America Re-Imagined, in Retrospect: Fifty Notable American Novels about the “West”: 18-20.

 

Hansen, Ron.  The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.  New York: Knopf, 1983.

After treating the history of the Dalton gang in his first novel, Desperadoes (1979), Hansen explored the final days in the life of America’s most famous outlaw, Jesse James. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is interesting for Hansen’s careful pacing and his painstaking integration of period detail.

Moreover, Hansen offers very engaging and credible depictions of the states of mind of his two principles, Jesse James and Robert Ford.  He emphasizes that at this point, late in his criminal career, Jesse James is facing all sorts of practical dilemmas.  The efforts to bring him to justice are intensifying even as he struggles to reconstitute his gang after the disastrous raid in Northfield, Minnesota.  At the same time, James is very much aware that he is the most famous outlaw in America—that the newspapers and dime novels have, in fact, transformed him into a folk hero.  And the distance between his actual circumstances and his public persona is beginning to become very apparent to him.

On the other hand, more than anything else, Robert Ford wants not just to be like Jesse James but to be Jesse James—or what Ford, like everyone else, imagines Jesse James to be. Almost inevitably, Ford becomes unhinged as he recognizes the impossibility of his obsession and chooses to kill Jesse James to purge himself of his own demons.  But, of course, for the rest of his life he will be haunted and hunted as the “coward” who bushwacked Jesse James in his own home.

 

Haycox, Ernest.  Bugles in the Afternoon.  Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran, 1944.

Bugles in the Afternoon remains Haycox’s most widely read novel, and it is certainly one of his most accomplished novels.  It presents a fictional recreation of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, at which the Sioux and Cheyenne Indians wiped out the units of the Seventh Cavalry personally led by General George Armstrong Custer.  Unlike the glorifications of Custer in most pulp Westerns, Bugles in the Afternoon is critical of Custer’s character, his motives, and his battlefield leadership.  The reader is led to see how Custer, in effect, invited catastrophe.  In the end, Custer’s greatest strengths, his fearlessness and his ability to inspire troops to follow him, were betrayed by his greatest limitations, his impulsiveness and his belief in his own heroic destiny.

Haycox’s account of Custer’s Last Stand is told from the point of view of Kern Shafter, a young officer in Reno’s command.  The point of view of this young officer offers more insight and complexity than that of an ordinary soldier would have provided.  But it nonetheless offers a fairly “ordinary” view of Custer’s behavior in the months leading up to the battle.  Despite the general respect for Custer’s abilities as an Indian fighter, Kern Shafter shares in the undercurrent of uneasiness that runs through the Seventh Cavalry as the time to begin the campaign against the Sioux and Cheyenne approaches.  Moreover, the choice of Shafter’s point of view allows Haycox to emphasize how the soldiers in Custer’s command had their own lives, full of their own romantic and familial dilemmas. They were primarily concerned with how the events of the spring and summer of 1875 affected their own lives, and they were relatively unconcerned with how they would further define Custer’s reputation and his political prospects.  For each of them, the massacre at the Little Big Horn would be a very personal catstrophe beyond their imagining.

 

Haycox, Ernest.  The Earthbreakers.  Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran, 1952.

Earlier in his career, Ernest Haycox became proficient in writing pulp Westerns.  But, in the middle and later stages of his career, he began to write historical Westerns in which he explored the psychological dilemmas of his characters and developed plots that emphasized the connections between character and incident rather than subordinating character to incident.

The Earthbreakers, Haycox’s last novel, represents the highpoint of his achievement.  Panoramic in scope, the novel follows a group of pioneers as they near the end of their transcontinental trek and then enter the Oregon Territory.  Instead of emphasizing the drama of their passage, which in the pulp Westerns had become layered with stock melodramatic incidents, Haycox picks up the story where it is usually left off.  He is concerned with what happens when the pioneers finally enter into their supposed paradise.  He is interested in the human drama in their constructing new homes and new lives and confronting the reality that no matter how satisfying their circumstances end up being, their lives cannot measure up what they had imagined their lives might become.

The novel’s main character is a former mountain man named Rice Burnett, who builds a grist mill in Oregon.  Rice’s expectations are less romanticized than those of many of the other pioneers.  Yet, even he has to confront the irony that moments of great tragedy and of great celebration can be attributed only in part to human choices, for they are also very much the products of entirely arbitrary combinations of circumstances.

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Previous Posts in This Series:

America Re-Imagined, in Retrospect: Fifty Notable American Novels about the “West”: 1-2: https://academeblog.org/2014/09/10/america-re-imagined-in-retrospect-fifty-notable-american-novels-about-the-west-1-2/

America Re-Imagined, in Retrospect: Fifty Notable American Novels about the “West”: 3-5: https://academeblog.org/2014/09/16/america-re-imagined-in-retrospect-fifty-notable-american-novels-about-the-west-3-5/

America Re-Imagined, in Retrospect: Fifty Notable American Novels about the “West”: 6-8: https://academeblog.org/2014/09/20/america-re-imagined-in-retrospect-fifty-notable-american-novels-about-the-west-6-8/

America Re-Imagined, in Retrospect: Fifty Notable American Novels about the “West”: 9-11: https://academeblog.org/2014/10/04/america-re-imagined-in-retrospect-fifty-notable-american-novels-about-the-west-9-11/

America Re-Imagined, in Retrospect: Fifty Notable American Novels about the “West”: 12-14: https://academeblog.org/2014/10/12/america-re-imagined-in-retrospect-fifty-notable-american-novels-about-the-west-12-14/

America Re-Imagined, in Retrospect: Fifty Notable American Novels about the “West”: 15-17: https://academeblog.org/2014/10/21/america-re-imagined-in-retrospect-fifty-notable-american-novels-about-the-west-15-17/

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Posts in the Previous Series:

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 1-3: https://academeblog.org/2014/05/30/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-1-3/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 4-5: https://academeblog.org/2014/05/31/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-4-5/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 6-7: https://academeblog.org/2014/06/01/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-6-7/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 8-10: https://academeblog.org/2014/06/04/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-8-10/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 11-13: https://academeblog.org/2014/06/06/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-11-13/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 14-16: https://academeblog.org/2014/06/11/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-14-16/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 17-19: https://academeblog.org/2014/06/18/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-17-19/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 20-22: https://academeblog.org/2014/06/25/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-20-22/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 23-25: https://academeblog.org/2014/07/07/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-23-25/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 26-29: https://academeblog.org/2014/07/11/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-26-29/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 30-32: https://academeblog.org/2014/07/23/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-30-32/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 33: https://academeblog.org/2014/07/29/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-33/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 34-36: https://academeblog.org/2014/08/10/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-34-36/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 37-39: https://academeblog.org/2014/08/15/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-37-39/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 40-42: https://academeblog.org/2014/08/21/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-40-42/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 43-45: https://academeblog.org/2014/08/23/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-43-45/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 46-48: https://academeblog.org/2014/08/26/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-46-48/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 49-50: https://academeblog.org/2014/08/30/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-49-50/

 

 

13 thoughts on “America Re-Imagined, in Retrospect: Fifty Notable American Novels about the “West”: 18-20.

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