Open main menu


Van Loan first lived, then wrote, his stories. His heroes were his friends—the best ever; his villains were his enemies—the worst. They were never hearsay heroes or villains. He had met them all in the flesh and it was not until he knew them like a book that he put them in one.

Van wrote of baseball as a lifelong fan;, of golf with the sincerity of one who never allowed unfinished business to interfere with the unfinished game; of prize-fighting only after following the champ, through long weeks of training and thence into the arena; of horse-racing as a keen observer of the sport from the stable to the betting ring; and of the pictures from personal knowledge of their every phase, including the law-suit that almost every author has had with some producer.

If a man is in any sense the sum total of his heredity, the ancestors of many writers must have led singularly dull lives. Van's forebears, on the contrary, were an unusually busy lot—prominent cavemen, from whom the prehistoric Bolsheviki instinctively shied away; well-known Aryan chiefs, who threw the spear with uncanny precision; hardy Vikings, blue-eyed and red-headed, who were always ready in their simple tenth-century way for a fight or a frolic; leading crusaders, who were continually on the jump for a dragon to slay or a lady to rescue; and restless, dauntless pioneers, always pushing Westward until they came up against the Pacific. First and last Van's ancestors must have met every one and have done everything worth while, from the days when they were happy, innocent troglodytes on up. Van himself used all their experiences and emotions in his stories—their loves, their hates, their generosities, their meannesses, their fights, their strugglings up—but most of all their splendid cleanness. For Van, too, lived a man's life and wrote man stuff. Love and sex get small place in his stories. Most men who have a clean punch in their fists have a clean punch in their hearts, too; but Van's wife is the only woman who knows anything about that side of him.

I first met Van some years ago when the moving-pictures were young and a trifle smudgy-faced. During a visit to Los Angeles, I was struck with the possibilities of this new field for the fiction writer. But when I looked up Van with the idea of suggesting a series of stories to him, I found that he had anticipated me. For months he had been on "the lot" and had been admitted to full fellowship with every one on it, from the extra men to the directors. In fact he was all over the lot, appraising the values of custard-pie drama for fiction, probing the holiest emotions and the make-up of the he-dolls; lazying around and swapping stories with the extra men, giving his long wolf howl in the mob scenes, and looming vaguely through the smoke while the Battle of Gettysburg raged around him and the director, or while heroic firemen carried beautiful, helpless ladies out of burning buildings. Day after day, week after week, he lived the pictures until he knew them and the picture people. Then he wrote this book.

For the last six months of his life Van was one of my associates in editorial work. Out of his own knowledge, experience and understanding—for no one knew better the theory of short-story writing—he gave freely to every young writer who needed a hand up. But though that association was a pleasant one, I like best to remember the days when we were out-of-doors together at the Grand Canyon. Van needed a mountain, a horizon-meeting desert or a canyon to set him off and give him room to play. At the Grand Canyon one can walk a few hundred yards in any direction from the hotel and find himself in a great pine forest, or a pathless desert, or the solitudes of the Canyon itself. It was there we met for a fortnight once or twice a year.

Van's coming always made itself felt far down the line beyond Williams, when the trainmen began dropping back to the smoker to hear him talk. Last year a brakeman called up to me from a station platform: "Van went through yesterday on number three," and a little later our conductor stopped and, smiling reminiscently, exclaimed: "That Van Loan is sure a case!"

Baron Brant, the Hopis, the Navajos and all the old-timers were usually at the station to meet him, and as the train pulled in his long wolf howl went up in greeting. Then some way the Canyonside, that had been drowsing in its hushed, age-long way, woke up for an hour, with Van getting acquainted again and apparently in twenty places all at once. Over at Hopi house the drums beat louder and the Navajos danced more furiously; down at the corral the guides yelled their welcome; in the hotel lobby the Baron alternately beamed at Van's affectionate epithet, "miserable old man," and winced under the heavy hand of his friend; from the floor above, dignified old Thomas Moran, irreverently dubbed Kid Moran by Van, left for a moment the picture that he was painting; and along the rim the tourists received priceless, if somewhat fanciful, information in reply to their questions.

A tourist on the Canyon's rim,
A simple tourist was to him,
And nothing more.

Alas I even as he talked to them Van was sizing up some rock that was balanced temptingly over the abyss, for he had a vice. He liked to roll rocks and, unless he was watched, he rolled them. Once out beyond Desert View, forty miles up the Canyon, where there was no danger of "beaning" an inoffensive tourist below, he triumphantly disclosed a crowbar that he had hidden under the carriage robe, and spent a pleasant afternoon working with my two boys to dislodge a rock that was as big as a piano. They were an hour putting it over, but what a noble smash it made, and how it did roll down that five thousand feet, and what a long wolf howl of triumph Van let out as it toppled over the rim! Perhaps all this will make the judicious grieve, but then grieving is the best and about the only thing the judicious do.

Half the time Van was an overgrown boy—playing around like a shaggy, lumbering, barking, pawing puppy. But when he was in a grown-up mood he was a man all over. This side of him came out on the long walks, when he talked in his vivid, forceful way about men and books and affairs; or on the hard all-day rides down in the Canyon, when there was so much to see that we talked little; or in the evenings on the rim and in the camp below, when night spread through the Canyon and finally covered the glowing sky above.

There is something very positive about the desert country. One likes it or dislikes it; but no one is ever indifferent to it. Van loved it; and it was his oft-expressed hope that the further development of the Canyon would never fall into the hands of anyone who did not love it, too—that it would always be safeguarded from those who would jazz it and exploit it and Coney Islandize any corner of it in the name of improvement. That would be like slapping God on the wrist.

Last summer I went back to the Canyon and everyone talked a good deal about Van—that is, everyone except the Baron. At first he looked at me a little mistily, and I think he was recalling the last time when Van was there, too, slapping him on the back and jovially greeting him as a "miserable old man." I wished that I could make him beam and wince again in the old way, before he began to shake hands decorously with his rather conventional guests, but that was "Van's stuff." So I shook hands like any proper tourist and went out to the rim, where a very learned gentleman with a very correct New England ancestry was expounding the theory and geology of the Canyon to a group of interested hearers. I have never met anyone with a more absolutely faultless manner. He both explained and apologized for the Canyon's crudities in one breath. I rather gathered that he would have found the geology of the Alps more to his liking, if certain events had not made them temporarily inaccessible to American tourists of refinement. I do not think that Van had very much geology, but I felt as I listened that he had known the Canyon in a way that the learned Easterner would never know it. Doubtless his unimpeachably correct ancestry went back through libraries and monasteries and temples to a cultured cave home, while Van's ancestors spent their lives preparing for descendants who would be good Americans when the time came; and Van was one hundred per cent American. That may explain why he hated poor sports, parlor Bolsheviki and quitters; and why mountains, canyons, deserts and men took precedence in his mind over books about them. One man sees strata where another man sees God.

Turn the page and you will find Van in his book.

Let's Go! Let's Go!