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The following review appeared 5 September 2006 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Lawrence Berkove's new collection The Sagebrush Anthology: Literature from the Silver Age of the Old West is a welcome addition to the study of writers active in the Far West from the 1860s through the early twentieth century. Berkove is an established authority in the area. He has authored and edited books on Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, and Dan De Quille, among others, and he brings his detailed knowledge of western writers and history to bear in this collection. The Sagebrush Anthology provides a convenient source and a useful context for evaluating the variety and skill of individual authors within the Sagebrush School.
The "Sagebrush" label itself, according to Berkove, was applied to these writers in 1893 by Ella Sterling Cummins. They were a transient group by and large. Most were itinerant journalists and adapted to the vicissitudes of the boom-and-bust mining region. Berkove explains that they were "a loose association of writers with a common base in nineteenth-century Nevada" (p. 2). For this collection, in addition to Twain, Berkove focuses most closely on Dan De Quille (the pen name of William Wright), Samuel Post Davis, Joseph T. Goodman, and Rollin Daggett. Their proximity to Twain links them together, and their contributions to this volume allow Twain aficionados to better appreciate his evolution and the influences upon him, as well as his influence upon other writers, within a particularly regional style of writing.
Berkove organizes the book into six categories--"Humor and Hoaxes," "Short Fiction," "Memoirs," "Nonfiction," "Letters," and "Poetry"--and the individual entries are arranged chronologically within each category. Berkove provides a two-page introduction to each section as well as a brief note before most (but not all) entries giving relevant information about the author, the sketch, and sometimes its publication history. Some of the sketches and letters are published here for the first time, and some are first collected here, having appeared previously in newspapers or journals only. For the previously unpublished and anonymous items, Berkove provides information on their locations and how he identified authorship. When an author's identity cannot be proven with complete accuracy, Berkove provides the name of the most likely writer followed by a question mark.
The first section, "Humor and Hoaxes," begins with three Twain sketches. "Washoe.--'Information Wanted'" (1864) is an underappreciated early sketch that shows the confluence of Twain's emerging comic self-deprecation and a regional humor, and he snarkily criticizes exaggerated opinions about opportunities in the West. Following Twain's infamous hoax "Petrified Man," (1862) De Quille's "A Silver Man" (1865) comes off as somewhat technical (and tedious). De Quille's "Frightful Catastrophe" (1866) also relies more on an easy gimmick for its "punch line" than a creative twist. De Quille proves himself, however, with the outrageous "Solar Armor," (1874) which, according to Berkove, fooled the editors of the London Daily Telegraph. Likewise, the anonymous recounting of "Sam Davis's Earthquake Hoax" (Davis's original version has not been found) is wonderful. Davis exhibits a cool nonchalance by requesting payment for his services in perpetuating a false story at the end of his report.
A recurring theme among western humorists was their ability to talk tough while avoiding the violent ramifications of their words, a motif used in D. Jones's "Whipping an Editor" (1872), Arthur McEwen's "Why the Gold Gulch News Suspended" (1884), and Joseph Goodman's "The Trumpet Comes to Pickeye!" These pieces share an affinity with Twain's "Journalism in Tennessee" (1869), which is not included here. A perhaps irrelevant note: Arthur McEwen's "One Solution" (1893), a quasi-sentimental piece about a man who marries two women concurrently--published here without an explanatory note--would seem to fit better in the section on short fiction; whereas Alfred Doten's "The Living Hinge" (1867)--included in the section "Short Fiction"--seems intended as a hoax on readers, particularly considering the message of the cryptogram (helpfully decoded by Berkove in a footnote).
Some worthy gems are included in the "Short Fiction" category. De Quille's "The Eagle Nest" (1891) is a thoughtful and fascinating tale of foolish risks and heart-pounding fear. Sam Davis shows his skill again with the surprising "A Christmas Carol" (1870s), which revamps the "civilization-comes-to-the-frontier" theme, exploding its pervasive sentimental nostalgia with a comic-realistic ending. James Gally's "Big Jack Small" (1875), plays with themes familiar to readers of Twain by offering a wry celebration of working-class western masculinity while also highlighting the vigor of a vernacular dialect against a more genteel, formal style of speaking--ala Scotty Briggs and the minister in Roughing It (1872). Gally departs from Twain, however, by inverting the religious conversion: whereas Scotty Briggs begins teaching Sunday school, Gally's minister develops an appreciation not only for the efficacy of cursing but also for Jack Small's nature-based spirituality. Likewise, Charles Carroll Goodwin's "Sister Celeste" (1884) examines religious morality within a western context, but it ends with a nearly hyperbolic sentimentalism, in spite of the overt sexualizing of a nun early in the tale. Sam Davis's "The Conversion of Champagne Liz" (published here for the first time) provides an interesting study of gender at the time, and it avoids the maudlin despite Liz's religious conversion and death (she's torn apart by coyotes and, years later, her friends toast her memory by sharing an impromptu drink with her skull). Davis's "The Loco Weed" (1899) and "The Mystery of the Savage Sump" (1901) are also worthy efforts. On another side note: works written by Samuel Post Davis are identified without explanation in three different ways--Sam P. Davis, Samuel Davis, Sam Davis. Readers who are not familiar with Davis and his works may find this a bit confusing.
The section "Memoirs" provides a brief literary history of some famous (and infamous) individuals and relationships. Twain, for the most part, comes across poorly in the opinions and sketches of those who knew him. Two entries recollect Twain's initial meeting with Artemus Ward: one written by Twain himself in 1867, and the other by De Quille in 1888. Both highlight Twain's genuine but understandable confusion over how to respond to Ward's intentional comic obfuscation. Arthur McEwan's "Memories of _Enterprise_ Writers" (1893) explains why "[n]ot many people liked Mark Twain," and while he excuses Twain generally, he rhapsodizes eloquently over Joseph Goodman and the newspaper he edited. Similarly, Alf Doten's "Early Journalism in Nevada" (1899) presents Twain in a fairly bad light, recounting two jokes played on Twain and their effect, summarizing: "although he liked practical jokes on others, he did not seem to enjoy one upon himself" (p. 274).
More damning of Twain--albeit entirely by implication--is an unsigned item Berkove attributes to Joseph Goodman titled "The Tragedy of Conrad Wiegand" (1908). The item is a spirited defense of Conrad Wiegand, who Twain savaged in Appendix C of Roughing It, calling Wiegand a "weak, half-witted child" who "deserves to be thrashed" for exposing corrupt officials in print. In fact, Wiegand was beaten, kicked, and horsewhipped (as Twain himself documented). Goodman sympathetically details Wiegand's harassment by enemies and betrayal by friends that eventually led to his suicide and his wife's starvation. According to Berkove, "the account of Conrad Wiegand's suicide, probably told by Joe Goodman, and nowhere else told in such detail, is not flattering to Twain. Although Goodman and Twain were close friends, this may be Goodman's way of setting his own conscience at rest--and in Twain's lifetime--for having played a regretted part in the good man's ordeal" (p. 240).
Rollin Daggett's "My French Friend" (1895) also ends in suicide, and, although purportedly non-fiction, the tale has a false ring to it (noted by Berkove), particularly regarding the genuine good cheer of their last supper. Two additional pieces provide some levity. An anonymous item titled "Geological Reminiscences" (1895) and "Jim Townsend's Lies" (1908) by James P. Kennedy recount the humorous anecdotes and wry observations of the good-natured scoundrels who made a name for themselves in the mining region.
The entries in "Nonfiction" fit nicely with those in "Memoirs," but rather than focusing on important individuals, they flesh out the social and cultural context of the region. Fred Hart wrote three of the articles. In "The First Fourth in White Pine" (1878) he provides a lively retelling of his efforts to organize a Fourth of July celebration in a remote mining camp, replete with a home-made flag pieced together from varied cast-offs and a one-man dance-band given to drink. Hart's additional two pieces can--literally--be termed "gallows humor." In "Under the Gallows" (1878) he unwittingly unrolls his bedding on a dark night under a gallows, an experience that prompts his reflections on the inevitable shift of organized vigilantism from a well-intended effort to curb violence to a debased tool of a powerful minority. Hart's "Hoist by His Own Petard" (1878) focuses on a sadistic vigilante hung on a machine of his own design. In an unsigned editorial Berkove attributes to Joseph Goodman titled "Cranks and Their Uses" (1884), Goodman provides an interesting meditation on progressive cultural movements summarized by his statement: "Tolerate the cranks" (p. 338). His short editorial begins and ends with his somewhat inconsistent response to a woman wearing pants in public, who "excited our laughter by her comical but undoubtedly comfortable and healthful costume" (p. 337). Likewise, a letter from Granville Winchester Pease to Dan De Quille which Berkove titled "A Paiute Reservation" (1892) presents a tolerant nineteenth-century opinion of the Pah Ute Indians that, nonetheless, appears patronizing today. Pease was a clerk for the Walker River Indian reservation and was reasonably well-qualified to know his topic for a white man. But his utter confidence in defining somebody else's cultural customs seems misplaced. His paradoxical position is highlighted by his discussion of the Paiute holy man, Wovoka, in which he offers the racial qualifier: "He is quite intelligent for an Indian" (p. 344). In addition, Pease's positive estimation of the Indian schools--despite "the home influence" that the children received from their families--only recalls the catastrophic effort to strip Native Americans of their language and culture. Sarah Winnemucca (the only female author included in _The Sagebrush Anthology_) provides a more dependable--if not entirely uncomplicated--treatment of her people and culture. Ultimately, her article "The Pah-Utes" (1882) is more of a damning indictment of "white" civilization than an explanation of her own.
The section "Letters" contains only five letters, and Berkove might have explained more fully his rationale for choosing these particular letters. In a brief introduction, he states that the letters "tell us a good deal about Nevada and the Sagebrush mentality" (p. 349). However, considering the number of letters that exists from this time period, a wider selection would have better fleshed out whatever this mentality might be. In the five letters readers witness a truncated range of sometimes conflicting attitudes. The first letter from Twain was written to his mother and sister in 1863 and demonstrates his youthful confidence. The next two letters are from Rollin Daggett to Charles Carroll Goodwin. Both were written in 1894, and each begins with praise for Goodwin's book The Wedge of Gold. In the first, Daggett goes on to explain his appreciation for realistic fiction about "vigorous and rational human action" (p. 353). Both letters demonstrate a world-weary cynicism, and Daggett laments the passing of an age: "It's a burning shame to saddle one with the infirmities of years, while our hearts are kicking up their heels in perpetual boyhood. Life is a blasted fraud" (p. 355). The second letter by Twain, written in 1904 in response to Robert L. Fulton's request for a western reunion, showcases a nostalgic warmth at odds with Daggett's pessimism. The final letter consists of Charles Goodwin blazing away at G. H. Babcock (1907) and is a strange and fascinating epistle, but one in need of editorial explanation regarding the context. In the section introduction, Berkove describes the letter as "full of Sagebrush spirit" (p. 349) but does not further identify G. H. Babcock nor explain his provocative actions that prompted Goodwin's letter.
The section on "Poetry" includes poems by Rollin Daggett, Joseph Goodman, and Sam Davis. Most are undated and not previously published. Daggett's poems are elegaic and beautiful. His "My New Year's Guests" (1881) is a paean to the forty-niners and the youthful vigor and enthusiasm they symbolize. Goodman's poetry, from the archives of the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley, is stark and candid. He bemoans the wasted lives of overworked women, recoils from the saccharine bromides of a preacher's sermon, and compares his aging body to Virginia City--both of which he prefers to remember in their youthful glory. Davis's contributions are witty and racy. He meditates happily upon a kiss (despite the potential germs). He recalls exchanging political favors for sexual favors (which were only partially granted). And he describes how, no matter where he lives and travels, he will return to Nevada--even after death--because of "the lure of the sagebrush." The unpublished manuscripts of Sam Davis's poems are from the private collection of the family of Sylvia Crowell Stoddard.
The Sagebrush Anthology is a fascinating picture of a
time and a place that has been, simultaneously but incongruously, memorialized
via fiction and film, yet neglected for its ability to resist easy generalizations.
Berkove has provided us with previously unavailable texts and an invaluable
tool to continue our understanding of the writers who were shaped by the region
and who, in turn, helped define the region for a nation.