"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Monte Walsh by Jack Schaefer


One of the great Western books


Jack Schaefer is of course widely known for Shane. Although Schaefer was an Easterner, Ohio born and educated, living in Connecticut and never been West, Shane, Schaefer’s first novel, 1949, was in fact a good Western. But in essence it was, unlike the famous film that was made from it, rather a children’s story. The tale was told from the point of view of Bob, a farm boy with whom readers could identify (the child was younger in the film and his name changed to Joey). The second edition, in 1954, was purged of all the damns and hells and became a set, almost a sacred text in American schools, which it still often is.
 

 

But Shane was far from Schaefer’s best book. That was probably Monte Walsh.

By 1963, when it came out, Schaefer had moved to New Mexico and was a real Westerner. He loved his adopted country and immersed himself in the ways of the West. It shows.

Monte Walsh didn’t start out as a novel. The friends Monte Walsh and Chet Rollins first appeared in a 1954 short story, In Harmony. Schaefer says,

In March of 1958, living now in New Mexico and pondering a piece on the trail-driving days, I remembered those two and their fellow cowhands of that previous piece.

The result was a new story, Trail Herd and, later the same year, Antelope Junction.

Up to this point, with three Monte-Chet-plus pieces, these spread out in time and written in between many other stories and other writings, I had merely turned out three separate individual tales that appealed to me.

Admirers of the characters urged Schaefer to write more, and various new short stories featuring Monte and Chet appeared in the early 1960s. Now Schaefer began to fashion the tales into a continuous narrative. He added an introductory piece and eighteen interludes – anecdotes told by people who knew Monte. Finally, he wrote an ending, entitled, simply, An Ending. In 1963 the whole was published as a novel, Monte Walsh.

Monte is born in 1856 and Chapter 1, A Beginning, tells of his youth. There are certain echoes of Tom Horn’s youth as told in his autobiography and in the Will Henry novel I, Tom Horn. As a fifteen-year-old boy, Monte escapes a step-father who beats him, and leaves the farm. Wandering westwards, he finally gets taken on as a young cowhand by trail boss Hat Henderson.

Chapter 2 covers the years 1872 – 77 and has Monte taking part in drive after drive, covering the West, going to all the cow towns, growing in size and assurance and developing his innate ability with horses. The following chapter, Two of a Kind, introduces Monte to Chet, his lifelong partner, and they become inseparable, Chet as good with a rope as Monte is with a horse. Together, they arrive at what is to be their home, the Slash Y, near the little but growing town of Harmony, 140 miles south-west of Las Vegas, NMT. This outfit is run by Cal Brennan, one of the old school, though he is only the manager: Eastern corporate interests have bought the spread and are interested only in returns on investment. The old pioneer days are already over.

The tale is peppered with anecdotes and practical jokes as Monte especially, though usually backed up by Chet, gets into one scrape after another. These often involve saloon brawls, breakages, jail cells and fines, though are never nasty or malicious. Some of the escapades are genuinely funny. My favorite is when Monte attends a theater performance in Cheyenne. Monte never has a dime to his name; it all goes on booze and fines. Chet somehow manages to save and usually has a dollar available, and always a little sack of tobacco. Monte only provides the cigarette papers and matches.

Schaefer says that he based Monte on a real person:

…among our nearest New Mexican neighbors was a young man named Archie West who to my mind was (and still is) in many respects, certainly in appearance and temperament and cattle-country capability and simple human decency, precisely my Monte Walsh.

Monte Walsh is certainly one of the great creations of Western lore. He shines out from the pages as the quintessential cowboy, tough, decent, feckless, brave, loyal, utterly capable - and doomed.

For of course Monte Walsh’s way of life is bound for extinction. Not for nothing does my edition of Monte Walsh have as cover illustration a cowboy riding into the sunset.

 
 
 
Schaefer talks about men like Monte

who shared that trade, that way of life, in a time and a place, a short time but a big place, a wisp of eternity across a third of a continent.

The West of our imagination, of the movies and the dime novels and the fond memory, if it existed at all, was a fleeting moment in American history, just a heartbeat of time between the end of the Civil War and the end of the century, in a few territories, then states. So many Westerns, paper and celluloid, emphasize the decline, the passing of the old ways, the end of days. And often the automobile symbolizes that unwanted new world. The car horn sounded the death knell of the horse. How often was the auto the symbol of the end if the West! Think of The Shootist, when JB Books’s nemesis, Richard Boone, arrives for the fatal fight in a horseless carriage. An automobile does for Cable Hogue. As the dinosaur gunmen of The Wild Bunch go to their doom, the new men ride around in an open touring car. The equally antique Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea are rudely pushed aside by such a contraption in Ride the High Country. But in Monte Walsh the smug mining engineer who boasts of his shiny new automobile and declares it has relegated the horse to history has to be towed out of the axle-deep mud by Monte on his leggy dun. And Monte’s dying words are used stoutly to maintain that what he and his horse did to rescue the injured miners, “no autymobile could of done it.”

Despite the early chapters of life on the trail and the larks of Monte’s youth, Monte Walsh is essentially a sad book about the end of the West. Chet manages to adapt and survive in the new world. Monte doesn’t. But Chet is the one left with regret.
 

 Two Montes, Lee Marvin and Tom Selleck
 

Two films were made of the book, one in 1970 with Lee Marvin as Monte and one in 2003 with Tom Selleck in the title role. Given the episodic nature of the book, I am actually surprised that no series was made of it. It would have been ideally suited to a weekly episode. Both films were enjoyable but neither was as good as the book. Monte Walsh is Schaefer’s masterpiece and one of the great reads of the West.

 

4 comments:

  1. Many thanks for this terrific assessment of Monte Walsh. I, too, think it infinitely superior to Shane. I especially like "The West of our imagination, of the movies and the dime novels and the fond memory, if it existed at all, was a fleeting moment in American history, just a heartbeat of time between the end of the Civil War and the end of the century, in a few territories, then states." Did it really exist in any semblance of what we think when we imagine the West? Who knows.

    My favorite chapter of the book is the obligatory Christmas scene, where Monte and his pards help some cold and hungry children. The kids look at the cowboys as heroes and giants … something kids have been doing ever since the days of Buffalo Bill. Maybe one day your could write about the whole of idea of the cowboy as idol of the young? It would seem a very fecund topic.

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  2. That Christmas scene is indeed very well done. Just occasionally, Schaefer teeters on the brink of sentimentality and in such a scene - children at Christmas - there was a grave risk of sugariness, but the book as a whole and Monte as a character are so hard-boiled that Schaefer escapes that. The deaths of the Monte's two horses are in the same league, but very well handled and such scènes are not saccharine but genuinely moving.
    The cowboy as idol of the young: yes, and perhaps that's why the idea works of the cowboy as idol 'tout court'. When we enjoy a Western novel or movie maybe we are living in our own pasts as well as the American past.
    Next post, the first Monte Walsh movie.
    Best wishes,
    Jeff

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  3. Mirna Cicioni1/7/16, 6:26 AM

    Thank you for your blog, I will return to it often.
    I am an Italian-born baby boomer who lives in Melbourne. Love Monte Walsh almost unreservedly. My one reservation is its treatment of women: either they are whores (Hattie) or thoughtless, stuck-up scolds (Mary Rollins).
    Love the total absence of schmaltz, exemplified mostly by Cal Brennan. Love the recurring Leitmotive ("neat and thorough" referred to Dobe Chavez, "amiable, conversational" referred to Chet, all the leggy duns throughout Monte's life, etc.)
    Totally agree that both films were unfaithful to the book. Chet shot to death by a store-robbing punk??? What an unfit end.
    And I think that the real love story (albeit platonic) is the one between Monte and Chet. Thirty years together, through fun times and dramatic times, each accepting each other for what he is, and Chet is the person whom Monte thinks of before drawing his last breath.

    Thanks again. Off to look for my other Western loves in your blog.

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    Replies
    1. Ciao, Mirna.
      Thanks for your comment. I think your point about how women are treated in Westerns is well made, and of course again and again the Hollywood West showed them either as saloon gals or schoolma'ams (i.e. prostitutes or prim dames). Recently, however, things have changed for the better, I believe, and if you look at modern Westerns like The Missing or The Homesman you will see a very different approach: women were the mainstay of the West, absolutely key, and new Westerns (not only movies) are beginning to show that.
      Happy trails,
      Jeff

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