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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Gone to Texas and The Vengeance Trail of Josey Wales by Forrest Carter

Josey Wales

An early-1970s privately printed novel under the title The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales was republished in 1975 by the Delacorte Press as Gone to Texas by Forrest Carter. It was taken up by Clint Eastwood and made into the Western movie The Outlaw Josey Wales in 1976.

The book was well reviewed by The New York Times among others and told the story of a fictional Missouri Civil War guerrilla who refused to surrender, became a bank robber and made a perilous journey into southern Texas to escape capture.

A sequel quickly followed, The Vengeance Trail of Josey Wales, published in 1976, also by Delacorte. This was filmed too, as The Return of Josey Wales, starring and directed by Michael Parks, in 1986, but it seems to have been a low-budget affair and was not widely released. I have never seen it, though I believe it exists on VHS.

The two books together were published in one volume as Josey Wales: Two Westerns by Forrest Carter by the University of New Mexico Press in 1989. This is the edition I read.

The combined edition
It contains an ‘afterword’ very sympathetic to the author by Lawrence Clayton of the Baptist-affiliated Hardin-Simmons University, Abilene, Texas, which also refers to Carter’s Cherokee childhood as described in his memoir The Education of Little Tree, a book which became very popular in schools and was recommended by Oprah Winfrey. So I read the books believing that the author was a Cherokee or part-Cherokee writer.

However, in 1976 The New York Times revealed Forrest Carter to be Asa Earl Carter (1925 – 1979), a Ku Klux Klan leader, rabid segregationist and speech writer for George Wallace. He had apparently largely contributed to the famous “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever” speech. He seemed to argue that rock and roll was a NAACP plot to weaken white youth. His rhetoric was also anti-Semitic.  He ran for Police Commissioner against Bull Connor, whom he judged too soft, and his KKK group attacked Nat King Cole at a 1956 concert. Carter ran against George Wallace for Governor of Alabama in 1970, asserting that Wallace was too liberal. He was not Cherokee but raised by his parents Ralph and Hermione Carter in Oxford, Alabama. The Education of Little Tree was moved to the fiction section. Carter, trying to distance himself from his past, took the first name Forrest, we assume in honor of the Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest (for the novels are very pro-Confederate) in order to mask his identity.
Asa Earl Carter
That all came as a bit of a shock to me and influenced my re-reading of the books. Perhaps it should not have done; perhaps a reader should simply judge works on their literary merit or lack of it. But however that may be, it is inevitable that one should see the stories in a new light.

Still, as source novel for one of Eastwood’s finest Westerns, Gone to Texas remains an interesting read. Furthermore, there seem to be no segregationist or anti-black or anti-Semitic sentiments expressed in it. If anything, it is an anarchist text. I said in my review of the movie:

Josey Wales is in some ways, also, an anarchist Western: one of the principal themes is the corruption and inefficacity of government and the fight against formal regulation by an individual and a small community. The Chief tells of government betrayal of the Indians. Government forces slaughter Josey’s family and treacherously cut down his army comrades. The community founded by the outcasts in Texas is self-governing (actually, it’s governed by Josey) and self-defending. Mikhail Bakunin died exactly a hundred years too early: he would have enjoyed The Outlaw Josey Wales.

On page 58 of Gone to Texas Carter says that Josey’s father and mountain folk in general preferred to live

…free, unfettered by law and the irritating hypocrisy of organized society.

The Comanche leader Ten Bears, who is very sympathetically described and is the dedicatee of Gone to Texas, says at one point (p 165):

Like religious leaders everywhere, they [the Comanche medicine men] sought power and wealth, and so had become double-tongues, like the politicians.

But the novel seems to favor the peaceful co-existence and intermingling of peoples (Indian and white, anyway) and there is no hint of KKK about it. The story ends with Anglo, Mexican American and American Indian people living together in harmony in the ‘commune’ and sharing everything.

Make of that what you will.
Mikhaïl Bakunin. Would have enjoyed Josey Wales.
The book is quite lurid and smacks now and then of a dime novel. There’s a lot of this kind of thing (p 99):

The big .44 belched as it cleared leather in the fluid motion of rolled lightning.

That’s OK if you like your westerns on the pulpy side. It is not a sophisticated or literary read. Characters tend to be one-dimensional and little subtlety is allowed in. Many of the ‘good bits’ of the movie were added, as ‘business’ for the actors, and are not in the book.

Although Wales himself is invented, he is very much in keeping with some of the real guerrilla fighters, many of whom delayed their surrender, some of whom went to Mexico while some turned to outlawry and brigandage. Details ring true, such as the firearms.

The Cherokee Lone Watie (played by Chief Dan George in the movie) is presented in the book as the cousin of Stand Watie. Many American Indians allied with the South in the war, on the grounds, perhaps, that they too had and valued since ancient times the institution of captive slavery (though Carter does not mention slavery at all) and they too had had their independence, even their very territory, taken away by the government in Washington. The Cherokee Stand Watie became the only Indian general in the war, commanding the Indian cavalry of the CSA in the Trans-Mississippi and was the final Confederate general in the field to surrender at war's end.
General Stand Watie, CSA
Other characters in the novel were real people. We have already mentioned Ten Bears. Padda-Wah-Ser-Man-Oh or Paruasemana (c 1790 - 1872), known to most of us as Ten Bears, became leader of the Yamparika northern Comanches, in the Texas Panhandle area, about 1860. He visited Washington in 1863 but was unable to get any significant concessions from the government. In November 1864 he fought Kit Carson's force at the first battle of Adobe Walls. Ten Bears and his sons signed the Treaty of the Little Arkansas River in Kansas. The treaty created a reservation for the Comanches encompassing the entire Panhandle of Texas. It was of course not respected. In 1867 (when the book has him marauding and slaughtering whites and Mexicans) Ten Bears was one of those who signed the Medicine Lodge Treaty and agreed to go to the smaller reservation in the so-called Indian Territory, modern-day Oklahoma.
Will Sampson as Ten Bears in the movie
In December 1868 Ten Bears was on the Washita when Custer attacked the village of Black Kettle (so vividly described in Thomas Berger's Little Big Man). Yamparika warriors destroyed the isolated force of Major Elliot there. In 1872 Ten Bears again visited Washington, again to no avail, and he died soon after and was buried at Fort Sill.
Ten Bears, Paruasemana (c 1790 - 1872)

The most attractive aspect of the tale of Josey Wales (for a Western lover) is the story of a brave rider sympathetic to Indians who evades pursuit because of his superior skills – and finally gets the girl. Yes, this aspect of the book is predictable and fairly clichéd but it does have its appeal.

Gone to Texas (which was the note, often abbreviated to GTT, which 1820s and 1830s law-breakers or defaulting debtors left on the doorposts of their Missouri and Tennessee cabins before doing a moonlight flit to then-Mexican Texas) makes an interesting read – if you can put aside its author’s background. Certainly it's worth skimming if you are a fan of the movie. But it’s no great Western novel or must-read, by a long chalk.

Its successor, The Vengeance Trail of Josey Wales, was a much weaker book. It is most definitely a sequel, trying to cash in on the success of the first volume, and has even less literary quality. The plot is thinner, a straight Western vengeance tale as The Lost Lady saloon in Santo Rio (a town right on the Rio Grande which resembles Lonesome Dove) is assaulted by brutal Rurales who rape Rose and another prostitute, murder Kelly the barman and shoot and kidnap the gambler Ten Spot. Josey Wales sets out on a vendetta into Mexico to rescue Ten Spot if possible but mainly to destroy the evil Captain Jesus Escobedo and his sixty Rurales.

Lone Watie does not go with him so there is none of the interplay between him and Wales. Instead, we have the vaquero Chato and a one-armed Indian peon, Pablo, to back Josey. Parallels are drawn between Josey’s past as a homesteader burnt out by Redlegs and Pablo as peon farmer. Both are said (p 248) to be of

Clannish people. Outside governments erected by people of kindlier land, of wealth, of power, made no allowance for the scrabbler.

From a stylistic point of view the second book suffers very much from an irritating tendency of the characters to speak cod Spanish to each other. Mexicans speak English to each other even when alone but pepper it with Spanish words. It sounds like the cheapest B-Western. It’s not even convincing in the sense that they use sophisticated English words which would require a deep vocabulary while the Spanish words they interlard the discourse with replace easy English ones. I entertain the hope that you comprendes the significance of this. Or crude translation is deliberately used to make it sound Spanish.

[Escobar] knew she was making the pretense.

The prose and content are also more melodramatic.

Pablo prepared himself for death. By the Santos! Were they going to ride into the town, down the main street? Sixty savage Rurales!

There’s only so much of this kind of writing that one can take.

Josey’s own language has become more ‘mountain’ and is full of sich and fust and ye, and so on. In the same way that you wince a bit when reading Owen Wister and Zane Grey, you cringe at all this hokey-ness. Dropping in the occasional Missouri dialect word would have been far more effective.
Not the greatest American writer, I fear
Even Carter’s English usage is a bit dodgy. At one point they slaughter “an oxen” and at another he describes a priest as esthetic when he means ascetic. He needed a better editor.

I thought the rape scenes (Escobar also rapes a young Apache girl) were salacious and lurid. You almost got the impression that Carter was enjoying writing them too much.

One basic weakness of the first volume, the invincibility of Josey, is worse in the sequel. He is omnipotent and all-knowing. There is never the slightest chance that he might lose a fight and this removes suspense. The Clint Eastwood movie got away with it. Eastwood said, “I’d been brought up by the Italian approach to the Western which is much more high opera than some of ours and there was no real attempt to make it truly realistic.” At least in the movie Josey rides off at the end, dripping blood, Shane-like, perhaps to death. In both books he comes safely back to the farm as we always knew he would.
Clint as Josey
Ten Bears and the Comanche do not appear in Vol. 2. Instead, the Indians are Apache (and the book is dedicated to them). Carter wrote a later book about Geronimo, Watch for Me on the Mountain, in 1978, republished in 1980 as Cry Geronimo!, and was clearly a big fan of Goyaałé. He plays a key role in The Vengeance Trail of Josey Wales, fighting on Josey’s side against Escobedo, naturally. Vengeance contains more what you might call rants than Gone to Texas, and one of them is a several-page sermon on the injustices done to the Apache by the US Government. This is presumably supposed to voice the thoughts of Geronimo, though that is not made clear. Instead, it comes across as the high-pitched complaint of the writer.
Goyaałé or Geronimo (1829 - 1909)

Really, even dedicated Josey Wales fans do not need to read The Vengeance Trail of Josey Wales. It is a much poorer book than its predecessor.


  1. You might be interested in my piece on Carter at http://frontierpartisans.com/665/the-strange-and-twisted-saga-of-forrest-carter/.

    He may not have been a great writer, but he was a good storyteller. Hell, he made up his own life! A strange and sad saga.

    Jim Cornelius

    1. Thanks for this comment.
      I found your blog interesting, and there is obviously quite a paper-trail (or e-trail anyway) of material about Asa Carter, of which I was unaware.
      I think you are right that the Josey Wales saga (and actually, Westerns in general) appeal to the teen in all of us.
      You quote Allen Barra as saying:
      ”white American men who would bristle at the suggestion that they had African or Asian blood are often quick to claim Indian ancestry so long as the connection is on the mother’s side (as Carter said his was) … many American males see a spiritual kinship between their ancestors, the savage Celts and Anglo-Saxons, and the American Indian, and to be born with Indian blood somehow better justifies being born with a chip on one’s shoulder than being born white.”
      That seems plausible.
      The fact remains that in the books, the American Indian, Anglo and Mexican American members of the ‘commune’ all live in harmony on the farm on an equal footing (except Josey, who is clearly the boss) in what some racist supremacists would think of as disgraceful co-mingling. No blacks or Jews, of course…
      I also take your point that a good writer and good story-teller are sometimes different things.
      Best wishes,

  2. Here is an incredible confession for a western buff (maven, maniac!) -- I have always loathed Josey Wales. I gleefully acknowledge all the good things about it, but I simply cannot watch it. Too sweaty, too dirty, too .... ugly. It offends my aesthetics in some profound way.

  3. I was just wondering if you had thought about reviewing the series Rawhide. Along with Gunsmoke, it always seemed to me to be one of the two most realistic TV western series. It was the first time most of us noticed Clint Eastwood, but I also thought Eric Fleming did a good job as solid trail boss. I was in the service and overseas by the time the series ended, but was shocked and saddened some years later to learn of Flemings death. Thanks for what you do. It's very good work.

    1. Hi there
      I probably would like to do both Rawhide and Gunsmoke, and indeed some other 'big' TV Westerns, Have Gun - Will Travel, Bonanza, and so on. The problem is there are so many seasons! It will be hard labor in some ways. I guess I could do Season 1 of each or something.
      I've done some shorter TV series, such as Cimarron Strip, The Texan, and others (see WESTERN MOVIES AND TV SHOWS REVIEWED at the top of the sidebar on the right).

    2. True. I had just read your review of The Texan series. You don't need some lazy doofus prescribing assingments. I'm amazed at all you do.