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.
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.
A rather posed picture of the Haycox family
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
They became big movies, directed by DeMille, Mann, Tourneur, among others
1941 serialized novel
Some regard it as his best novel
It had its weaknesses
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.