When the West Was West
IT is amusing to observe to-day that Wild West romances have lost much of their sting in this country and that their vogue has passed to England and her colonies, where among the untraveled they promote the idea that most Americans cut their teeth on ‘shooting irons.’ What we ourselves encourage from the West is not fiction but fact — of which there have been at least three good volumes in recent months.
AMERICA is a land incurably romantic and extraordinarily fecund in the production of myths. And for three centuries the most abiding of our native romances has been the West. The passing of wild game and wilder Indians, even of the desert ; the march of colonization and industry — all the realism of a world growing vastly drearier has tarnished not at all the bright contours of this dream. The West is our national fantasy. Hollywood and the cheap press will continue to vulgarize it; and on the upper levels of literature more capable people will continue to forge their imaginings into true romance. For the West is immortal: it is a folk dream.
Lone Cowboy, My Life Story, by Will James (Scribner, $2.75), is the work of a practised literary artist. It is a hymn in celebration of romance, a new and beautiful variation on the ancient theme. Already the author of five books devoted to the West, all of them autobiographical, Will James now tells the full story of his wanderings in cloudland. The result is an authentic document of fable, a superbly interesting story of the cattle country, the fur country, the desert, and the high plains, and of a boy who grew up in the lonely places, became a wrangler, a ‘bronk-twister.’ a rustler, a convict, a movie actor, and finally, after soldiering, a writer and an artist. It is all fascinating, all breathlessly real, and yet its very fascination is derived from its unreality. For Will James was born a worshiper of romance, a sharer of this myth, and the West he writes about, the West in which he grew up ami still lives, is that lovely and impossible country in which no man ever lived. It is the Lyonnesse that lies buried off the coast of Cornwall, whose outlines shift and glimmer beneath the tide, whose bells may be faintly heard in summer twilights when the wind is right. Lone Cowboy is another fantasy, though more heartfelt than most.
All of Mr. James’s books have been written with great literary subtlety, the kind of disingenuous ingenuousness, the highly sophisticated naïveté, that produces such works as A Child’s Garden of Verses. The very conventions of his language, of his misspellings even, are intricately wrought and calculated. Lee Sage, in his autobiography. The Last Rustler (Little, Brown, $2.00), is not a literary artist; as Harvey Fergusson says in a foreword, the art of his book is the more forthright art of the spoken word, the extemporaneous recital of events in terms of living speech,
Mr. Sage’s career roughly parallels that of Mr. James, He was born to Western life and drifted along the cattle ranges from Mexico to Canada. Like Mr. James, he twisted ‘bronks’ and hunted wild horses. But whereas Mr. James’s cattle-rustling escapade was minor and almost accidental, Mr. Sage devoted his full powers to the art, almost from boyhood. His autobiography is less sophisticated than Mr. James’s: perhaps for that reason it is more compelling. It does not submit to the romance. It deals with the life of a man who spent his childhood among outlaws and his boyhood among the Utes, and whose life thereafter was mostly furtive and always violent. The myth crumbles, the true West shows through. The recital, couched always in the vivid language of campfires and corrals, has an extraordinary rapidity, terseness, and reality. Of this year’s Westerns. The Last Rustler is easily the best.
The Outlaw Years, by Robert M. Coates (Macaulay, $3.00), goes back to the Natchez Trace and the days when the West was cis-Mississippi. Let it be said at once, this reanimation of the land pirates is both fascinating and important. The biographical sketches of the Harpe brothers, Joseph T. Hare. Samuel Mason, and James A. Murrel are bloodthirsty and exciting enough for any reader’s taste. Mr. Coates’s reconstruction of frontier society, in which he has embedded them, is far more interesting.
The book is a double realism: it not only disposes of legenil with the utmost amiability, but it also assaults the formidable mythology of intellectuals. Out of its factual exhumation of folkways and folklore, based on travelers’ accounts, diaries, journals, newspapers, broadsides, letters, waybills, and the manifold other resources of the student, actually emerges — the American frontier. The society on which the land pirates preyed truly lives in his pages as it truly was. That society has been enormously written about, enormously praised, enormously condemned — but seldom examined and almost never realized. Theories rest, upon romantic characterizations of it, whole philosophies are derived from hypothetical analyses of it. Much of the work of such critics as Waldo Frank, Lewis Mumford, and Van Wyck Brooks, eloquent interpreters of American life, is acceptable only because the assumptions on which it rests have not been easily verifiable. In the light of fact, such fact as that with which Mr. Coates deals, such assumptions are seen to be worthless. Its brilliant presentation of frontier society is the permanent value of a book otherwise richly entertaining but not extraordinary.