Thursday, July 26, 2012

Pulp fiction, Wild West style

I hope the folks at the fab Cowgirls of the West Museum in Cheyenne won't mind me sharing this pic I snapped of their Dime Novels exhibit.

It took my fancy on several levels.

First is the fact that I make a small mention of Wild West pulp fiction in HEARTLAND On the Side of Angels, which is set in 1880's Wyoming. Here is the relevant excerpt high-lighting Jennifer 's frustration with Luke:

"You know what this whole situation reminds me of? One of those popular novels you can buy back east. All about the Wild West. The Five Cent Wide Awake Library is popular. Or Beadles Half Dime Library will give you all the action of Pawnee Bill..."

"What are you talking about?"

"Oh, I beg your pardon. You don't need to read any Wild West novels. You are too busy providing the plots. They write them about men like you."

Intrigued, he squawks, "Do they?"

"The determined cowboy and the hardened gunslinger. I always thought they were abysmally contrived. And yet here you are - Cheyenne Luke!"

Love your spunk, Jennifer. Keep it up!

Secondly, I'm impressed that the women of the West were certainly not forgotten as worthy heroes in these action-packed, outrageously fictitious and immensely popular novels of the Wild West. The exhibit, as you can see above, includes pictures of the covers of the tales of Hurricane Nell ('queen of the saddle and lasso' no less, only hope she can saddle up pronto and leave behind those dark clouds heading her way) and Mountain Kate (who seems to be getting rather friendly with a bear). The artwork is so evocative of the action aplenty to be had on the pages inside! Those dime novel publishers sure knew how to put a good cover on a book. Funnily enough, these novels are kind of like the antithesis of the male version which featured the sappy damsel in distress type of heroine whose need of saving was great and often timely, and that brings me to my third point.

If I may quote from the exhibit itself, I just love this anecdote about Wild West legend Buffalo Bill:

"The famed Buffalo Bill, upon seeing a dime-novel cover of himself slaying 5 Indians with one hand while clutching a grateful maiden in the other hand, laconically observed, I've got no recollection of ever doing that."

In case you'd like to know more (and I do recommend it):

Good link here on Dime Novel Heroines and how they evolved (including a chapter on Hurricane Nell you just won't believe):

See other amazing covers at:

Browse a few chapters:

Uncover a bit of history:
They were definitely not  the real West, but the dime novel certainly became a feature of its reality and gave birth to the genre we call Western.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Author! Author! A Journey of Literary Heroes

Continuing my series of pictorial blogs from our recent travels in the States...

In Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Massachusetts, there is quite a corner, and a quiet corner. This is the resting place of literary giants Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott. Amid the peaceful forest hollows and winding paths.

It's Memorial Day and elsewhere in the cemetery there are American Flags everywhere we look, marking the graves of those who served this nation in war. In the literary corner, a flag waves proudly on the gravestone of Louisa May Alcott, who served as a nurse during the American Civil War. 

But this is not where we began our literary heroes journey. Nor where we ended it; that would be in The West three weeks later.

We know as tourists we won't be able to see everything; some things will be out of reach due to time constraints. You need an excuse to come back, don't you?

We begin at Longfellow's Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts. An inn/tavern since 1716, the history of the site and its owners is a fascinating saga.  Built, owned and operated by successive generations of the How family until 1861 when the last How died without children, ownership passed to extended family and then others. It now forms the cherished centrepiece of a non-profit educational trust.

We visited the Wayside Inn Grist Mills first, because although this mill is a reproduction (built by Henry Ford in 1929), it is fully functioning and they still grind the whole wheat flour and cornmeal here that are used at the Inn for all their scrumptious breads and pastries, and which  you need as sustenance for the journey, just as 300 years of travellers have experienced before you.

So, why have we stopped by here on our journey of literary heroes?  Well, someone quite famous found sustenance at this venerable old inn.

In 1862 the beloved American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow visited the Red Horse Tavern as it was originally called. Since his wife's tragic death, grief-stricken Longfellow had writer's block and lacked inspiration. Here at the Red Horse Tavern he found some. He wrote his renowned Tales of a Wayside Inn, which was published in 1863 and became an immediate success. From then on the Red Horse Tavern became known as Longfellow's Wayside Inn.

Welcome to the Inn!

The menu at the Inn is a fascination in 
itself, with a whole section called 
Traditional Wayside Inn Favorites, from 
which I selected the Wayside Inn
Chicken Pie and to this day it is the best 
pastry I have ever eaten. Then there's 
Yankee Pot Roast, Boston Shrod and 
Lobster Pie.

"One Autumn night, in Sudbury town,
Across the meadows bare and brown,
The windows of the wayside inn
Gleamed red with fire-light
through the leaves
Of woodbine, hanging from the eaves
Their crimson curtains rent and thin."

The quote above comes from the Prelude of Longfellow's Tales, which describes the inn, waxing lyrical about the atmosphere contained therein.

A personal favorite is the section that begins with the lines: A young Sicilian, too, was there, in sight of Etna born and bred... this could be my Sicilian-born father, Rosario, sitting there in the Wayside Inn! However, the very first tale is The Landlord's Tale and that happens to be a very famous poem in it's own right - Paul Revere's Ride.

On our last day in Boston, we walked the Freedom Trail (as you must when visiting Boston, even if it's pouring rain!), taking quite some time at the impressive statue of Paul Revere, his house and the Old North Church - remember the lantern: "one, if by land, and two, if by sea"? It seems to me there is an immortalising connection between Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Paul Revere; in my mind, at least, if one's pops up so does the other. 

"Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere...
...hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,-
One, if by land, and two, if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be..."

A few days after our hearty and delicious excursion to Longfellow's Wayside Inn, we visited Longfellow's grand house in Cambridge off Harvard Square, famously once the headquarters of General George Washington. 

As well as imparting all the interesting facts about the house and Longfellow's life and times, our docent recited Longfellow's poetry at various points in our tour, something both powerful and unexpectedly wistful and poignant, right there in the place where it was created.

Photography of the interior of the house is not permitted, so postcards are the way to go, but the garden vistas are ripe for the pic-ing.

Below, the gardens are a perfect place to snatch a relaxing moment or two.

Above: Tank loved the house and the gardens and not surprisingly, his Red sox t-shirt won approval wherever he went. Our beautiful friend Nina accompanied us. Those poppies were a particularly gorgeous shade. 

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's friends included our aforementioned literary heroes of Hawthorne, Emerson and Thoreau. They hung out with him in his study, right where we were standing (see postcard below).

Montage: back, A History of the Wayside Inn; 
top, Longfellow's study; below, street front
exterior of  the house

This association of literati was a part of something very significant at that time. The American Renaissance. 
They and several other contemporary literary colleagues brought about a 'second revolution' in America, which like the shot heard around the world and the revolution of 1776, also began in Concord. 

This was the literary revolution of the 19th Century, literature that was distinctly American in thought and style. Ralph Waldo Emerson called it their "declaration of intellectual independence" in his famous speech given at Harvard, The American Scholar. 

The significance of this Second revolution is memorialised at the site of the First, in the Minute Man National Historic Park, at the Old North Bridge, Concord.

Part of the inscription on the plaque commemorating RWE's declaration in
The American Scholar, at the Minute Man National Historic Park, Concord

RWE's very famous and stirring Concord Hymn; plaque overlooks the site of the first battle at Minute Man National Historic Park

 Minute Man National Historic Park, where 
here was 'fired the shot heard round the world'

Beside the plaques of Emerson's declaration and of his Concord Hymn at the Minute Man National Historic Park sits a third plaque of a quote from another of our literary heroes, Louisa May Alcott. I don't know many people who haven't read Little Women. Our visit to Orchard House, the home of the Alcott family, who counted Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson as friends, and the place where Louisa wrote and set her beloved novel, proved to be one of the historical highlights of our trip, let alone a literary one!

Orchard House is celebrating its centennial as an historic site this year and each room in the house had its own guide, passionate about the Alcotts and the house. The house itself is a joy, a revelation and an inspiration all rolled into one. This was the home of one of Concord's most gifted and enriching families, a wondrous place where the life and times of the Alcott family come to life before your very eyes, do a transcendental-Little Women dance in your head and deposit you on the garden path a wiser and happier person. If you see one house on your trails through the East, see this one.

Louisa was not only an author but an advocate for social reform, so it's not surprising to see these words devoted to the cause of women's suffrage on that plaque next to Emerson's at the Old North Bridge in Concord:


Above: In Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Top, Louisa May Alcott; centre, Henry David Thoreau; bottom, Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose inscription reads... 'The passive master lent his hand to the vast soul that o'er him planned'.

So it's probably obvious by now that our small journey into Longfellow's world was for me rather special, not only because I love his poetry, but because so much this journey of literary heroes crosses and taries on his path, and detours so satisfyingly. His lifelong friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne, for example. Hawthorne of The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851). Let's visit his house next.

We are in Salem, Massachusetts, at The House of Seven Gables, the house that belonged to Nathaniel Hawthorne's cousin, Susanna Ingersoll, and which became the inspiration for his renowned novel. Salem could not be more different to Concord; this was an important and vibrant seaport back in the day, and people's fortunes were made and lost here, mostly made.

The celebrated house with some of its gables.

Our wonderful friends
Todd and Roberta from
UCP Boston
drove me to Salem
and showed me around.
A great day!!

The House of the Seven Gables was built in 1668 by sea captain John Turner and is considered a mansion. It's all so very brooding and gothic, with obvious wealth offset by narrow secret passages and the ghosts (figurative ones) of slaves in the gable attics. Our tour guide informed us that back in the day novels such as The House of the Seven Gables were primarily written to be read aloud. So I bought the book on CD for an authentic literary experience!

The house where Salem native Nathaniel Hawthorne was born on July 4, 1804, was moved in 1958 to rest and reside beside the gabled house he made famous. He's quite the pin-up boy is Nate :)

Hawthorne's most celebrated novel The Scarlet Letter has never been out of print since it was published in 1850. Perpetual success is what you'd expect from a literary hero!

Nathaniel Hawthorne,
His resting place in
Sleep Hollow Cemetery,
Concord, MA.

"Our life is frittered away by detail... Simplify, simplify."
Henry David Thoreau, 1817-1862

Our journey continues...

We stepped off the train in New York after our week in Boston to attend Book Expo America, hitherto called BEA, at the Javits Centre. Literary heroes here? There were writers and their publishers everywhere you looked. People were lining up for autographs from their most admired author. BEA should  indeed be included on our Author! Author! A Journey of Literary HeroesThe act of conceiving, writing and publishing a book could be considered an heroic act in itself - and often is!

New York from our apartment window.
The black building  in the centre
of the photo is the Javits Centre.
Sometimes you get lucky - we could
walk there every day to BEA.

Busy BEA. I think my eyes are closed but you get the
idea. Lots of people, booths, activity and talking!

Most of the authors and publishers attending BEA were American, so in one sense you could view this whole exhibition as a result of the labors of our historical literary heroes, their genius, and the second revolution that declared American literature "intellectually independent".

Now we head west across the country for a totally different experience...


At the Grand Encampment, Carbon County, we discovered that New York Times best-selling author and Wyoming native C.J. Box lived just across the Encampment River from where we were staying in Riverside at Spirit West River Lodge. I don't have a picture of his house, but I do have one of the river.

Who knows, maybe one day in the future C.J. Box's house will be open to readers who loved his Joe Pickett character so much that they just had to come to the place where his adventures were created!

In Laramie, Albany County, a book called Rising from the Plains was recommended to me and I bought it. The saying goes that beauty is only skin deep. Keep digging, it stands to reason, and you may discover what makes something you like so appealing. The beauty and wonder of Wyoming below her already remarkable skin is contained in this fabulous book by John McPhee (1986).


Snowy Range.

Sierra Madre.

As we drove around south east Wyoming, with her entire geological history laid bare by John McPhee's elegant descriptions and clever narration, the wild, expansive and ancient landscapes of Wyoming took on even greater appeal, as if furthering that infatuation in our first or second meeting to form a deeper attraction and understanding of it. 

"Wyoming... a space so great that you can stand on a hilltop and see not only what Jim Bridger saw but also - through the dimming tracts of time - what no one saw."  John McPhee, Rising from the Plains

If you thought you couldn't possibly read geology, this book will make you think otherwise. John McPhee, author of thirty books, pioneer of creative non-fiction and Pulitzer Prize winner - literary hero.

In Cheyenne, Laramie County, we made the delightful discovery of the Cowgirls of the West Museum and Emporium. It describes itself as "a grass-roots museum in historic downtown Cheyenne Wyoming, dedicated to the history and the legends of pioneering western women". It's a worthwhile and devoted museum. 

Along with all its other fascinating exhibits of women's role in the shaping of the West, its curator has grouped together some very interesting literary heroes. The significant women who wrote about The West:

Early 20th century writer and Pulitzer prize-winning author of O Pioneers! Willa Cather, whose novels have never gone out of print... 

Laura Ingalls Wilder of Little House on the Prairie fame... 

Mary O'Hara, who penned My Friend Flicka, which has not been out of print since publication in 1941... 

Conservationist and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Margaret E. Murie, author of Wapiti Wilderness... 

They share pride of place. In the case of Willa Cather and Laura Ingalls Wilder, they have been inducted into the National Cowgirl Museum Hall of Fame, which is 'dedicated to honoring and celebrating women, past and present, whose lives exemplify the courage, resilience and independence that helped shape the American West'.

For these women, their experience of The West was so profound that they felt compelled to write about it. In doing so they created an enduring legacy and inspired a genre of literature that grows steadily with every passing year, Women who write The West. I was moved and delighted to discover their stories there in Cheyenne's Cowgirls of the West Museum.

Coincidentally, back in Boston, when I visited the Harvard Book Store in Harvard Square, I had the opportunity to venture downstairs and browse through the second hand books (my idea of heaven really). One book that jumped out at me and I grabbed was a little paperback called ON THE WAY HOME The Diary of a Trip from South Dakota to Mansfield, Missouri, in 1894 by Laura Ingalls Wilder, with a setting by Rose Wilder Lane. Printed in 1976, I consider it vintage! And a bit of a treasure. It's simply written, enjoyable to read so full of interest and charm, with many excellent photographs. Nearly forty years after reaching the Missouri home her family moves to in On the Way Home, Laura wrote Little House on the Prairie. 

My new pre-loved copy

On a personal note, I remember that Little House on the Prairie was set as required reading when I was in Year 7 or 8 in High School. I devoured every word and I believe it enriched my love of The West. It remains one of the few books we were required to read that I actually enjoyed, and goes to show that Laura's amazing life and beautiful, heartfelt books belong to every time and place, such is her spirit and her talent.

And finally, if I may be permitted one last indulgence! Included in the Cowgirls of the West Museum is the inspiring story of the daughter of the Omaha chief La Flesche, Susette La Flesche, who became an advocate for Nebraska's Ponca tribe and later for all Native Americans at Congressional hearings. When she first went East on a lecture tour to speak for the Poncas, Easterners were very taken with her; to them she was the perfect Indian princess. In Boston, in particular, one Henry Wadsworth Longfellow grasped her hands and declared, "This is my Minnehaha!" 

"Thus it was that Hiawatha to the lodge of old Nokomis brought the moonlight, starlight, firelight, brought the sunshine of his people, Minnehaha, Laughing Water, handsomest of all the women in the Land of the Dacotahs." ~ The Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Susette was inducted in the Nebraska Hall of Fame in 1983. She must have been amazing!

That concludes our Journey of Literary Heroes. We began in the dappled sunlight of Sleepy Hollows Cemetery and recalled the literary intellects who changed American literature forever, and we travelled abroad, across the Continent, where their legacy of "intellectual independence" bore fruit and continues to do so. Thanks for coming along. 


Apart from a few postcards, the pictures in this blog came from my albums:
First things first... beautiful Boston
The Big Apple never falls far from the tree grows in Brooklyn
Western Odyssey or Wet Your Whistle at the Mangy Moose
I wish to acknowledge the Cowgirls of the Museum in Cheyenne, WY.