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

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Ernest Haycox


Ernest Haycox: "The significant and talented western author whose presence continues to exert power on the page and the screen" (Susan Kollin)


On this blog we’ve looked at the work of various Western writers – the likes of Zane Grey or Max Brand, for example. And back in 2015 I also wrote about Ernest Haycox, one of the very greatest writers of the Western short story. But I’ve just read Ernest Haycox and the Western (University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2017) by Richard W Etulain. Professor Etulain is always worth reading on anything to do with the West (see for example his excellent Telling Western Stories, which I reviewed back in 2013, or his life of Calamity Jane). His study of Haycox is a fine book and in the light of reading it I’d like to revise my earlier thoughts somewhat.

It is clear that for most of his life Ernest Haycox (pictured left), born 1899, died 1950, regarded writing as a matter of livelihood and earnings. He was not trying to write the great American novel but measured success in terms of stories sold to magazines, first the pulps, then the slicks. Probably his childhood insecurity, social and financial, had something to do with that. And he did succeed on those terms too, making a very decent living, supporting his family and building a fine new house. Later in his career he felt secure enough to branch out a little (his cautious temperament made it only a little) and if he did not write a literary masterpiece and is not regarded as one of the truly great American writers, he did at least give us a fine novel, a first-class book, The Earthbreakers (published posthumously in 1952), about settlers in Oregon. In any case, all his stories, long or short, were crafted, professional efforts and if they were not all great (especially some of the earlier ones for the pulps) they are all still today very readable - although I have yet to find a really good collection in book form of his short stories.

Etulain gives us a very entertaining prologue on the Western story, The Rise of the Western, then takes us back to Haycox’s birth and youth. Haycox rarely spoke of his early years, which were troubled, but he was of course a son of Oregon, born in Portland in 1899. His father was often absent, they moved house a lot (and Ernest therefore changed schools often) and when Ernest was still young his parents separated. After a stint in the army, first on the Mexican border and then in Europe, Ernest attended the University of Oregon, from which he graduated in 1923.

Fine book
 
He began to write in his last year at high school, and did much more at college, where a professor, WFG Thacher, became a mentor – and would be a lifelong one.

Prof. Thacher

Ernest was a leading light in college journals and contributed often. It is clear that writing did not come easily to Haycox: he had to work at it, and always believed that untiring effort was a requisite for success.

Young Ernest
 
Soldier
 
The first published story beyond college papers appeared in June 1921 in Overland Monthly. The Corporal’s Story was based on his experiences on the Mexican border. Other magazines followed but he also accumulated large numbers of rejection slips. In 1923 Haycox signed on as a reporter at The Portland Oregonian for thirty dollars a week, to earn his bread and butter.  From 1924 he began what Etulain calls his “apprenticeship in the pulps.”  He made a career-shaping decision to specialize in the Western magazine short story, then enormously popular (in the days before original paperbacks, Western movies and TV shows killed them off). His early stories dealt with Oregon and the North-West, mainly in the twentieth century, but gradually he wrote more of what we would call classic Western stories. His submissions to posher outlets such as Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post being rejected, he submitted stories to the likes of Adventure, West and Western Story. Between March 1924 and December 1930 Haycox published 93 short stories and serialized five novels or novellas. Etulain tells us these stories were pretty basic white-hat vs. black-hat efforts in which “he tells rather than suggests the meanings”.

Pulps
 
In 1925, Haycox married Jill Chord, and they would have two children (one of whom, Ernest Jr., would later write a biography of his father). Haycox now had to make a living to support a family, and he wrote solidly for the pulps. No evidence exists that Haycox was even reading contemporaries such as F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway or John Dos Passos, let alone trying to write like them. He was content to populate his stories with characters who did not burden the reader with verbal or interior reflections. However, there was a reverse process: later Hemingway would write, "I read The Saturday Evening Post whenever it has a serial by Ernest Haycox.”

A rather posed picture of the Haycox family
 
Haycox’s first novel, Free Grass, was serialized in West magazine at the end of 1928 and beginning of ’29. It had some promise but Haycox himself knew that “the thin part of the book is the plot.” His second novel, Chaffee of Roaring Horse (later in ’29) was weaker. It had “shallow, unimaginative characters”. Whispering Range followed in 1931. Haycox was gradually, slowly learning his craft. “He was on the precarious rim of acceptance.”

Between 1929 and 1934 his earnings ranged from $10,000 to $12,000 a year. He was finally able to buy a house and a Studebaker roadster (curiously for a short man, as he grew wealthier he surrounded himself with giant dogs, huge cars, the biggest yacht on the Williamette River and a vast house). A turning point came in 1930 when Collier’s finally accepted a story.

Stage to Lordsburg, in Collier's, became…
 
...John Ford's movie Stagecoach
 
Haycox believed there were three stages to his writing career; he was quite deliberate about it. First, he would make a decent living writing stories for the pulps. Then he would write stories and serialized novels for the glossier magazines like Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post, which paid more, were slightly more up-market and would enhance his reputation. Lastly, and only when he was secure and established, he would turn to writing ‘literature’. It was really, though, as a writer of Westerns for the slicks that Haycox became best known. He had honed his craft and improved his writing. He started to introduce more characterization and became well known for what Etulain calls his ‘Hamlet heroes’, central characters who were self-questioning and reflective, not simply white-hat invincible superheroes.

Slicks
 
Haycox even had a kind of Hollywood career, when one of his Collier’s stories, Stage to Lordsburg (1937), reviewed separately (click the link), was taken up by John Ford and made into the movie Stagecoach, and then several other stories became films, such as Paramount’s big A-picture Union Pacific (based on Trouble Shooter), the excellent Jacques Tourneur-directed Canyon Passage, Universal’s The Far Country directed by Anthony Mann and starring James Stewart (from the book Alder Gulch), and more (eleven in all, that I know of). One serialized novel, Bugles in the Afternoon (click the link for a review of that) in 1943, which was his debut in The Saturday Evening Post, was very good (some think it his finest novel) though the movie made of it, Warners’ Bugles in the Afternoon of 1952 (again, click) was disappointing.


They became big movies, directed by DeMille, Mann, Tourneur, among others
 
His reputation grew. The great Luke Short, another of my all-time admired Western writers, said, “My favorite Haycox yarns don’t lean on a known time or place. … In these stories, I suspect Haycox made his own geography, named his own towns and mountains and rivers; he peopled them with tough abrasive characters whose only law was their self will.” Short did that himself, of course. Some of the Haycox stories were fictional but thinly disguised historical accounts, such as Trail Town (1941) about the fictional River Bend and its sheriff Dan Mitchell - clearly Wild Bill’s predecessor Bear  River Tom Smith in Abilene.

1941 serialized novel
 
As the 1940s dawned, Haycox felt ready to spread his wings, a little anyway, and began working on what Etulain calls “the historical Western”. His Bugles in the Afternoon (1944) was a Custer novel (or peripherally about Custer) which proved to be his all-time best seller, and Etulain says, “Only The Earthbreakers (1952), Haycox’s last written novel, ranks unquestionably above Bugles in the Afternoon in literary merit.” Bugles is indeed a superior historical Western.

Some regard it as his best novel
 
Now Haycox wanted to go further. He wanted to move away from the ‘Western’, and the strict guidelines of the magazines that published them, and write a ‘proper’ historical novel. He wanted, ambitiously, to create an American Les Misérables or Lorna Doone. But the closing years of Haycox’s career were in many ways his least productive. Canyon Passage, his last serial in The Saturday Evening Post, has its limitations as a book. “The excessive pell-mell action and multiplicity of characters … limit its strengths.” (Etulain). And the writer adds, “Lacking an entirely believable hero, heroine, or villain, the novel fails.” Actually, here was a case where the film version was an improvement on the book because the movie was obliged to slim down and streamline, cutting out the verbiage and padding, and beefing up the central characters (played by Dana Andrews, Brian Donlevy, and Ward Bond as the villain). Haycox was fully aware of the weaknesses of the novel and was happy to help in the making of the movie.

It had its weaknesses
 
Long Storm (1946), Head of the Mountain and The Adventurers (both the last two published posthumously) were all attempts at the historical novel set in the West (rather than Westerns) but they were of limited merit and not especially successful. His characters were “too talky” and “there were too many think passages”. 1947 and ’48 were difficult years for Haycox. But he embarked on what was to be the first volume of a great trilogy set in the North-West, The Earthbreakers. It was to become his last and finest novel. Before he was able to make final revisions of it, though, he was diagnosed with abdominal cancer. Surgery was not successful and he died, aged only 51, in October 1950.

Late novels
 
Etulain says, “Throughout his lifetime, Haycox frequently promised more literarily than he delivered as a writer.” This is perhaps why he is not always regarded as one of the leading Western story-tellers. But “his fiction moved gradually but steadily upward in literary merit.” Another Western writer, DB Newton, perceptively wrote that Haycox “very nearly succeeded, single-handed, in doing for the standard Western what Hammett and Chandler did for the private eye detective story – made it respectable.”

Etulain’s book is, frankly, a model of how to write a literary biography. It is lucid, perceptive, interesting and, above all perhaps, succinct. I thoroughly recommend it.

But let us leave the last word on Haycox to the great American writer Bernard DeVoto, whom Professor Etulain quotes at the head of his Epilogue, who wrote in 1954:


Ernest Haycox, who was the old pro of horse opera and came closer than anyone to making good novels of it, left his mark – I should say brand – on the style as well as the content.

 [Recent writers of the West] are all trying to be Haycox, and to go beyond him, though no one as good at the job as he has yet arrived.

 

9 comments:

  1. I have quite a number of western novels boxed up in my attic. One of the first westerns I ever read was Ernest Haycox's "STARLIGHT RIDER". I also have "WHISPERING RANGE", I believe, but have still not yet read it.
    "STARLIGHT RIDER" put Haycox's name up in lights for me from then on. Must be 60 years since I first read it.

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    1. You ought to dig them out!
      I've read quite a few short stories and Bugles in the Afternoon. I think my next will be The Earthbreakers.
      Jeff

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  2. Great post. But .... what really strikes me is this: looking at those magazines covers and some of the interior illustrations, I realize how debased and ugly our pop culture has become.

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    1. I always felt that reading Luke Short, whose quite serious books were disfigured by the lurid paperback covers. At the same time, though, I do rather like those sensational book covers and movie posters of the 50s. They have a pulp-fiction charm.

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  3. Am I correct in thinking Haycox's 1941 serialized "TRAIL TOWN" was filmed in 1946 as "ABILENE TOWN", a personal favourite Randolph Scott film?

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    1. Indeed, with a superb Edgar Buchanan as Sheriff Trimble.
      Jeff

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  4. Jeff, maybe I am wrong !? But I do not find your comments on Stage Station which has been adapted twice - Apache Trail by Richard Thorpe with Lloyd Nolan, then a pale photocopy - but an important final twist if I remember well - Apache War Smoke shot 10 years after whose major asset is a freewheeling Gilbert Roland. JM

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    1. That's right, I haven't reviewed those yet.
      Jeff

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  5. Thank you for your very positive comments on my book ERNEST HAYCOX AND THE WESTERN. Much appreciated. Dick Etulain

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