Wild West Faking
Wild West Faking
A friendly analysis of our most successful "western" writers and artists—a few confidential words with Frederic Remington and Ernest Thompson Seton
By Emerson Hough
Competent critics allege that in President Roosevelt’s personal preferences for Western scenes there may be found reason for the current popularity of the wild, wild West. If, indeed, this be true, there would seem to be one more thing—the only one which at first thought comes to mind as remaining—which President Roosevelt ought to do before he wipes off his slate and hangs it up on the wall. He ought to write an exposure of Wild West faking.
In the case of the nature fakers there was offered but a limited region for the Presidential activities—a few startled individuals who by accident had broken in where angels had worn no permanent pathway, and who had, in finding themselves noticed, suddenly sat up and taken serious and painstaking notice of themselves. What was done to them is ancient history. A newer and wider field lies at hand. It is not two or three Horatian fakers who hold the bridge. Their name is legion. The Wild West authorship of the day is commensurate only with the city directories of several cities.
The other day a friend was asking counsel regarding a trip to Durango, Colorado, where resided, in his phrase, a certain lame duck. My friend, who resides in Chicago, is very fond of wearing a silk hat and a sack coat, and it was his desire to know whether, in my belief, the former would be safe in Durango. It was of no use to assure him that the main danger lay in not piercing down the second article. He departed unassured, with many misgivings about the reception he would probably meet in Durango and the Terpsichorean feats he might be obliged to perform at the muzzle of a gun. He had been reading no haymow literature but only that found between the most respectable covers of the day.
The other day I got a letter from an artist in New York who has recently removed thither and instituted a Wild West studio. He was in search of information as to the wideness of saddle skirts, the extent of stirrup covers, the size of gun, etc., in Texas at about the time of 1870. although that was about the date of the beginning of the Long Trail (the writer perhaps originated that title in a chapter head many years ago, although the "Long Trail" is now located everywhere in fiction from Arizona to Oregon), the earnest young artist was not content when it was suggested to him that perhaps even at that stage of the world’s history there might have been a few cowmen who just wore clothes. He replied with some heat that his fancied source of information proved "too highly specialized" for the uses of modern art. This I regret. It is sad to be born with no special hysteria in one’s soul.
Advice from Andy Adams
Laboring under this handicap of unemotionalism, I concluded to refer the inquiry to an old cow-puncher friend of mine who, ten years before my time, rode the trail from the Rio Grande to the British line at the dates mentioned, Andy Adams of Goldfield, a man who really knows about cows and cowmen in the early days. His comment ought to be useful to many artists and many writers:
"The Texas cowmen of my acquaintance were much more interested in a good market for steers, a big calf crop, good grass, and plenty of water than this kind of rot. One gets the impression that a cow-puncher’s regalia was a matter of national ordinance, like the army and the navy, universal and irrevocable. I have known men cut the brim off a hat when it flopped in their eyes—the cow-puncher had sense enough to insist on a clear line of vision. He never broke his neck in order to look picturesque. I have seen a round-up in the Cherokee Strip in which one thousand men were present, and there weren’t fifty pairs of "caps" among them, and those were hauled around in the wagons. Urge your artist to draw the line between the Wild West show article and the real man. I am writing him, asking him to give us something out of the usual cut-and-dry foundry product of Western cow-men. I have urged him to accent languor in his Texas men. My advice was to take Russell of Montana as a guide to the range man. Russell can draw a cow-puncher, swimming naked in a lake, that any Western man can recognize at a glance. Russell plays to the gallery, but he has to live, and the standard is set in the markets.
I read a story once, written by a United States navy officer, in which roping was described. He had the idea that a cow-puncher threw a rope as a sailor heaved a line—"the coils swished through the air" instead of reeling from the hand as a decent rope does. The story was awarded a $100 prize by a Boston periodical."
Two years ago an earnest young writer, who had never been in either California or Texas in all his life, wrote two Wild West stories, which he sent to one of the best editors in New York. Both stories were promptly accepted.
"You prove to me", wrote the delighted editor, "what I have always said: that in order to know a country one must have lived in it and been a part of it. You have this Texas and California atmosphere perfectly."
It is a singular fact, not capable of any geographical or philosophical explanation so far as I know, that the best Wild West writers live in Brooklyn, New York, and that most of the prominent Wild West artists reside in Lyme, Connecticut. I don’t know why this is. Neither, for that matter, should one file any objection to this, because genius has no law. In the old days we were as apt to get pure Canadian maple sirup from Ohio as anywhere else. The only reservation existing in my mind is a purely legal one. It seems to me that there is a question of reasonable doubt under he pure food law whether these stories and fiction ought not to be labelled "99.5 per cent pure East"
Recently an editorial friend of mine discovered a new producer of that brand of foundry literature known as the Western story. He announced his entire confidence that the newcomer led all the rest by a block, or words to that effect.
"Just look!" he exclaimed with enthusiasm. "two town marshals and a sheriff die with their boots on. The populace lynches out the villain. Six people killed in the first chapter. Can you beat it? This man is the real Texas! I am going to send for his photograph to print with my editorial announcements."
He did send for the photograph, and finally got it—from Brooklyn. It was a handsome photograph. The six-shooter was carefully displayed upon the abdomen; the hats, spurs, handkerchief, and other details were arranged in that due sequence established by the Wild West type. The "chaps" were in evidence, those leather trousers always worn on the stage by Wild west actors and never worn anywhere by real cowmen if they can help it—and then usually called. There was nothing missing form the catalogue of articles characterized as Western by all New York and Brooklyn authors, actors, and artists, and nothing wrong as to their disposition; nothing except that the earnest young author, when he posed for the picture, had put his leather panties on wrong side foremost!
An American sculptor (Mr Edward Kemeys) once went to Europe, where he met a German artist who was engaged in painting the picture of an American buffalo, an animal he had never seen. The Old-World artist insisted on placing upon his buffalo a tail as long and as developed as that of an ordinary ox, and it was impossible for the American to persuade him otherwise.
"But see," said the German, "Der buffalo is so large yet—he must have der tail in proportion; otherwise he is absurd!"
If the buffalo’s tail be not commensurate with the notion of the artist, then so much the worse for the buffalo. Why criticize the foreigner? His is precisely the rule that has been followed by Eastern artists in depicting the natural history of the West. If the cow-puncher does not wear his hip pockets in front, so much the worse for the cow-puncher.
True, time may change some of these things. The day of two cent railroad fares is upon us. Perhaps eventually some of these authors and artists may see the country which they portray. The above-mentioned particular laborer in the fruitful vineyard of Western literature had never been west of Connecticut in his life; yet my editorial friend adhered to his opinion regarding to his ability.
"I can’t get around that present tense," he said. "The entire dialect is done in the present tense and the first person, and there are six new expression that nobody ever heard of before. I am convinced that this author knows his West.
"Besides, what’s the use?" he resumed brightly; "the West doesn’t care, I don’t care, the public doesn’t care, so why should you? We have to give the public what it wants, and what the public wants is something strong."
Three men Who Knew the West
There have been three Western artists—one a sculptor, one a writer, and one a painter—who have tried to treat the West with sympathy and accuracy. Last spring there died, at Washington, District of Columbia, the sculptor Edward Kemeys, a genius if this country ever knew one. His bronzes are the best, and indeed the only, representations of America’s wild animals. His life ambition was that some time he might get a government commission to erect colossal statues of America’s wild animals for the streets of the nation’s capital. He died disappointed, died poor, and in large part forgotten. At a later day some sculptor may arise, and erect in Washington some statue of distorted horse, impossible man and absurd garb, and we will call that indicative of what the American West once was.
My writer is, quoted above, but though I know him, you perhaps do not, because all he has written is the truth. He really rode the Long trail when it was the Long Trail. He knows cows, but does not know fashions in cow-punchers.
My artist is Charlie Russell of Montana; but he has a business chance, by reason of his fortunate title, "The Cowboy Artist," and by further reason of the fact that he sometimes writes in the present tense—as all Wild West literature should be done. When Russell draws a cow-horse or a cow-man, neither is doing impossibilities; but, having lacked in a training, he does not always measure up to the standards of Lyme, Connecticut. Once he did a picture for a New York broker, and the latter returned it with the criticism that in his belief the artist had made the humerus too long in the central figure. Charlie scratched his head, and took the letter to his wife, who once was a school-teacher.
"What’s a humerus?" he asked.
They could never agree upon the matter, and the end of it was that Charlie took the discredited picture down to the saloon (not salon)and hung it up on the public wall. When Great falls, Montana, runs against Lyme, Connecticut, there can be but one ending to the matter. Yet I recall a criticism which this same artist once made on a famous picture done by an artist renowned through his Western scenes.
"That fellow in the picture may be able to handle a rope with his quirt hanging on his right wrist while he’s roping; but I never saw it done in real cow work myself."
There is hardly one of there book or magazine illustrations of Wild West description done by Eastern artists with which some technical fault cannot be found. For instance, a year or so ago I had a book published which had something to do with the personal history of the old-time Western sheriff, Pat Garrett, who lived in New Mexico at the same time I did, some several years since, and who quietly laid away a number of the worst bad men of that district, among others Billy the Kid, one of the worst killers the West ever knew. No one ever saw Pat Garrett in Wild West make-up, or ever will. Like most of the frontier sheriffs, he was always quiet and simple in the extreme. But what happened to him in the book? The publishers gave it out to be illustrated by an artist from Lyme, Connecticut, and what the artist did I shiver to contemplate even in retrospect. There was a fleeing desperado at one corner of the page, and in the center of the picture was a horse with its legs tied in knots, surmounted by a fierce bandit in "chaps," who, while his steed was at mid-jump in the air, was calmly firing at the fleeting desperado aforesaid. Below, in his joy at labelling a great work of art, the book editor had the legend: "Pat Garrett in pursuit of a Criminal." It was with difficulty that I could appease the former sheriff—even after we had called in every known copy of the book available and torn out the offending "illustration." The publishers and injured and aggrieved to this day, and cannot understand why any one should object to such a typical Wild West "illustration." Yet there could be more grievous insult to a brave man who all his life had lived simply and sincerely, and despised anything like Wild Westism. Which was strong, the man or the "illustration"? I know the Brooklyn and Lyme answer perfectly well. (Since this was written Pat Garrett has been killed. It is just as well, and as good a way to go as any. He has missed many later criminals in art.)
The other day I ran across a little friend of mine known as Jimmy Tough, ex-buster in the "Bill Show." Jimmy is on the blacklist in Wyoming, because of his expertness with rope and telegraph wire. No Wyoming cowman wants anybody but himself to brand a maverick. I know one or two Wyoming and Colorado fortunes which have got into statesmanship by the maverick route; but the owners of these fortunes were among the first to take away the individual iron from the ranch foreman. Jimmy was now doing a turn in Advanced Vodeveel, with a good roper from Oklahoma. He was at the time I met him got up in regular Brooklyn costume, fit to go into a picture. Seeing this, I indicated my mild belief that he was somewhat scary.
"Yes," said he, "I shore am. I gotta be. I’m married now, and I don’t dare lose my job."
The Commercial Demand for Make-up
The moral is that, if you have to pay rent, wear "chaps" with fringes and conchos—even if you have to wear them wrong side foremost; wear a large gun where it can be seen, and let the handle point which way it listeth; wear large spurs and a large white hat, and a large quirt, and a large muffler which will drape over your bosom, and which will flop over your face—and blind you if you are really riding a bad horse.
"Jimmy," I said, "what makes you your little hanky so wide?"
He blushed. "Oh, now, look here," he said. "I’m on the stage. See? You look at the pictures of real punchers, if you want to learn how it’s done." He grinned, but continued sadly: "I’ve got to tell it to ’em scary. You ought to see my little boy! We got a flat, my wife and I."
It may be seen that Wild West faking divides itself into three parts. Which is the worst one would really not dare say. The stage at present is very much in evidence. The first Wild West drama was written for Mr. William Hicock, who now is dead. Wild Bill said that he could not consent to appear in anything so woolly; so he returned to the range, many years ago. He had only killed eighty men or so. The drama still remains. Look over the playbills of any city in the country, and you shall find abundant verification of this assertion, and may have done so any time these last few years. The male star who packs a décolleté gun also packs the house. At least, so I am advised. I am, so far as I now, the only American who never saw Mr. Dustin Farnum depict the real Wild West. But I saw Mr. William Faversham in "The Squaw Man"—once! He was too décolleté with his gun. Besides, he had never heard tell of a "G string," and he did not tie down his very décolleté gun scabbard.
We are accustomed to call David Belasco a genius. So he is. It takes genius to foresee and meet a public frame of mind which will accept as real a third act such as that of "The Girl of the Golden West." In effect, we are asked to believe that grown men acted like clowns and fools at a time and in a country where the best and the shrewdest men of the entire world were gathered—California in the early gold days.
On of the first Wild West dramas ever written was done in earlier and less responsible days by Mr. Belasco and Mr. Flyes—that whilom example of Western realism know as "The Girl I Left Behind Me." It is some years since I have seen this play, but I recall it even now—especially the mooing of the hostyle Indian savidges beyond the stockade of the frontier fortress—where everything was saved by the poor but noble young sergeant who danced with the Colonel’s daughter at the army ball. The army would hang, draw and quarter a sergeant if he ever looked at the Colonel’s daughter; but people will pay two dollars a seat to go and see "realistic" army life on the stage. Mr Flyes is a dramatic critic now. He does not have to write.
Then there was "Arizona," by Mr. Augustus Thomas. Who can forget "Arizona"—with is realistic ranch interior, showing the snowshoes hanging on the wall? I understand that Mr. Belasco and Mr. Thomas, following out the idea of "The Darling of the Gods," intend to locate an early masterpiece in Gehenna. I feel that we may trust Mr. Belasco for the realistic clouds and the incidental music, and trust Mr. Thomas for the blankets.
Also there was yet another play, "John Ermine of the Yellowstone." Mr. James K. Hackett in this was cast for the poor but noble unknown scout who married the Colonel’s daughter. My recollection is that he wore a feather sticking up from his forehead. That may be all right for a scout—though I much doubt it—but one really should regard that feather as a sort of handicap in wooing the Colonel’s daughter. Friends of Mr. Hackett say that when he was first roped and thrown for a rehearsal of this part, he insisted on wearing his six-shooter in his shirt bosom, because he could "get at it handier there." But why should so experienced an actor as Mr. Hackett, who really can wear a man’s clothes, handicap himself by bad verities? Is not his art enough?
I do not at this time recall any successful Western book, Western play, or Western picture ever done by a Western man. Both the Wild Wall Street and the Wild West boom are Eastern enterprises; and both are good producers—so good that surely they ought not to mind a mild and soothing jest betimes. To their minds may arise the retort courteous that it’s no matter what you do, if you heart be true; and that their hearts are true to the Wild West as it once was. A Scotchman would say, I dinna ken. Perhaps there was once such a West, and perhaps now it is dead. If so, it certainly does not lack embalming fluid. We are advertised by our loving friends.
To the ignorant and deliberate fakers must be added a large class of entirely innocent enthusiasts who annually rediscover the railroad and summer resort west from the Yellowstone to the Grand Cañon, and who return to write and paint about it. These give annual details of the phenomena of Western life, with diagrams of the diamond hitch, or the ever-present story of Curly, Sandy, Pete, and in the fair but honest daughter of the ranch-owner. If you seek instances, look about you.
Yet another form of faking is one which deserves a short and ugly word. This is the use of old and forgotten records of picturesque or dramatic Western incidents as originals. I recall one rather vivid story of the Southwest, which appeared I print as a Sunday special article some years ago. Yet, not very long since, a New York magazine appeared with this idea elaborated into an entire serial! On reading the first chapter, one was able to predict to the editor all the future chapters, which prediction all came duly true. The author in that case no doubt felt that he had found a very taking bit of Western "color."
Yet another instance of this nature appeared in a New York magazine for February of the current year. In this instance, the author lifted bodily from Henry Howe’s old and valuable book, "Historical Collections of the Great West," which was printed in 1855—and which for that reason was perhaps supposed not to be widely known today—the well-known story of Mike Fink, the noted keelboatman, and his deliberate killing of his friend Carpenter in a supposedly friendly test of marksmanship, in which he was to shoot from his partner’s head a tin cup of whisky. In this instance, the entire dialogue, the most minute incidents, and the entire mise en scène were appropriated in full, with what would appear to be a very considerable hardihood. The author’s lack of familiarity with the scenes he purports to describe may be seen in his taking too much of the frontier atmosphere from Henry Howe. Thus, he remarks casually of men located in the upper Missouri River country that either could bore a squirrel’s eye at fifty yards," etc. even in Kentucky this was rarely done, and certainly never done in a squirelless country!
The Sins of Frederic Remington
Such illegitimate strivings after Western color are more or less easily detected by those familiar with early Americana. They seem to be even more unpardonable than the work of patronizing car-window tourists, such as one who in a current issue of a New York magazine deplores the fact that in his travels he could not get a Havana cigar in Kansas City, who thinks the Garden of the Gods a very bad name for a very unworthy place, finds Pikes Peak quite an ignoble sort of mountain, and none of the Rockies in the same class with the Alps—with which latter he is pains to inform us he is quite familiar.
I recall one picture by a celebrated artist of the East who does Western things. It depicts a "Cowboy at rest." He is lying on his stomach in the sun, his chin in his hands. His horse stands near by, with the reins thrown over the horn of the saddle. Now a cowboy in the daytime, well filled with beans and canned tomatoes, would not lie thus; and above all he would not leave his horse standing thus. He would pull the reins down over the horse’s head and let them hang, elsewise his cow-horse would depart. I recall yet another picture of a faithful cow-puncher, who with his trusty rifle defends himself from behind his dead horse, which he uses as a fortress. The dead horse is about four feet and a half through sidewise—excellent for a fortress, but a trifle wide for a thin-flanked cow-horse. It would be useless to point out any detail like this to any earnest artist of today. Worse than useless would it be to suggest that a cow-puncher is the laziest created thing; for in art he must do perpetual "stunts" of "action."
Lynching situations are common and popular in Western art. There were times in the West when men were hanged without law and in the name of the law. But no man who ever lived in the West or knew about lynching ever thought about using that theme for talk or show. There might have been, in the old days when I made a precarious livelihood in a part of the country where men got killed once in a while, such a thing as a lynching now and then. I, for one, never heard one mentioned, nor ever heard a Western man admit that he ever had anything to do with such a duty. These were stern and solemn matters, and they were made jests only by those who knew nothing of them, and who violated a secrecy to whose actual deeds they never were admitted.
So far as the school of Wild West art is concerned, we come naturally to its progenitor, Mr., who owns artistic shoulders broad enough to carry a gibe or so, so that he ought not to mind being held fair game. At the time of our opera-bouffe war with Spain—the time when Mr. Richard Harding Davis stood on the bridge, and Mr. Dooley thought the bridge ought to be turned—all the country was palpitating with high-geared war stories. The best war-story printed was written by Frederic Remington. Lest this should leave him feeling chesty, I hasten to add that it was illustrated by the worst pictures printed—and done by himself. The army private has never acquired a love for his lover, and this accepted army and Western artist is caviar and olives in part to some of those who ought to feel just the other way. Because, if Mr. Remington today wanted to add a cubit to the tail of the American bison, or to establish a Western horse with five legs, he certainly could make it stick. If he takes a notion to do such things, you and I will be forced to sit and see it happen.
I have always taken a chronological interest in the life of a friend of mine, whose adventures, as I figure them up, make him out to be about 175 years old. Statistics would show Mr. Remington to be about the same age. When asked whether he was there when the water was turned into the Yellowstone River, Mr. Remington modestly replied in the affirmative; but when inquiry was made as to confirmation of the report that he constructed the Rocky Mountains, he pursed his lips and said : "Oh, no, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that. I only made the Collier’s full pages!" The same question was asked of Mr. Ernest Thompson Seton. Note the difference between the two men. "You can draw your own inference," answered Mr. Seton, blushing.
Yet the public never makes wholly inexcusable mistakes. There is no doubt something strong and in the work of any man who founds a school in any branch of art. The main trouble lies with the imitators, the men who can not even draw an inference. True, they all have to begin. Equally true, success or failure may arise through some simple little incident at one period or another of life. Thus history shows that the career of an artist very prominent in magazine illustration hinges upon a simple and now forgotten incident. As a boy, when he dwelt in Lyme, Connecticut, he lisped in pictures, for the pictures came. One day he did two sketches of scenes in Lyme, the one a picture of the picket fence where the family horse had broken through, the other a picture of the horse himself. An admiring neighbor carried these sketches to the nearest art director. By mistake the labels were confused. The picture of the paling fence was taken for the horse, whereas the other, the horse itself, bore the fetching caption, "A Scene in the American West." It was thus that an erroneous rumor might have gained credence to the effect that perhaps this artist was he who originated the Rocky Mountains; a matter which, as shown above, might entirely lack confirmation even by the artist himself. But this is how schools are founded.
It may be lèse-majesté, and no doubt punishable lèse-majesté, to poke fun at those who are in the seats of the mighty. Yet, consider the fun they have had in their time! Moreover, again, this public duty which with much shrinking one assumes, would not in the least be necessary had not President Roosevelt shamefully forgotten his own duty in the premises.
After all, we are all in the picture, you and I, East and West. What grimacing and contorted image we see in our national mirror is only the grimacing and contorted image of ourselves. The days of our actual strength and dignity are yet to come. We must outlive Wild Wall Street before we can outlive Wild Westernism. They are equal parts of a hysteria which is our own. A nation fails which hires athletes to show its strength, hires fighters to show it war, hires clowns to show it art. Rome was weakest when her Coliseum was "strongest"—at a time when the bill of the play, illustrated, possibly retailed at 10 to 35 cents, which, strangely enough, is about the price of our magazines today. But some day perhaps we shall have a Millet, with his brush, a Kemeys with his bronzes, a Blackmore with his pen, in the American West. Then perhaps we shall be strong enough to know what strength really is.