Category: Books, comics, and articles reviewed

A Few Thoughts on Theme in Popular Sci-fi & Fantasy Novels

Posted by – November 27, 2013

In an incidental comment in a previous blog post, I wrote:

Personally, I think the novel is best used when your/my/the author’s ideas about something large (our past, our future, technology, childhood, humanity, the soul, big stuff) are deep enough that you need an entire novel to explore them in proper detail. Length of a given novel should be tied to exploring its theme, I guess I’m saying…

I thought theme deserved a post of its own.  I think that it’s crucial, and understanding theme important, but too often overlooked.

In Philip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the theme is empathy, or …answering how humans are different from androids, what makes us human, which, in the novel, largely boils down to empathy.

Rick Deckard is one of two android-bounty hunters employed by the San Francisco Police Dept., but when the senior bounty hunter gets injured—damn-near killed—by the new androids with the uber-sophisticated Nexus Six brain types, Rick suddenly has the Nexus Six assignment on his desk.  The SFPD wants all him to “retire,” deactivate, kill, these loose Nexus Sixes, and since they’ve proven so

Nexus-6 androids vs. humans... if you could duplicate the human brain exactly how would be different?  do androids dream?

Painting by Nick Dupree, September 28, 2013: Nexus-6 androids vs. humans… if you could duplicate the human brain exactly how would be different? do androids dream?

dangerous, they want the mission done within 24 hours.  This complex and super tough assignment falling to Rick is the inciting incident.
Hunting down the “andys” is more difficult than ever, since the difference between humans and the most advanced androids has narrowed so much; they’re physically indistinguishable and psychologically and socially getting harder and harder to tell apart.  With the Nexus Six brain types, the only way to identify one as non-human is to either with the Voigt-Kampff test—measuring empathetic responses in increasing facial blood flow, or lack thereof, when asked a series of questions—or the simpler Boneli Test, which measures reaction time to visual stimuli, as it’s a fraction of a second slower in androids.  Rick only knows the Voigt-Kampff test, meaning he has to put facial electrode pick-ups on andys and interview them before killing them, excepting active combat situations, when a post-mortem bone marrow microscopy test is used to confirm inorganic status.
It’s possible for the Nexus Sixes to appear indistinguishable from humans with psychopathic tendencies or stunted or low empathy on the Voigt-Kampff test.  It’s implied that the upcoming Nexus-7 brain types, expected to be released in a matter of months, will be able to pass the Voigt-Kampff test and the Boneli test.

The questions on the Voigt-Kampff test stem from the culture and dominant philosophy/religion of post-apocalyptic humanity, Mercerism.  Humanity has mostly left for the Mars colonies, since Earth’s an irradiated, desert hellscape following the nuclear devastation of World War Terminus.  The government incentivizes emigration with free android helpers for Mars colonists, but enforces an android ban on Earth, where few people remain aside from those whose jobs require it (like Rick) and the population who’ve been affected by the radiation badly enough it has lowered their working-skills or I.Q., and are officially regarded as mutated subhumans, and therefore banned from emigrating by the government; unofficially they’re called the derogatory name “chickenheads.”
Mercerism has apparently grown up in response to the android dystopia and fallout-induced extinction of most Earth animals, and is built around the importance of empathic connections with humans and animals.  So questions on the Voigt-Kampff test take for granted that Mercerism is everyone’s belief, assuming strong empathic connections with animals, and asking things to elicit horror and disgust around eating, killing animals, fur rugs, etc.

With most animals extinct, remaining animals are highly prized, and owning an animal (very expensive) a major badge of honor and status symbol.  Men having a midlife crisis buy a goat or something, not a car, since animals are rare and flying cars ubiquitous.  Mercerism has made people more human, or at least people have focused on the human characteristics that android duplicates can’t mimic or understand, empathic connection with animals and the main ceremony of Mercerism, the empathy box, which is sort of a virtual world that lets the people connect with the prophet Wilbur Mercer and feel his pain as he’s pounded with rocks.
Mercerism and the valuing of having an animal at home to empathize with, those are my favorite parts of the novel.  There’s kind of a keeping up with the Jones competition around owning an animal… “I own a goat,” “well, I own a mare, and she’ll make more horses,” but it’s a competition to restore species.  The demand for animals is so great, some get electric animals, as they’re less expensive, or perhaps duplicates of species that are legitimately extinct (like owls and most other avian species).  Rick Deckard finds his electric sheep deeply depressing, though.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is theme driven, more theme driven than any other example I can think of… because the theme question, “how are we different from identical-brained androids?” drives the plot. In order to hunt down the andys on his list, Rick Deckard has to understand the difference and is haunted by the similarities, so his search, the plot, is all wrapped up in the theme. If the human brain can be duplicated with exactitude, synapse by synapse, which (by the way) IBM’s Blue Brain Project is working toward and is already seeing progress with, how would we humans be different from androids with those identical brains and flesh and bone that’s indistinguishable until put under a microscope? (the Battlestar Galactica reboot’s cylon duplicates seem to be inspired by Philip K. Dick’s androids in this book)
Assuming an identical-brained android, humans are different in their having a soul and the capacity for empathic connection, these are things that can’t be duplicated. And all this zeroing-in on what makes us human is done through showing, not telling.

While Rick Deckard struggles with the lines between android and human, J.R. Isadore, the novel’s other protagonist, a “chickenhead” who empathizes with andys and animals (electric and otherwise), in fact he can’t always tell them apart in his job picking up electric animals as a driver for an electric “animal hospital,” is hoping for connection in his abandoned neighborhood.  J.R. Isadore is clearly the most autobiographical character here—Philip K. Dick used J.R. Isadore as a pen name a few times—and his empathy and generosity, almost like his mental disabilities also deteriorate the logical walls most people have to divide up empathy, is poignant and beautiful. He empathizes with the androids, and the most terrifying scene is one where this female andy, incapable of empathy but super-intelligent and manipulative, something close to a high-functioning human psychopath (moreso than the other andys), begins to dismember a spider, perhaps the last spider on Earth. J.R. empathizes with the spider, empathizes with the andys (and they outnumber him 3-to-1) and there’s nothing he can do; we feel his conflicted agony as this horrible female disrespects and maims a life-form she doesn’t understand or appreciate in the slightest.
Having J.R. Isadore there illuminating other facets of the theme takes Do Androids Dream from great sci-fi novel to great literature that adds to our humanity. It works so well because its theme neatly drives the tightly-structured plot, which covers an incredible amount of ground in just over 61,000 words.  It is extremely organized storytelling, ironic coming from an author known for stream of consciousness narratives and, literally, being schizophrenic.
This book has so much humanity in it: there’s something really beautiful about how the gentle J.R. Isadore and violent Rick Deckard alike want animals to love and connect with… both feel this terrible yearning for extinct species to return, that the human race is incomplete without all Earth’s animals. They are part of our Earth family.

The version of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I had (from the New York Public Library online MP3 audiobook collection) was packaged as Blade Runner, the name of the 1982 movie (actually taken from the title of an Alan E. Nourse novel), a new audiobook version released in 2007 by Random House Audio to coincide with the release of Blade Runner: The Final Cut. But this audiobook, read by Scott Brick, has the same content as Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Blade Runner

Blade Runner
I rate it a must-read, a classic.

Theme, well-written, can be the difference between good, great and classic.

What’s the theme of George R. R. Martin’s novel A Game of Thrones? (the first book in his A Song of Ice and Fire series)

I don’t know what the theme is… perhaps you’d have to read more books in the Song of Ice and Fire series before a clear theme emerges.  The first book is roughly 284,000 words long, and though all of the words seem needed for all the complex, viewpoint-characters—chapter-breaks mean a different character’s point of view, telling the story from multiple viewpoints—I started having difficulties with book two, A Clash of Kings, which weighs-in at a daunting 326,000 words (approximately).  It’s clear why it takes Martin five years or so to complete each novel in this series: they’re hefty behemoths.  I got bogged-down in A Clash of Kings because of the length, the fact that characters from the background in book one (that we’ve not had time to really know and invest in) are given chapters to helm the viewpoint, even total a-hole Theon Greyjoy.  And an obvious theme to buy-into is not readily available.
The theme is probably like this George R.R. Martin quote that’s been going around Twitter: “History is a wheel, for the nature of man is fundamentally unchanging.” It reflects a bleaker worldview than Philip K. Dick’s novel with killing eerily-human robots on a devastated, irradiated, dead Earth ^

But A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t bleak really, because the theme—even assuming it is discernible and I described it remotely accurately—isn’t prominent in the novels. Martin foregrounds character more than anything else.  A Song of Ice and Fire is character-driven, as is typical of epic fantasy, and it works so well (and nearly sells more copies than the rest of the fantasy genre combined) because of

Tyrion “the (p)imp” mural, filling the side of a building entirely, somewhere on Herbrand St., London, England

its awesome, iconic characters, his uncommonly vivid characterizations and rich story-arcs for viewpoint-characters that draw you in like no one else’s characters.

Richly-complex, iconic characters like Daenerys, Mother of Dragons™, Tyrion the Imp™ and Jaime the Kingslayer™ drive the story and are hard not to follow and root for, even when richly-layered with past misdeeds and evil-doings, and that’s why they translate so well to the screen (and to hilarious internet memes).  Thanks to the HBO series, Martin’s characters have become pop culture giants.  Tyrion (as portrayed by Peter Dinklage) has become a disability icon of sorts, making what’s obvious in the disability community—that the physically “other” are no less protagonists (or villains) than anyone else, even amidst medieval civil wars—mainstream.

I grok that many novels won’t have a theme, and it’s okay to mainly focus on character and/or plot; not everything has to explore deeper issues,
Still, I love a good theme.

Nick

Masculinity, Southern Gentlemen, and the Strange Story of Alabama’s First U.S. Senator, William Rufus DeVane King

Posted by – May 7, 2013

OR John Kerry Should’ve Grown A Beard: The North-South Manliness Inversion

A Post That Cites Its Sources…with Footnotes!

As I mentioned in the preceding post, the Nick’s Crusade blog is a history blog too. I think delving into history can be very valuable, not just because the strange doglegs and twists in the American story—history NEVER progresses in a straight line—are infinitely interesting, but because we become better thinkers and citizens the more we understand our prologue, the previous generations, the prior struggles, and what we’ve gained and lost since.

One thing we’ve lost—though we have gained from its absence in many ways—is the whole concept of the elite 19th century Southern Gentleman, the image of Southern aristocrats with smooth, un-calloused hands and clean-shaven plump faces, and the brutal slave-driving that made such lifestyles possible.  A lot of insight into that old image can be gleaned from the strange story of William Rufus deVane King of Alabama (my home state).

Art by Nick Dupree: Unlucky 13th Vice president, William Rufus deVane King, served only 45 days before dying of tuberculosis.  Only a few of the 45 days, his last days, were on American soil, as he returned from Cuba via Mobile, then died on his plantation near Selma. He is the only vice president from Alabama ever elected.

Art by Nick Dupree: Unlucky 13th Vice president, William Rufus deVane King, served only 45 days before dying of tuberculosis. Only a few of the 45 days, his last days, were on American soil, as he returned from Cuba via Mobile, then died on his plantation near Selma. He is the only vice president from Alabama ever elected.

William R. D. King—more typically referred to as just “William R. King”—was the first U.S. Senator from Alabama (alongside John Williams Walker, who was also sent to Washington—the state legislature electing two U.S. Senators per constitutional requirements—after Alabama was admitted to the Union in December 1819).  King also played a major role getting Alabama statehood done, and helped write the constitution of Alabama.  He named the city of Selma “Selma” meaning “high seat” or “throne” in the 18th century Ossianic poem The Songs of Selma, was president pro tem of the United States Senate, got into a Hamilton-Burr-style duel with Henry Clay,¹ and served as U.S. Minister to France and had other diplomatic posts in Naples and St. Petersburg.  As president pro tem of the Senate, he was behind the writing and passage of the Compromise of 1850 and more.  What’s odd is, he did all this while being…while being known by the public as super effeminate and flamboyant, and was re-elected again and again by the hardcore states’ righters in Montgomery (prior to the ratification of the 17th amendment in 1913, state legislatures elected U.S. Senators to represent their state).

I won’t say William R. D. King was gay, though it is very striking that, in a culture that almost never mentioned such things, contemporaries like Andrew Jackson publicly called him by derogatory names like “Miss Nancy,” and

Buchanan, 15th President of the United States (1857-1861) was also Minister to the UK (Court of St. James).

Buchanan, 15th President of the United States (1857-1861) was also Minister to the UK (Court of St. James).

powerful Tennessee Dem Aaron Brown (later appointed postmaster general under Buchanan) referred to him as “she” and “Aunt Fancy” and [Buchanan’s] “better half.”²  The Senators King and Buchanan were reported walking arm in arm around Washington, though that was common for men even in James Garfield‘s time 30 years later.  The rumors of King wearing 18th century powdered wigs and stockings long after they’d been abandoned in the 19th century are false,³ but there was definitely a lot of scandalous gossip in D.C. about his clothes and mannerisms.  And it’s well established that King did have a very intimate relationship with future-president James Buchanan, and something must have been unusual enough to’ve drawn derision. Nelson from the Simpsons, famously pointing out someone deserving derision Buchanan was sometimes ridiculed as “Mr. Fancy Pants” or “Granny Buck.”

Still, the serious historian demands a high standard of proof: the text document equivalent of “pics or it didn’t happen.” Though there is more material suggesting King was seen as gay than almost anyone else in the 19th century, it’d be unwise to say King was a homosexual with certainty.  I agree with the James Buchanan entry in glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture that:

In his The Invention of Heterosexuality Jonathan Ned Katz cautions against the application of contemporary terms regarding sexuality to other times and societies in which “[w]ays of ordering the sexes, genders, and sexualities have varied radically.” He further points out that in the “pre-Freudian world [of early-nineteenth-century America], love did not imply eros”–although neither, of course, was an erotic component excluded.⁴

As King’s effeminate manner is evident beyond a shadow of a doubt, I’ll ask a broader—and, I think, more interesting—question, on gender presentation widely-speaking: how is it that such an effeminate public figure got elected by the legislators in rough-and-tumble frontier Alabama?
The answer is, there was nothing odd about William R. D. King amidst the Southern slaver planter aristocracy of his generation. It only seems strange to us, seeing through the lens of the latter half of the 20th century and its mega-strict gender roles.  In the antebellum South, the elite planter could be flamboyant, his body unmarked by any of the wear and tear associated with daily labor, his beardless, cherubic visage and opulent clothing a sign of plantation riches, heralding social status as much as signaling the success—and therefore rightness—of the Old South.  That kind of presentation harkens back to the aristocratic plantation lifestyles of the 17th and 18th century colonies, when it was, if anything, MORE pronounced. The kind of luxurious appearance and elite manner King exemplified was not uncommon among antebellum aristocrats in cotton country, in fact, flaunting your aristocratic bona fides was cool.

The anti-slavery left, the free soil partisans of the north who were organizing into what would soon be called the Republican Party, had picked up on this. By the time Millard Fillmore—a northerner with pro-slavery sympathies—moved into the White House following President Taylor dying of dysentery in 1850, they had a name for his sort: doughfaces, an obvious allusion to the idle, beardless planter aristocracy.
The best explanation of masculinities of the 19th century and the politics of facial hair I’ve found, is in Adam Goodheart’s amazing book 1861:

It was no accident that Northerners who sympathized with slaveholders were called “doughfaces”: in the American context, beards connoted a certain frank and uncompromising authenticity. Nor was it a coincidence that “Honest Abe” began cultivating his famous beard as he prepared to take over the presidency from “Granny Buck.”⁵

Northern free-soilers began presenting themselves as everything opposed to those they framed as the effete, decadent planter class, or as they referred to them, “the slave party.” They cultivated an image marketed as everything opposite the idle, soft-handed, soft-faced rich Southern aristocrats, they were the candidates of rough-hewn common working men with beards! They [the first decades of Republican Party free soil candidates] were one of the Real ‘Merickens who crawled out of mama and into a log cabin, grew up ridin’ a blue ox and drinking hard cider, and as a man split rails with an axe in one hand while reading law with the other. In the case of Abraham Lincoln, this backstory was kind of true, and his 1860 presidential campaign leveraged that to. the. MAX. The Republican National Convention in Chicago that (unexpectedly) nominated Lincoln for president in 1860 was held in a massive, makeshift wooden “wigwam”—Chicago’s fire marshall didn’t get any sleep that week—and the crowd badgered Honest Abe to tell the convention his “clearing the land with an axe” story…again. The Fall campaign was almost singularly about the image of Lincoln “the rail-splitter,” and was used non-stop; I’m sure some folks didn’t even know his name, just knew “rail-splitter.” To focus on the frontiersmen ethos and related manliness, and all the subtle messages within that, while not mentioning free soil doctrine, abolition, or any of the issues currently boiling over was a brilliant stroke of campaigning genius, and stands out in political history.


Adam Goodheart’s 1861: The Civil War Awakening is the best, most quick-to-understand work of social history I’ve read to date, delving into what Americans lives were really like on the eve of the Civil War. It goes into the BIZARRE social arrangements of 1861 Washington, DC, where free blacks owned slaves, and in Goodheart’s descriptions, those slaves were better off than much of DC’s free black population, who were largely stuck below-subsistence-level in squalid shantytowns, and with no “owner” to vouch for them, they were “undocumented” in a way—my term—and had no real rights to move around in public spaces and were subjected to frequent stops and harassment by police. 1861 has a whole chapter on young James Garfield’s doings at the time, and the way passions were channeled into male friendships in his social circle since expressing emotions was quite circumscribed where women were concerned. I’d like to explore that more in another post.

What I discovered by looking back at William R. King vs. early Republican campaigns—and it’s exciting when you figure something out for the first time—is that the North and South have not only undergone a political transformation, there’s been a cultural inversion alongside it. First, the obvious political inversion. Look at the electoral map following Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 presidential run. The liberal “free soil” north is ruby red, Republican. The South, pro-slavery, is the Democratic Party “solid south,” and with the exception of the fracturing of the Democrats behind several Southern candidates in 1860, then a period of Republican military rule and Republican-elections, “Reconstruction,” the solid Democratic south stays together a remarkably long time, from Andrew Jackson to like… John Kennedy’s run in 1960… Kennedy loses significant votes to Nixon in the Deep South, then in 1972 ALL Southern states peel off—a huge change from the results of the ’68 presidential election just four years before, when the solid south voted for the Dem, Humphrey, and the former-Dem-then-Dem-again, George Wallace—and REALLY break in Nixon’s favor, what with his infamous “southern strategy” and a Dem challenger perceived as wimpy. ’72 clinched the end of realignment, sealed the deal. Ever since, the South has been Republican red, with Dixiecrats like Strom Thurmond and ex-Wallace supporters defecting to the GOP in droves and Lincoln’s states up north increasingly leaning Democratic; it’s a total inversion!

What I’ve realized is, it’s also a North-South inversion of the culture of masculinity. In short, northerners are framed as effete, wimpy, decadent, out-of-touch elites today, similar to the way northerners caricatured southerners in the first decades of Whig and Republican campaigns (1840-1870ish). Now, it’s southerners that seem to treasure uber-rigid common man masculinity, and William Rufus deVane King couldn’t get elected dog catcher in today’s Alabama; despite his great wealth, I doubt he could find a place in Alabama public life due to his…different gender presentation. Southerners of today expect a working man to run for office, someone manly and “like us,” the opposite of William R. King. Thomas Frank explored today’s Republican “backlash” against “elites” in his book What’s The Matter With Kansas. This “backlash” is far more determinative than people realize, and deserves much more examination.

John Kerry got the brunt of this backlash in the 2004 campaign, with Karl Rove using the words “effete, elite Massachusetts liberal!” every day. Kerry got Buchanan’ed! Today’s Republicans are as aware of Americans’ deep-seated resentment of “the idle rich” as their northern founders were!
John Kennedy did a modern version of the “Hard Cider Campaign” in 1960; you could call it the “high-ball glass and scotch campaign.” It worked. The “effete, elite Massachusetts liberal!” line was certainly attempted against Kennedy, but for the most part it failed to stick, and he won a majority of working class voters and held the bulk of the South. Kerry failed…failed BADLY to counter the “effete, wimpy, decadent, out-of-touch” frame employed against him. Maybe John Kerry should’ve tried some form of the Kennedy strategy. Maybe he should have gone full Abe, grown a beard and had the press film him chopping firewood.

What he tried instead, photos and videos of him “huntin” backfired terribly, making him look even more phony and out of touch.

Cartoon by Nick: 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, huntin...he says "I too enjoy leisure time practicing as a huntist!"

Cartoon by Nick: 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, huntin…he says “I too enjoy leisure time practicing as a huntist!”

Unfortunately, image matters and always has mattered in American politics. Today, it matters disproportionately, and 21st century Democratic candidates like John Kerry have been awful at it. He was completely unable to fight back against the opponent’s framing him as an elite, decadent aristocrat, just as King and Buchanan and other antebellum southern gentlemen were caricatured.

Southern politics and southern masculinity has shifted dramatically, and I wonder if we haven’t lost something important. I wonder if becoming much more rigid in gender expectations isn’t narrowing what’s possible in political life, excluding not just potential 21st century William Rufus Kings, but ANYONE who doesn’t look like a square, iron-jawed working man. We’ve narrowed potential in public life, and I think that’s always bad.

Nick

Footnotes

1. Clay “believed the Globe to be an infamous paper, and its chief editor an infamous man.” King responded that Blair’s character would “compare gloriously” to that of Clay. The Kentucky senator jumped to his feet and shouted, “That is false, it is a slanderous base and cowardly declaration and the senator knows it to be so.” King answered ominously, “Mr. President, I have no reply to make—none whatever. But Mr. Clay deserves a response.” King then wrote out a challenge to a duel and had another senator deliver it to Clay, who belatedly realized what trouble his hasty words had unleashed. As Clay and King selected seconds and prepared for the imminent encounter, the Senate sergeant at arms arrested both men and turned them over to a civil authority. Clay posted a five-thousand-dollar bond as assurance that he would keep the peace, “and particularly towards William R. King.” Each wanted the matter behind him, but King insisted on “an unequivocal apology.” On March 14, 1841, Clay apologized…
Senate Historical Office. “William Rufus King, 13th Vice President (1853).” Senate.gov. (accessed May 6, 2013).
2. p. 189: Hernandez, David. Broken Face in the Mirror: Crooks and Fallen Stars That Look Very Much Like Us. Dorrance Publishing, 2010. http://books.google.com/books?id=OJ-0nNPAisgC&pg=PA189 (accessed May 6, 2013).
3. “Vice President King is sometimes confused with [signer of the Constitution in 1787 and Federalist presidential candidate] Senator Rufus King of New York. This confusion with the first King explains the rumors that persist to this day of the latter King’s wearing of ribbons, scarves and powdered wigs long after they were in fashion. Vice President King always wore the contemporary styles of the early-to-mid-1800s and he never wore a wig.” pp 13-14: Stern, Milton. Harriet Lane, America’s First Lady. 2005. http://books.google.com/books?id=5B9ngDFT2vgC&pg=PA14 (accessed May 7, 2013).
4. Rapp, Linda. glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture. Chicago, IL: glbtq, Inc., 2004. http://www.glbtq.com/social-sciences/buchanan_j,2.html (accessed May 6, 2013).
5. p. 113: Goodheart, Adam. 1861: The Civil War Awakening. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2011. http://books.google.com/books?id=bCPbnsUPhB0C&pg=PA113

Heroes Without Glory: Some Good Men of the Old West—Nick explores a dusty, old-fashioned book of social history

Posted by – April 9, 2012

This is the first in a series of book and article reviews I’ll write, taking you through the stacks and exploring old and not so old books about humanity’s story (history). In this case, I’m exploring a fairly rare social history from 1965, probably not something you’d find on the shelves of your local public library or Barnes & Noble. If you like this review, leave a comment below 🙂
Nick

Heroes Without Glory: Some Good Men of the Old WestHeroes Without Glory: Some Good Men of the Old West by Jack Schaefer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s seldom that a historical writer captures both the close up, the individual stories, attitudes and essence of the people who contributed to an era, and the wide-view, what the society was like, simultaneously. But by telling the stories of how a diverse cross-section of men contributed to Western settlement, Jack Schaefer did just that with Heroes Without Glory: Some Good Men of the Old West. Schaefer offers detailed portraits of the good men that made building communities in the unforgiving wilds of the territories possible; as Louis L’Amour once wrote—and I’m paraphrasing from memory—”this was a big country and needed big men and women to fill it, big of spirit, big of heart” and it’s these “big” goodmen that Schaefer focuses on. The goodmen, instead of oft-discussed badmen, desperadoes like Billy the Kid, Black Bart, Jesse James and the Younger Gang, Butch Cassidy and “The Wild Bunch” gang and the whole rogues gallery of Western history, who were evidently the subject of frenzied interest at the time of this book’s first publication (1965). In the preface, Schaefer places himself squarely against what he dubs “the cult of the badman,” denouncing the “cultists” for capitalizing on the morbid interest in the “badmen,” who he says impeded growth out West, tearing down and attacking civilization.

This is a book about the goodmen who built the West, a book of lengthy, in-depth biographies of the unheralded pioneer mailmen, explorers, doctors, cowboys, etc. who made the territories livable. Schaefer is clearly drawn to men of extreme patience and fortitude, men of action, not of words. Thus he spends time profiling men like the nearly non-verbal John “Snowshoe” Thompson, a self-described “slow, simple Norski” who used Norwegian snowshoes and techniques to deliver the first mail and supplies (including life-saving medicines) from Nevada to California over the treacherous pass in the Sierra Nevadas. And man of few words and many cows, John Chisum, one of the first cattle barons. He begins the book with eccentric trapper James Capen Adams (“Grizzly” Adams) who spent almost all his life wordlessly among his favorite grizzly bears, in nature. This book made me think about how the Old West ethos, with its focus on action uber alles and the man of action eking out a living from undeveloped wilds as opposed to the buffoonish and idle man of words back east, changed what’s considered manly from the close of the Victorian era up into the present-day. Perhaps without intending to, Schaefer gives us insight into what would become the mold for “manliness” throughout the 20th century.

Why I gave this book Four stars: I’m a big believer that social history is where it’s at, that to really understand the people of a certain time and place, you need to read the words of the people who were there and learn from those everyday folks the rhythms of that past culture, how the society functioned, etc. This book does that. How new settlements functioned, how U.S. territories in the 19th century worked, really fascinates me. As always, the little details hook me; the fact that the biggest bear “Grizzly” Adams ever caught became the model for Charles Nahl‘s design of California’s bear flag (though keep in mind that there were literally over a dozen bear flag designs adopted to varying degrees until a standardized design was finally adopted in 1953), that bovine thievery was a problem, cows trying to break into horse stables and steal the horse’s hay a constant issue out west, that John Chisum maintained his wealth as a Texas cattle baron through the trials and tribulations of the Civil War because he had the foresight to realize that Confederate currency may not hold up, so whenever he got his hands on rebel money, he exchanged it for more cows as soon as possible. I love that stuff.

My favorite part of the book is its biography of Dr. Charles Fox Gardiner. Originally from New York, where King of England, Charles I, had granted the Gardiner family a private island off Suffolk County—Gardiner’s Island—in 1639. In the mid-1800s, Charles Fox Gardiner trained as a doctor in New York City, on Roosevelt Island—then known as Blackwell’s Island—at one of the predecessors of Goldwater hospital. Then he took his skills west to aid the frontier mining communities in Colorado Territory. That this book contained an account of pioneer medicine is why I picked it up. It doesn’t disappoint on that score.

Gardiner built a shanty for his office with a blue and gold sign outside. No one trusted the new guy initially, but slowly his reputation grew by word of mouth and he had a steady and growing practice on his hands. “Patient after patient was unable to pay, then out of nowhere one would pay $100. Unusual but fascinating,” Gardiner said. I found the insights into pioneer doctors fascinating, and I hope to find the book Gardiner himself wrote about his experiences, Doctor at Ridgeline, in an accessible format soon.

The downsides of Heroes Without Glory: Some Good Men of the Old West. come with the author’s old-fashioned views and ancient prejudices that really filter the content, and in some cases really stink it up, especially regarding the native tribes of the West. The only Native American “goodman” profiled is Chief Washakie, leader of the Eastern Shoshones. Washakie was indeed a great leader of the Shoshones, and a pivotal figure in not only American Indian history, but also of the Old West in whole. Indeed, we may not even know the name Shoshone today if not for Washakie; the loose band of Shoshone tribes may have been wiped out by enemy tribes, and probably wouldn’t have even become a federally-recognized tribe without his forceful leadership. Most important was his political skills; Washakie secured a large reservation, Wind River Indian Reservation, in what is now Wyoming, for his fairly small band of Eastern Shoshones because he was such a forceful and well-known leader and peacemaker for his people. Schaefer artfully highlights Washakie’s remarkable achievements, but disturbingly, Schaefer seems to herald Washakie more for his exceeding patience with the constant oppression, control and expropriation of lands previously reserved for the Shoshone. Every decade, Uncle Sam would bite off another giant piece of the land he’d promised to them, and one year they forced them to half the Wind River Reservation with the Arapaho, their ancient rivals. Washakie didn’t—probably couldn’t—fight back, and shared all he could with the Arapahoes.

The Indian leaders that met such humiliations with arrows and repeating rifles aren’t mentioned here. It’s also sucky that this book doesn’t profile a single woman; that amounts to cleaving the history of the West in half! Going in with a wide open mind, one can still appreciate this stuff. But no mind is open enough to like the biography Schaefer includes on Valentine T. McGilicuddy. I thought the chapter on McGilicuddy would focus on his years as a trailblazing frontier Army surgeon and surveyor, but is mostly an account of McGilicuddy’s long tenure as Indian Agent on Pine Ridge Reservation in the Dakotas; it’s one of the more offensive views of Indians you’ll find, paternalistic, infantilizing, ugh. You can skip this chapter if you’d like. But it’s also historical evidence of how loathsome the reservation system has been.

It can be invaluable to read older perspectives. I give this four stars because it’s a rare social history, with great detail of how it really was in biographies of (in order of appearance) Grizzly Adams, George A. Ruxton, John “Snowshoe” Thompson, John Phillips, Washakie, John S. Chisum, Thomas J. Smith, Valentine T. McGillycuddy, Charles Fox Gardiner, and Elfego Baca. Definitely worthwhile for Wild West aficionados and history buffs.

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