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

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Ernest Haycox

One of the very greatest Western writers

In 1989 Richard Etulain, always worth reading on anything to do with the West (see for example his Telling Western Stories or his life of Calamity Jane), wrote a biography of the great Ernest Haycox in the Western Writers series. Ernest Haycox Jr. also wrote about his father in On a Silver Desert, published in 2003. But it is chiefly reading the original Haycox tales that one really appreciates the mastery of the man.

Ernest James Haycox (1899 – 1950) was a son of Oregon and he always loved the North-West. Some of his best stories are set there. He enlisted in 1915, was stationed on the Mexican border and then was sent to Europe during the First World War. On his return, he studied journalism and began writing.
A young Ernest Haycox
Altogether he wrote two dozen novels and about 300 short stories, some about his early interest, the American Revolution, but mostly Western tales. In the 1920s, 30s and 40s he was a leading contributor to top magazines and papers like Collier’s Weekly and The Saturday Evening Post. Admirers included Ernest Hemingway and Gertude Stein, and Hemingway once wrote, "I read The Saturday Evening Post whenever it has a serial by Ernest Haycox.”
Haycox in his prime
Haycox wrote many stories, including cavalry ones, centered on historical events, but he also created his own invented West. The great Luke Short, another of my all-time admired Western writers, preferred Haycox's non-historical novels: “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 about the fictional River Bend and its sheriff Dan Mitchell - clearly Wild Bill’s predecessor Bear RiverTom Smith in Abilene.

Ernest Haycox really became famous in 1939 because that was the year in which John Ford adapted his short story Stage to Lordsburg into one of the most famous Western movies ever, Stagecoach. In the same year his novel Trouble Shooter was used as the basis for Paramount’s epic railroad picture Union Pacific, starring Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck and directed by Cecil B DeMille.
One of the most famous Westerns ever was based on Haycox's story Stage to Lordsburg
After that, a good number of Haycox stories were used for movie screenplays. Fox’s Sundown Jim (1942) was based on the 1937 novel of the same name; Abilene Town (1946) was a film version of Trail Town with Randolph Scott as the Earpish marshal bringing law 'n' order to the place. Jacques Tourneur, no less, directed the very classy Western Canyon Passage, also in ’46, with Dana Andrews in the lead, a fine story set in Haycox’s beloved North-West.
Fine book, fine film
Randy was back in 1951 in Columbia’s Man in the Saddle, the first of the Westerns he made with André De Toth, and the following year MGM’s Apache War Smoke with Gilbert Roland was based on Haycox’s 1939 short story Stage Station. A wishy-washy filmic version (with a miscast Ray Milland) of the fine 1943 novel Bugles in the Afternoon followed,
The movie version was disappointing
and Universal’s mid-fifties James Stewart/Walter Brennan/John McIntire Western The Far Country, directed by Anthony Mann, was partially based on Alder Gulch. All in all it’s an impressive list.
Alder Gulch became The Far Country
There are many collections of Haycox stories available (in all kinds of format) and I do recommend you to try some. In the coming weeks I’ll be reviewing Stage to Lordsburg, Bugles in the Afternoon and Man in the Saddle. So stay tuned, e-pards, and click on this link again soon!



  1. I must confess to never having read Haycox ... now I will seek him out.

  2. TRAIL TOWN was based on the career of a real-life Kansas lawman, but it was not Wyatt Earp. It was Tom "Bear River" Smith, who was the marshal of Abilene. In the novel, the town was fictionalized into "River Bend," KS (Abilene is located near a bend of the Smoky Hill River). For the film, as the title makes clear, the actual name of the town was restored. The Smith figure was probably fictionalized into "Dan Mitchell" because, in real life, Smith, was killed in the line of duty. Since Mitchell is fictional, Haycox was able to spare him that fate.

    As you note in your own blog entry on Smith, he was more highly regarded by Kansans than Earp, and was a personal hero of President Eisenhower.

    1. That's interesting. Thanks very much. Yes, there is something Bear River Tom-ish about the marshal, even if he does wear a gun!

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  4. Those interested in Ernest Haycox and his writings might be interested to know that my new book, ERNEST HAYCOX AND THE WESTERN, has just been published this week by the University of Oklahoma Press. Dick Etulain, 9 September 2017

    1. Thank you, Professor Etulain, and it's an honor to have a comment from you on my little blog!
      I shall certainly be ordering your new book, because I admire your writing and Haycox's in equal measure.