignity lay in the revolutionary programme of the I.W.W. Out of the heavy fatigue, the fetid torpor of the bunkhouse, at the end of the day’s labor, the only influence that could stir the sullen hulks who lounged in the bunks was the zeal of the agitator tirelessly and astutely instructing the ‘ working stiff ’ in the strategy of class warfare.

As one listened to this dark-eyed giant of the old American stock, one heard for the first time an authentic American version of the gospel according to Karl Marx. The harangue was never doctrinaire. It was couched in the poetic speech of the Far West, with all its quaint obscenities. It had nothing of the ‘intellectual’ appeal that rivets the cold, fanatical eyes of the young Jewish Radical on the Cooper Union speaker. It was full of the brutal energy that can give such impetus to ideas when they are projected by men who live a hard life out-of-doors, and it had its dramatic relief of horselaughter and mimicry. It was authentic American radicalism, naïve, realistic, racy, ‘red-blooded, 100 per cent American radicalism,’that one heard preached in the harvest bunkhouse.

The picture of his society that the agitator would sketch was one of a series of parasites successively sucking the blood out of one another. He pictures the financier, or ‘Wall Street,’sucking the blood of the local banker, who in turn is shown fastened on the back of the commission man or haybuyer, who bleeds the rancher of all he can hold. Finally, the rancher is sketched, with mimicry of some personal characteristic, with his proboscis in the flesh of the ‘working stiff.’ And at this point the agitator thunders the query, —

‘Now, who the hell do we bleed?’

There is a chorus of, ‘Nobody, by God!’ from confirmed Radicals, and a scattering of applause among the more conservative of the group.

‘Yes, it’s the truth,’ says a grizzled old man, one of the teamsters. ‘ They ’re riding us hard and dragging their feet. And they’re riding for a fall, what I mean, Buddie.’

In the field the agitator will shout to the worker who is ‘throwing himself away,’ —

‘Better lay off that stuff, Fellow Worker. You won’t get no more money for burning it up that a-way.’

And the chances are that the rebuked ‘stiff’ will apologize, saying that ‘a man can’t help it once in a while. He forgets and gets interested in the work.’

The fact is that the will of the agricultural worker to produce — the bedrock of Western prosperity — is as badly impaired as the industrial worker’s, and, perhaps, he is being more assiduously educated in cynicism with regard to his work. His lawless, migratory life and the unconcealed contempt for him of all his social superiors whereever he moves, east and west, between the Mississippi and the Pacific, or north and south, from Phœnix to Medicine Hat, his sense of being permanently outcast and his usually violent temper make him excellent material for a revolutionary nucleus — material that astute, cynical radical leaders are not overlooking in this year of social disequilibrium. Furthermore, his class is not a small one numerically. In 1910 there were 10,400,000 workers in ‘that particular unskilled work from which the migratory is recruited,’ according to Carleton Parker’s authoritative study in the Atlantic Monthly for November, 1917. The disillusion and demoralization wrought by the war has probably swelled this number; for it is a notable fact that a large percentage of the men who are floating in the West this season saw service in the American Expeditionary Force. These men are usually the ‘ reddest’ of all and the most inclined to violence.

It occurred to me, as I continued on my patrol of the ditches and ruminated on Mr. Foster’s ‘The Spirit of the West,’ that this spirit is, in its essence, a crude will to power that is becoming more and more distinctly split, dual, irreconcilable; for the much-advertised tendency of the I.W.W. to violence is well matched by the lawlessness of certain influential members of the upper classes. It is well known in one small town of central Washington that the motto of the Board of Trade is, ‘To hell with the Constitution. This is— County.’

Apparently there are two sides to the story of Centralia — a shocking episode that shows how ready Westerners at the two poles of their society are to contest economic control by resorting to violence. On both sides of this ugly affray most of the participants were Americans of the old pioneer stock: men whose fathers or grandfathers were of that frontier society that came reluctantly to the court of justice to settle a dispute; men who much preferred to draw the classic six-shooter and see who was the better man. On both sides were young men who had learned to shed blood in the world-war.

It has not been disproved that the I.W.W. Hall which was the scene of bloodshed had twice before been raided by the respectable faction, and that no defense had been made by the pariahs; that this third raid, on Armistice Day, 1919, was expected by the I.W.W., and that they had asked for police protection. None was given — with what result the world knows.

One wonders if a clinical study of this incident by the late Carleton Parker, in the manner of his report on the Wheatlands Hop Riot, would not show that the disease that he diagnosed so skillfully has been aggravated by the postwar psychosis almost to the point of crisis.

One day this summer I was seated at a ranch-table, with twenty-two other casual laborers who were audibly enjoying fresh pork and spuds. The rancher returned from Yakima as we ate, and announced the nomination of Senator Harding at Chicago. There was a voluble silence for a moment, broken by Blackie Waldron, who looked up from his tin plate with a wry face and drawled in thundering bass: —

‘Well, I ask you — can you beat it?’

His was the only verbal comment on this important political event; but it was followed by a roar of laughter around the table that was more expressive than words. It was not pleasant laughter.