paul sann journalism, letters, writing


            New York Post

the literary scene

By Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg. New York: Dutton. 511 pp. $12.50.
By Martin F. Schmitt and Dee Brown. New York: Scribners. 258 pp. $7.50.
By Mark H. Brown and W.R. Felton. New York: Bolt. 272 pp. $10.

    Once there was a wonderful time, before us, when the nation was very young. Beyond the Mississippi lay vast open reaches abounding in untold riches: furs, cattle, gold, silver, lumber, wheat, land and more land. All the stout-hearted had to do was hitch up the horses or the oxen and go get it.
    The saga men wrote in that process earned the great new part of America a variety of names. It was the Frontier West, the Settlers' West, the Wild West and the Outlaw West. It was the West of the Mountain Men and Kit Carson, the covered wagons and the thundering herds, Crazy Horse and poor George Custer, Billy the Kid and Jesse James and the lawmen, too, such as Wyatt Earp (on Channel 7 nowadays) and the dandy Mr. Hickok (Channel 4).
    The book publishers found gold in them thar hills long before the movie makers and the upstarts in TV and they're still working the old claims. The payloads usually come in at Christmas, which is why we are gathered here today.
    Picture books dominate the Western non-fiction shelves, led by the oversized Beebe-Clegg production, a handsome item dressed with 1,000 cuts and a sparse text that's flossy but seldom too starry-eyed.
    The authors start with the trappers of the '30s and wind up with the classic Oklahoma street battle between the Doolins and the law 'n' order men at Ingalls in 1893, last big act in the outlaw drama.
    All the way stops are here, too: the victory over Mexico and the seizure of California (by Capt. Fremont and his 33-man "army"), the Gold Rush and the later bonanzas in Nevada and the Black Hills, the Mormons, the cowtowns, the homesteaders and the cattle kings and the coming of the railroad.
    Beebe and Clegg drew their illustrations from many sources--the scant pictorial record, the works of Remington, Graham, Zogbaum and other top-flight artists who went West, Harper's Weekly, Leslie's and the Police Gazette. The authors regard some of the Gazette's sketches as "unquiet, even profane" where they touch on the red-light aspects of frontier culture, but none of it is calculated to damage the minds or eyes of the young 'uns of our day (or even the grown-ups, for that matter).
    Mr. Beebe had the good fortune to do a year-end roundup for a neighboring journal (the WT-S) and found himself forced to hail the Beebe-Clegg work as "the outstanding book of the Western year." We don't know about that, but it is a pleasant, painless excursion into the vivid American past.

* * *

    In "The Settlers' West," the Schmitt-Brown team compiled 300 photos and a brief text to cover the story of the land rush, the sod-busters, the wagon trains and the stage runs across tbe badlands.
    There's a good chapter, too short to be anything but superficial, on "The Myth and Its Makers." Here Schmitt and Brown polish off the likes of Davy Crockett (who?) and some of the other overblown Western heroes, real or fancied.
    The book suffers from much duplication between text and picture captions but that's the worst that can be said about it.
* * *

    "The Frontier Years" celebrates the story of L.A. Huffman, who left the comparative ease and luxury of Iowa in the winter of '78 to go and photograph the unfolding story of our continental conquest.
    Huffman had courage and skill in abundance. Lugging his clumsy 50-pound wet-plate camera, mounted on mule pack horse with his portable darkroom, he went into the wilds of Montana, Wyoming and Western Dakota and brought out an invaluable pictorial record. He made the buffalo hunters and the cavalrymen, the bull-whackers, the mule-skinners and even the big Cheyenne chiefs hold still for his slow but razor-sharp lens.
    Brown and Felton used a select 125 Huffman photos and they're worth the price of admission, considering that they were made in the time of the camera's infancy but stand up so well today. Beyond that, Huffman's own writings and the Brown-Felton researches into the times--notably their handling of the tragic encounter between the Indian and the white man--make it a splendid book.


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