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Impressions of the West: Willa Cather

By Jim Poulton

Willa Cather. Credit: Entertainment Realm

A Lost Lady is a novel with many themes, from the aggression at the root of relationships between men and women, to the value of illusions, to the rhythms of life that dictate that as some of us decline and weaken, others will grow strong and virile, and will take the places of the weak and departed. Set on the Western Plains, the book describes the lives of Captain and Mrs. Forrester. Captain Forrester is a retired railroad man who has made enough money to retire comfortably in Sweet Water, an area he first saw when he was young and vowed to return to because of its pristine beauty. His wife, 25 years his junior, is a beautiful and aristocratic woman who is bored, confused and disloyal to her husband. After his death, she leaves the Sweet Water estate in the hands of an exploitative and greedy man named Ivy Peters.

Credit: ©

As in the Great Gatsby, to which A Lost Lady has been compared, events occurring on a human scale can also be interpreted as symbols of broad sweeps of history. The deterioration and death of Mr. Forrester and the decline of his estate can also be read as a tale of the transition of the West itself - from an age of romance and adventure and the pioneering spirit, to the age of selfishness and blindness to the beauty and meaning embedded in the landscape.

Here is Captain Forrester describing, to his dinner party guests, how he first discovered Sweet Water, and his philosophy of life and of the West:

[T]he Captain began his narrative: a concise account of how he came West a young boy, after serving in the Civil War, and took a job as driver for a freighting company that carried supplies across the plains from Nebraska City to Cherry Creek, as Denver was then called. The freighters, after embarking in that sea of grass six hundred miles in width, lost all count of the days of the week and the month. One day was like another, and all were glorious; good hunting, plenty of antelope and buffalo, boundless sunny sky, boundless plains of waving grass, long fresh-water lagoons yellow with lagoon flowers, where the bison in their periodic migrations stopped to drink and bathe and wallow.

George Catlin, Buffalo Bulls Fighting in Running Season – Upper Missouri, 1834-1839. Credit:

"An ideal life for a young man," the Captain pronounced. Once, when he was driven out of the trail by a wash-out, he rode south on his horse to explore, and found an Indian encampment near the Sweet Water, on this very hill where his house now stood. He was, he said, "greatly taken with the location," and made up his mind that he would one day have a house there. He cut down a young willow tree and drove the stake into the ground to mark the spot where he wished to build. He went away and did not come back for many years; he was helping to lay the first railroad across the plains.

… "When things looked most discouraging," he went on, "I came back here once and bought the place from the railroad company. They took my note. I found my willow stake,--it had rooted and grown into a tree,--and I planted three more to mark the corners of my house. Twelve years later Mrs. Forrester came here with me, shortly after our marriage, and we built our house."

Mrs. Forrester nodded at him from her end of the table. "And now, tell us your philosophy of life,--this is where it comes in," she laughed teasingly.

… "Well, then, my philosophy is that what you think of and plan for day by day, in spite of yourself, so to speak--you will get. You will get it more or less. … [Y]ou will accomplish what you dream of most."

"And why? That`s the interesting part of it," his wife prompted him.

"Because," he roused himself from his abstraction and looked about at the company, "because a thing that is dreamed of in the way I mean, is already an accomplished fact. All our great West has been developed from such dreams; the homesteader`s and the prospector`s and the contractor`s. We dreamed the railroads across the mountains, just as I dreamed my place on the Sweet Water. All these things will be everyday facts to the coming generation, but to us--" Captain Forrester ended with a sort of grunt. Something forbidding had come into his voice, the lonely, defiant note that is so often heard in the voices of old Indians. - A Lost Lady, Part One, Chapter Four, 1923

Across the Continent, Currier & Ives. Credit:



Impressions of the West: Walter Van Tilburg Clark

Walter Van Tilburg Clark. Credit:

One of the greatest novels of all time about the American West, The Ox-Bow Incident was first published in 1940. It’s the story of two riders in the Old West, Art and Gil, who end up in the town of Bridger’s Wells. The people of the town are tense because of recent cattle rustling, and when they hear a rumor that a neighbor has been murdered and his cattle rustled, they form a lynch-mob to track down the culprits. They find three strangers and accuse them of the crime. Without a trial, the mob votes to hang the three. When they return to town, they find that their neighbor wasn’t murdered after all. The novel ends with Art and Gil agreeing to carry a letter one of the victims wrote to his wife on the night before he was hanged. Gil says, ‘I’ll be glad to get out of here.’ Art says, ‘Yeh.’

Gil (Henry Fonda) and Art (Harry Morgan) reflect on the night's events at the Ox-Bow (from The Ox-Bow Incident, 1943). Credit:

The story is told from Art’s perspective. Here is his description of the Ox-Bow valley, where the hanging was to take place:

The Ox-Bow was a little valley up in the heart of the range. Gil and I had stayed there a couple of days once, on the loose. It was maybe two or three miles long and half or three quarters of a mile wide. The peaks were stacked up on all sides of it, showing snow most of the summer. The creek in the middle of it wound back on itself like a snake trying to get started on loose sand, and that shape had named the valley. There was sloping meadow on both sides of the creek, and in the late spring millions of purple and gold violets grew three, violets with blossoms as big as the ball of a man’s thumb. Beyond the meadow, on each side, there was time to the tops of the hills. It was a lovely, chill, pine-smelling valley, as lonely as you could want. Scarcely anybody came there unless there was a dry season. Just once in a while, if you passed in the late summer, you’d see a sheepherder small out in the middle, with his burrow and dogs and flock. The rest of the time the place belonged to squirrels, chipmunks and mountain jays. They would all be lively in the edge of the wood, scolding and flirting. – The Ox-Bow Incident, p. 113

The Ox-Bow Incident was made into a movie in 1943, starring Henry Fonda, Harry Morgan, Dana Andrews and Anthony Quinn. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture in that year.

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'The Proper Function of Man is to Live'

By Jim Poulton

"I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time." - Jack London, speaking to a reporter, shortly before his death in 1916

Jack London on his ranch in Sonoma County in 1914. Credit: Wikipedia

The chronicler of the Yukon, the defender of the cultures of the South Seas and the keen observor of the American West, Jack London died on this day in 1916 of renal failure. Born in 1876, he was a mere 40 years old when he died. But he packed into those 40 years a life many couldn’t live in 100. The son of an unmarried mother (it’s rumored his father was a pioneer in American astrology, William Chaney, and that his mother attempted suicide when Chaney refused to marry her), London took his name from a man she married in his early childhood, John London.

In his adolescence, London worked a variety of hard labor jobs, including going on patrol to capture poachers, working in a cannery, pirating oysters in San Francisco bay, and sailing the Pacific on a sealing ship. In 1894, he became a hobo, and was jailed for 30 days in New York for vagrancy.

Jack London, showing how he traveled as a tramp. From his illustrated book, The Road. Credit: Library of Congress

He spent the winter of 1897 in the Yukon, trying to find his fortune in the Klondike Gold Rush (where he developed scurvy) – all of which gave him no end of material for his later writing. He began publishing in 1899.

Sheep Camp in the Klondike. Jack London is believed to be the young man in the group on the right, second from left. Credit:

Between 1899 and his death in 1916, he produced over fifty volumes of stories, novels and political essays, including Call of the Wild, White Fang, Sea Wolf and Klondike Gold Rush. His writings made him one of the most popular and well-known figures of his day. He was among the first writers to work with the movie industry, and a number of his stories were made into films.  


During his thirties, London developed kidney disease, possibly related to late stage alcoholism. He died on November 22, 1916 in the place to which he had devoted the latter part of his life – Beauty Ranch in Glen Ellen, California, on the eastern slope of Sonoma Mountain: ‘Next to my wife,’ he said, ‘the ranch is the dearest thing in the world to me. … I write for no other purpose than to add to the beauty that now belongs to me. I write a book for no other reason than to add three or four hundred acres to my magnificent estate.’

Jack London working at his Beauty Ranch, 4 days before his death. Credit:

London was well known for his prolific production, his eye for detail, and his observations of the richness of human experience. He seemed to absorb all of the little things that, when written, give you the feeling of actually being in the scene. In the excerpt below, from one of his later books, Valley of the Moon, the main character Saxon, who just moved into a Bay area cottage with her new husband Billy, talks about her family history with her friends Mary and Bert:

"Our cattle were all played out," Saxon was saying, "and winter was so near that we couldn't dare try to cross the Great American Desert, so our train stopped in Salt Lake City that winter. The Mormons hadn't got bad yet, and they were good to us."

"You talk as though you were there," Bert commented.

"My mother was," Saxon answered proudly. "She was nine years old that winter."

They were seated around the table in the kitchen of the little Pine Street cottage, making a cold lunch of sandwiches, tamales, and bottled beer. It being Sunday, the four were free from work, and they had come early, to work harder than on any week day, washing walls and windows, scrubbing floors, laying carpets and linoleum, hanging curtains, setting up the stove, putting the kitchen utensils and dishes away, and placing the furniture.

"Go on with the story, Saxon," Mary begged. "I'm just dyin' to hear. And Bert, you just shut up and listen."

"Well, that winter was when Del Hancock showed up. He was Kentucky born, but he'd been in the West for years. He was a scout, like Kit Carson, and he knew him well. Many's a time Kit Carson and he slept under the same blankets. They were together to California and Oregon with General Fremont. Well, Del Hancock was passing on his way through Salt Lake, going I don't know where to raise a company of Rocky Mountain trappers to go after beaver some new place he knew about. Ha was a handsome man. He wore his hair long like in pictures, and had a silk sash around his waist he'd learned to wear in California from the Spanish, and two revolvers in his belt. Any woman 'd fall in love with him first sight. Well, he saw Sadie, who was my mother's oldest sister, and I guess she looked good to him, for he stopped right there in Salt Lake and didn't go a step. He was a great Indian fighter, too, and I heard my Aunt Villa say, when I was a little girl, that he had the blackest, brightest eyes, and that the way he looked was like an eagle. He'd fought duels, too, the way they did in those days, and he wasn't afraid of anything.

"Sadie was a beauty, and she flirted with him and drove him crazy. Maybe she wasn't sure of her own mind, I don't know. But I do know that she didn't give in as easy as I did to Billy. Finally, he couldn't stand it any more. Ha rode up that night on horseback, wild as could be. 'Sadie,' he said, 'if you don't promise to marry me to-morrow, I'll shoot myself to-night right back of the corral.' And he'd have done it, too, and Sadie knew it, and said she would. Didn't they make love fast in those days?" – Valley of the Moon, Book I, Chapter XIII

Jack London’s gravesite. Credit:


Before Lassie, There was Rin Tin Tin

By Donna Poulton


”He believed the dog was immortal,” is the opening line of the book Rin Tin Tin, The Life and the Legend written by Susan Orlean. The story begins when Corporal Lee Duncan found the pup in a bombed out kennel in France during World War One. He took him and his sister back to the unit and named them Rin Tin Tin and Nanette after the famous dolls the French children gave to soldiers for good luck. 

Nanette and Rin Tin Tin with Lee Duncan. Credit:

Like most people who own pets, Duncan thought this dog was special, but he couldn’t know how special. The dog was great at jumping and Duncan introduced him to Hollywood where he became an overnight sensation and never looked back.

Credit: USAToday

Making over 23 films, he was also the subject of books, radio programs and television and was mythologized as dying in the arms of Jean Harlow. 

Credit: Youtube

In the end it was not the tricks or the feats of power that made the dog a star, it was and remains the unwavering bond between humans and man's best friend that made him a household name and an icon of Hollywood history.

Lee Duncan and Rin Tin Tin. Credit: Youtube

Rin Tin Tin is kept alive through his progeny (now in the 11th generation) and through Susan Orlean’s remarkable book. Here are some reviews:

Christian Science  Monitor:

"Although her initial interest was sparked by the memory of her childhood fascination with an eight-inch plastic Rin Tin Tin figurine her grandfather kept out of reach on his desk, Orlean’s book runs much deeper than Baby Boomer nostalgia. Rin Tin Tin, no shaggy dog story, is an eloquent, powerful inquiry into 'how we create heroes and what we want from them,' and about what endures in our culture. Orlean’s conclusion: 'something you truly love will never die.'


Walter Isaacson:

"Rin Tin Tin was more than a dog. He embodied the core paradoxes of the American ideal: He was a loner who was also a faithful companion, a brave fighter who was also vulnerable. I was astonished to learn from this delightful book that he has existed for eleven generations over a century. By chronicling his amazing ups and downs, Susan Orlean has produced a hugely entertaining and unforgettable reading experience."


Ann Patchett

"Not only does Susan Orlean give us a fascinating and big-hearted account of all the many incar nations of Rin Tin Tin, she shows us the ever-changing role of American dogs in times of war and peace. This book is for anyone who has ever had a dog or loved a dog or watched a dog on television or thought their dog could be a movie star. In short— everyone."

Credit: cbsnews

Credit: Youtube


Impressions of the West: Ivan Doig


Ivan Doig’s Dancing at the Rascal Fair follows the lives of two men, Angus McCaskill and Rob Barclay as they leave their homes in Scotland in 1889 to homestead as sheep ranchers near Gros Ventre, in Montana’s Two Medicine Country (an unidentified number of miles north of Helena). In this excerpt, Angus has toured his homestead, still marveling at its beauty. He twists himself in his saddle to look at all directions. Finally he looks west:

West. West, the mountains as steady as a sea wall. The most eminent of them in fact was one of the gray-rock palisades that lay like reefs in the surge of the Rockies, a straight up-and-down cliff perhaps the majority of a mile high and, what, three or more miles long. A stone partition between ground and sky, even-rimmed as though it had been built by hand, countless weathers ago. … Close as I was now to these promontories, which was still far, for the first time since Rob and I came to Gros Ventre these seemed to me local mountains. They were my guide now, even the wind fell from mind in their favor. Seeing them carving their canyons of stone into the sky edge, scarps and peaks deep up into the blue, a person could have no doubt where he was. The poor old rest of the earth could hold to whatever habit of axis it wished, but this Two Medicine country answered to a West Pole, its own magnetic world top here along its wildest horizon. - Dancing at the Rascal Fair, p. 74.

McCone County, Montana. Herder watching his sheep. Credit: Library of Congress

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