Monday, March 28, 2016

Cowboys are cool. Cows, not so much


“A mine is a hole in the ground, owned by a liar.” Mark Twain

I recently saw a college friend for the first time in decades. He seemed surprised to learn I wrote novels. I guess I need to work on that world famous part. 

“What do you write?” he asked.

“Westerns.”

He immediately made a disparaging crack about cowboys and Indians.

I explained there were no cowboys in my novels.

He was incredulous. “Then what do you write about?”

“I write about people … people who happened to live on the American frontier. My characters live in cities, towns and camps, not on the range. They’re miners, businessmen, politicians, schoolmarms, shopkeepers, lumbermen, lawyers, doctors, newspapermen, and they come in all ages and in both sexes.”

“Bad guys?”

“Oh yeah, outlaws aplenty. Otherwise you don’t have a story.”

“And gunfights?”

“Of course. They’re part of the genre. But in five books, I’ve only had one duel where two men stood off against each other. My gunfights are more realistic to the history of the West.”

“But no cowboys?”

“Nary a one. Cows didn’t draw people west. Money laying in the dirt got people to get up and leave home. Mining drew far more people than ranching. The romantic cowboy has been written about since Owen Wister and The Virginian, and cowboys have become the stable of Western literature. When I started writing Westerns I wanted to do something different, so I wrote about mining, instead of ranching.”


I continued, “Cowboys have become such a cliché that most people don’t know that Tombstone was a mining town, not a cow town. Denver started as a mining camp. Mark Twain’s encounters with the Wild West occurred in Virginia City, where $305 million was mined from the Comstock Lode.  (Still, the fictional Cartwright’s Ponderosa gets all the attention.) 240 million troy ounces of silver were extracted from Leadville. Almost all of our ghost towns were once thriving mining camps. Mining was an exciting industry that drew every kind of character to the West.  Wyatt Earp made a career of following the action, and he abandoned cows to chase after silver and gold.”

“So you don’t like cowboys?” He said this with an undue sense of satisfaction.

“I do. Cowboys are self-reliant, live by a code, and are skillful with horses, ropes, guns, and nature. I believe their individualism is a metaphor for an important American value. But others have already written about cowboys, cow towns, and the open range. I wanted to explode another facet of the Wild West, so I write about mining, which allows me to get into bustling cities and the technology revolution of railroads, telegraphs, and electricity. Instead of lamenting the demise of the Wild West, I examine the influences that eventually tamed the frontier.

 “Is there drama in mining?” he asked.

“Are you kidding? Money is power … and the power-crazed chase after wealth with a passion. Mining drew fortune seekers, politicians, shysters, engineers, shopkeepers, and people with every kind of scheme under the sun to separate miners from their money. Most rail lines after the transcontinental contest connected mines to markets. Everybody chased after the money: good men, bad men, and hard cases that enforced the will of the greedy.”

“Okay, okay, you convinced me,” he said. “I’ll try one of your books.”

As Hollywood says, this story has been inspired by true events. That means a conversation did occur somewhat along these lines, but I was much more articulate in real life.

Honest westerns filled with dishonest characters.

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