Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Western Tragedy

In 1961, Ox-Bow Incident author Walter Van Tilburg Clark left a teaching position in San Francisco and returned to his boyhood home Nevada to take on the job of editing The Journals of Alfred Doten.

These 79 leather-bound notebooks were written by one of the original 49ers, Alfred Doten. Spanning half a century, they are one of the best primary sources of the American West.

On Sunday March 18, 1849, the 19-year-old Alf starts his first diary on board the ship to California, where gold has just been discovered at Sutter's Mill. After a six-month voyage 'round the horn' he steps off the ship in San Francisco as an innocent, observant young man who disapproves of heavy drinking, violence, womanizing and greed. Over the next dozen years he roves across much of Northern California, trying his luck in mining camps and 'diggins' with names like places like Hangtown, Fort Grizzly and Spanish Gulch, and then moving on as he fails to strike it rich. He begins writing letters about the Wild West to his home-town newspaper in Plymouth, Mass.

In 1855 Alf suffers a mining accident when he is caught in a cave-in. For a while he is paralyzed from the waist down but gradually recovers. This incident knocks the stuffing out of him. He limps back to San Francisco, where his sister lives, and he tries to settle down at farming and ranching.

With his physical recovery comes copper fever, and then silver fever. In 1863, he crosses the Sierra Nevadas into the Washoe Valley for the great Comstock Silver Boom. He settles in Como, a new mining camp south of Mount Davidson, makes a final stab at prospecting, and fails again. Alf tries to set up a newspaper in Como, which also fails, but as a result of this journalistic foray, he is asked to join the Daily Union newspaper in Virginia City. Here he overlaps with another prospector-turned-Virginia-City-reporter, Mark Twain, by a few months.

In May of 1864, 29-year-old Mark Twain leaves for San Francisco. 43-year-old Alf settles down in Virginia City and is soon drawn into the amoral lifestyle of a rough mining town which inspired TV's Deadwood. By his mid 40's Alf has become a debauched, adulterous, greedy alcoholic who relishes lynchings, bear-baiting and cock-fights. He marries and has four children, puts on weight through heavy drinking, makes some bad business decisions and finally ends his life in Carson City as a 'bitter and lonely old bar-fly, the town drunk and figure of fun.'

As he copied out the Alf Doten journals by hand - and collated the numerous articles, certificates and photographs in the Records of Alfred Doten - Clark became caught up in the life of the aging 49er. He writes that the diaries presented in graphic and often moving detail the tragic course of single representative life through the violent transformations enforced by the... amoral life of the California Gold Rush and the Nevada Silver Rush. know of no other account of the kind, or fiction either, for that matter, which even begins to to this as fully and memorably as Alf's Journals.

For a time, Clark entertained the idea of writing a novel based on the life of Alf Doten, but he suffered terribly from writer's block in his later years. This was partly caused by his perfectionist streak, but may also have been partly due to the depressing nature of the Doten Diaries, in which he was immersed. In the forward to the massive three volume diaries, Clark's son writes that after a long day transcribing the diaries his father often wondered whose life he was living, and whether he would outlast Doten.

It must have been hard for Clark not to be affected by the decline and fall of Alf Doten. Clark himself said: '... I am so much the walking dust of Alf Doten now that I fear even high breezes will dispel me.'

On the few occasions when Walter Van Tilburg Clark surfaced from the diaries to give public lectures, he held audiences enthralled for hours. One contemporary wrote: 'He lectured for three hours. Nobody left. Nobody left and it is a crime that we did not tape that...'

Clark died of cancer in 1971, just as he finished editing Doten's journals.

It had taken him ten years.

It is a tragedy that Clark never wrote his novel about Alf Doten. But at least he has left three fat volumes of one of the most fascinating accounts of what life in the wild West was really like.

The Ox-Bow Man - a biography of Walter Clark by Jackson J. Benson
The Journals of Alfred Doten edited by Walter Van Tilburg Clark

Ox-bow Incident

In 1940, a young high school English teacher named Walter Van Tilburg Clark published his first novel, one of the first anti-Westerns. The Ox-Bow Incident is the story of two Nevada cowboys - Gil Carter and Art Croft (the first person narrator) - who get caught up in a lynch mob and its tragic results. The book became an immediate classic and film rights were bought within a year of its publication, then re-sold. In 1942 20th Century Fox produced a film also called The Ox-Bow Incident, starring Henry Fonda, Harry Morgan, Dana Andrews and a delightfully young Anthony Quinn.

When I was at high school in California, The Ox-Bow Incident was required reading. I remember I found it hard-going. I recently picked it up again, and still found it hard-going. Although I love Clark's vivid descriptions of the Nevada desert, by today's standards the plot is very slow-moving. For me the biggest flaw is the great number of characters, each described vividly the first time but never again. I had trouble keeping them all straight and found myself flipping back to see who was who.

For me, the film overcomes many of the book's drawbacks. The twenty-plus characters are easily identified when you see and hear them. The interiors and exteriors are dramatic. (Although some of the outdoor scenes were glaringly filmed on a set and not on location.)

In the book, the contents of a letter written by one of the hanged men is never revealed. In the film, Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) reads the letter aloud to all the men in the lynch mob in the penultimate scene in the saloon. (below) In this moving scene, Carter's eyes are obscured by the hat brim of Art Croft (Harry Morgan). This is obviously a carefully framed composition. What does it signify? That justice is blind? That the characters were blind? That we can't always see the whole picture?

The final scene of the film is a perfect bookmark to the opening scene of the film.

Though dated, I found The Ox-Bow Incident deeply moving. It was a nominee for the Academy Award in 1943, but lost out to Casablanca.

Clark taught creative writing at the University of Missoula in Montana and San Francisco State before moving to Reno to become the writer-in-residence at the University of Nevada. A strikingly handsome man, even into his 60's, Clark often wore the same clothes: blue socks, grey slacks, a blue turtleneck and a maroon jacket. He died in Virginia City in 1971, aged 62.

Clark wrote several other novels, as well as some poetry - and he edited the extensive diaries of Alf Doten - but he never wrote anything as acclaimed as that first novel. I suggest you see the film The Ox-Bow Incident first, and then read the book.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Mystery of Topless Twain

I was reading Paul Fatout's Mark Twain in Virginia City the other day and came across this interesting observation: 'Among the many pictures of Mark Twain, not one is smiling...'

I looked through my own archives and found that indeed, there seem to be no pictures of Mark Twain smiling. How surprising for America's foremost humorist, dry humorist notwithstanding...

One explanation might be that Twain's bushy mustache - adopted in around 1864 - hid any upturning of the corners of the mouth.

Another explanation might be that like certain actors of the 60's - the 1960's, that is: not the 1860's - he had bad teeth and was loath to expose them. That is why French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant rarely smiled.

Another explanation might be that Victorian subjects did not often smile for photos.

However, neither did they take off their shirts to reveal manly, hairy chests.

When I Tweeted for help, asking if there really were no pictures of him smiling, @TwainHouse came up with the startling image at the top of this post. (I have used my usual photoshop filter to make it look more striking. You can see the original, undoctored image HERE.)

Now I know that American photographers of the 1860's - 1890's often photographed corpses and bawdy girls, but never have I seen a topless literary lion like Mark Twain.

Why, oh why?

Had he just emerged from a hot mine? Or a hot bath?

Was this a medical picture for the benefit of his doctor?

Was it a romantic Valentine's Day photo for his wife, Olivia?

Was it because he lost a bet? Or won a bet?

Maybe he was just proud to be in such good shape at the age of 48 or 49.

One clue might be the date of the photo.

@mtpo, the Mark Twain Project at the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, say the photo was taken in 1884 by Towlueson in Hartford,Connecticut. What was Mark Twain doing in 1884? According to the excellent TIMELINE at Mark Twain House, he was on a lecture tour. Huckleberry Finn was to be published in the last month of that year. Could it be that Mark Twain decided to take his own raft trip down the Mississippi?

Perhaps someone from The Mark Twain Project or the Twain House will enlighten me.

In the meantime, I can't help recalling one of Mark Twain's funniest quips: 'Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.'

All I can say is: Thank goodness this seems to be the only picture of a bare-chested Clemens!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Bedbugs Cause Fire!

Virginia City in the 1860's was a tinderbox. Frame houses, tents, open flames and the "Washoe Zephyr" (the strong breeze that often blows for a few days) meant that fire was a constant threat. Reporter Alf Doten was living in Virginia City in 1865. One Sunday evening in August he was attending a show at Maguire's Opera House (below: the big building between the flag and the church) when everyone heard fire alarm bells and rushed outside to see what was burning. Here's the story in his own words, from his Journal:

Sunday, Aug 6 [1865] Clear & pleasant - a little breezy... Evening went to Maguire's - performance commenced & got nearly through to the Walk around when about 9 o'clock the fire bells rang, & all hands rushed - I with the rest - Clark was with me - fire was on east of C st just south of Taylor among a lot of wooden buildings - commenced in an upper story of a paint shop - lodging room, occupied by Sam Brose (formerly of Como) and others - Sam says he was hunting bedbugs with a candle on the wall - wall of cloth and paper caught fire, and he couldnt put it out, it burnt with such rapidity - He caught up what he could and skedadled - Engines were on the ground very promptly, as usual - fire spread to buildings on each side, but it was soon subdued and extinguished - paint shop pretty well destroyed - other buildings but little damaged - loss two or three thousand dollars - Winnie Wright and Pat Barry of the H-L got hurt by some of the falling of an awning upon them - Clark & I went to Music Hall & saw the performance out...