Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Wednesday's Western: The First Gothic Western: JACK LONG or SHOT IN THE EYE by C. W. Webber

The first gothic western was published in February, 1845, as Jack Long, or Shot In The Eye by C. Wilkins Eimi--and a bit later, in a different format, under the author's real name, Charles Wilkins Webber.  It was highly praised by Edgar Allan Poe, who compared it favorably with Nathaniel Hawthorne's fiction.  The author prefaces the story by saying that it is a true tale, that he was there in Texas during the time.

The use of alternative titles was already something of a standard for western narratives written by engaging liars, something parodied well by Cormac McCarthy in Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West.  Texas historian C. L. Sonnichsen researched and wrote about the historical details behind the Regulator War, and it seems that the story could be roughly true.

Webber's yarn opens during that time of the Regulators, when Texas ranchers employed mercenary lawmen to keep order.  Unfortunately, some of the Regulators abuse their power for nefarious ends and severely beat the protagonist, leaving him for dead.  After a time, Jack Long reappears in the form of a primitive wild man, and one by one he hunts the Regulators down, shooting their eyes out with miraculous shots, often at long range.

Webber infuses his story with gothic images and legendary nuances, with suggestions of both naturalism and supernaturalism.  Only when his vengeance has been "consummated" can the protagonist return to his wife and children and his peaceful pastoral existence.  The core of this story would later become a standard of the genre, in a large number of westerns such as Max Brand's The Rancher's Revenge.

Western pulps are often looked upon with distaste by more sophisticated readers, and with good reason.  With some notable exceptions, the pulps were written to formula, and that formula usually dispensed "justice" in the form of a violent comeuppance.  Personalities were usually neglected in favor of interchangeable stock characters, at once adhering to and reinforcing stereotypes.   Usually a good guy/bad guy duality was artificially drawn and the plot manipulated with coincidence and melodrama, the white hats predictably prevailing.  Yet some very good books have been written using imaginative variations of the formula, in parody or parable.

Pre-dating the pulps were the western narratives, biased Davy Crockett-styled yarns told in the form of often flowery history and embellished autobiography.  Both Chamberlain and Webber wrote this kind of narrative.

Although Jack Long, or Shot In The Eye is a delightful find, many of Webber's other books are not only hard to find, they are hard to read, though interesting for the historical puzzles they present.  Much more interesting is the history of the man himself as naturalist, theological and medical expert, soldier, author, editor, and as a character in his own books.

Was Charles Wilkins Webber the model for Samuel Chamberlain's Judge Holden?  Cormac McCarthy's Judge Holden is based upon Samuel Chamberlain's quasi-historical memoir which includes a narrative of an 1849 scalp-hunting expedition with a man he calls Judge Holden, scientist, naturalist, and yarn-spinner, whose existence can't be verified in the census--nor so far in any other historical document.

Chamberlain says that Holden was wanted under another name for an outrage he had committed on a young girl in the Indian territories, suggesting that Holden had at least one alias.  We know that Webber wrote under different names, including Charles Winterfield and C. Wilkins Emmi.  The 1849 scalping expedition described by Samuel Chamberlain may not exactly jibe with the 1849 southwestern expedition undertaken by Webber, but we have far too little evidence to go on.  Much of Chamberlain's narrative is factual--collaborated with other historical documents--but like Webber's narratives, it often falls into dubious melodrama.    

Webber was said to have been friends with John James Audubon and his sons, and with that other naturalist/explorer, Alfred Jacob Miller, whose illustrations of pastoral American Indian life were published in Webber's books on naturalism, auctioned off at this link.

The Wikipedia link for Webber is here, but more can be found at this link from the Dictionary of Literary Biography.  And there is my own truncated list of sources related to Webber and the other filibusters at Amazon, here.

All of the internet sketches seem to have their source in the Cyclopedia of American Literature available at this link at Google Books.  Written back when such histories were notoriously unreliable, it still contains what may be valuable clues, an autographed sketch of Charles Wilkins Webber, and information on his association with Audubon.

But I'd like to see some primary documentation, some collaborating documentation.  What was his wife's maiden name?  On which of his trips to the Rocky Mountains did he meet Audubon?  And in what years?  Webber was 36 when he was killed.  That would make him 30 in 1849, and just 19 or 20 when he rode with Jack Coffee Hays and the Texas Rangers.

I first ran into Webber decades ago when I was researching filibuster Capt. Jack Allen, who raised a couple of companies in Louisville, Kentucky in 1855 for the set purpose of joining William Walker in his conquest of Nicaragua.  One of the local contemporary newspapers carried an editorial description lauding one of Allen's officers.  Charles Winterfield stopped by the newspaper office to chat, a very large man, and "every inch a hero."  An acclaimed author, naturalist, and scholar.

Later I found a roster of the two companies leaving Louisville by steamboat for New Orleans.  Some of the men were convicted murderers let off by the courts under the condition that they join the filibusters.  I was puzzled because there was no man named Winterfield on the list.  In a deposition in a Jefferson County (Ky) Circuit Court case, another man on the expedition referred to Winterfield as "Winterfield or Holden as he is called."

Researching contemporary records, I compiled mini-biographies of the Kentuckians in this expedition by each name, but a couple of decades passed before I realized that Webber and Winterfield were the same man.  Was he also Chamberlain's Judge Holden?

Webber also seems to have been affiliated with Holden's Dollar Magazine, briefly discussed by Pulitzer Prize winning author Perry Miller in The Raven and the Whale: Poe, Melville, and the New York Literary Scene, p. 226, who says that the mysterious publisher Holden went west and died in California, causing the magazine to fold.  Well, when did he go west and how did he die?

I went to Google Answers when the beta model came out, and I presented the mystery of the identity of Holden/Webber at large to researchers and reference librarians as an open question there.  No one has come up with anything that I hadn't already seen, but one researcher insisted that if Webber got married in Boston in 1849, he could not have been on a western expedition in 1849.  Furthermore, the Cyclopedia info says that the Comanches ran off the horses at Corpus Cristi and Webber never made it past Washington--therefore Holden was a fiction, case closed.

Well, it is not as simple as that.  Holden may yet have be found, under another name.

An historical fact, once stumbled upon, has to be walked around and looked at from all sides.  If I had a plane ticket and unlimited time, I would go find that marriage certificate, note the witnesses, the presiding magistrate, and the time of the marriage.  Then I would search all of the contemporary newspapers looking for a notice of the ceremony.  Marriage records are usually reliable, but sometimes the marriage has taken place earlier and recorded much later.

A basic name search through the back issues of the New York Times might be productive.  I don't think that has been done.  Clues might pop up anywhere.

Then again, if I had another plane ticket, I might thoroughly search the filibuster records that are down in the special collections at Tulane University, as well as any extant New Orleans records and newspapers for the time that Jack Allen's filibusters were there.  According to the little biographical information that we have, Webber met his artist/naturalist wife in New York.  Did they travel together before they were married?

Webber himself is a character in his western narrative, Old Hicks: The Indian Guide.  Is his wife the woman on the expedition, Emily L'Enville, with whom he falls in love?  His wife was an artist/naturalist and contributed sketches to his works in the manner of Alfred Jacob Miller and John James Audubon.  She outlived him and was involved in the reprinting of his books.  I've no doubt that there is more information on her than I have yet seen.

In Nicaragua, Charles Wilkins Webber, under whatever name he was going by, took a handful of Kentucky volunteers on a mission behind enemy lines at the Battle of Rivas.  All were said to have been shot down, but we know some who survived.  On page one of the Louisville Daily Courier, September 20, 1859, it was revealed that Ned Parker and a few other survivors had returned to Louisville via different routes.  Parker said that he escaped and made his way alone into Costa Rica and then into Mexico.

I'll post more on the works of C. W. Webber later. 

Friday, April 1, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Book: THE APRIL ROBIN MURDERS by Craig Rice and Ed McBain

After Craig Rice died, Ed McBain finished her novel about actress April Robin and the murders that take place at her haunted house.  To me, the cover on the first edition (and bookclub edition) always seemed right.  A busy screwball novel with Hollywood jokes scattered about, a period piece and a murder mystery completely in the style of Craig Rice's other murder/comedies.

I like the cover art on the above edition too, but some of the covers on the other editions took the screwball out and sold it as a harder work, as sex and murder.

The book pushes the morals of the 1950s, something a bit foreign to readers today, yet Craig's writing is infused with an understated whimsy that is timeless.  It's there if you can see it.  McBain certainly could.

April can be the cruelest month, yet it is the month of rebirth.  Historians conjecture that Jesus Christ was born in the spring, the church authorities deciding much later to move his birthdate to coincide with the solstice holiday already in place and thus reverse birth and rebirth.  It is out of this controversy that April Fool's day was born, although it can also be seen as the month of the Great White Rabbit of Native American lore, the celtic pooka and the modern Easter bunny.  Which reminds me, we might go see the matinee of the movie Hop, which opens today, April Fool's Day.

My list of April-related works is at this link.

You should read Jeffrey Marks' biography of Craig Rice, Who Was That Lady? Craig Rice: The Queen of Screwball Mystery.