When West Was West

by Owen Wister. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1928. 12mo. 449 pp. $2.50.
ANYONE who reads Mr. Wister’s new book thoughtfully through — and one reader there is who can regard only with a regretful pity those who may miss the experience — must find himself coming to the conclusion that here at last is the true Saga of the West that was On its face the book appears to be nothing more than a collection of casual, if deftly wrought, short stories. And through the first episode or two that impression lingers; though in ‘Bad Medicine’ it soon becomes apparent that we are peering through some strong lens into the proudly elusive heart of a Wyoming Indian. And ‘Captain Quid,’the second, is a gem of a story — crisp, dramatic, wise. One of the best of the nine, in fact, though it stands a little apart from the others. But in number three, ‘Once Round the Clock,’ the reader is caught by a flavor, a tang of richly pictorial human life (touched with alkali), that is to permeate and color his imagination more and more strongly with each succeeding episode, until he forgets the limitation of the form and simply lives the West. By the time he has read on through ‘Absalom and Moulting Pelican,’‘Skip to My Loo,’ ‘ Little Old Scaffold’ (a novelette, almost, in length, and an amazingly expert piece of writing), and that final haunting requiem, ‘At the Sign of the Last Chance,’ he is caught up in a complete sense of artistic unity. It is n’t just that increasingly familiar characters come and go (and what a gorgeous gallery &emdah; with not a stuffed flannel shirt of the Hollywood variety anywhere in the lot!) or that towns and deserts and mountains reappear and begin to look natural, hut rather that the skill of the author and his loving but firm grasp of his material capture the imagination. He sees the West pretty nearly whole, and therefore all these varied glimpses give us the feel of the underlying patterns.
A quarter of a century and more have rolled away since Red Men and White and Lin McLean made Mr. Wister’s West real to Eastern minds. There might easily now he evidences of a loss of the enthusiasm of his first fresh contacts with that picturesque life, evidences of an almost inevitable growing remoteness from the subject. We could forgive that and still speak pleasantly of the man whose early work stirred us. But there is here simply nothing of the sort. No writing could be crisper, fresher, truer. Not only is there a deeper wisdom,—that might be expected,—but even the humor crackles more briskly, as the stinging bits of tragedy bite deeper. Mr. Mister is simply writing better now, that appears to be all. His instinct for truth carries him into a thousand touches of the purest realism. But it is a realism without bitterness or malice or pose. It is as if a truthful man were to say, ‘It happened thus.’ Or thus. These extraordinarily vivid characters of his—cowboys, exiled gentlemen and unaccouritables, women of vivid life and sometimes of still more vivid death, Indians, Mexicans, officers of the old Army posts, with their ladies (may God rest their tongues!) all live and move and have being. They eat and drink and sleep, gamble and shoot, love and hate. So they were. So was the West. Nowhere has he prettified or sentimentalized them or the life they led. De Maupassant never etched in more uncompromising acid than has Wister in‘Skip to My Loo.’ O. Henry never touched the earlier Texas with a lighter, more delightful hand. And ‘Absalom, with Hugh Lloyd and Doc. Leonard busily filling the vacuum, is comedy of the purest water.
Quite a book! It belongs. I should say, on the shelf with Life on the Missippi, where it can be reached and browsed about in and reread from time to time.