Ernest Haycox: “The significant and talented western author whose presence continues to exert power on the page and the screen” (Susan Kollin)
Etulain gives us a very entertaining prologue on the Western story, The Rise of the Western, then takes us back to Haycox’s birth and youth. Haycox rarely spoke of his early years, which were troubled, but he was of course a son of Oregon, born in Portland in 1899. His father was often absent, they moved house a lot (and Ernest therefore changed schools often) and when Ernest was still young his parents separated. After a stint in the army, first on the Mexican border and then in Europe, Ernest attended the University of Oregon, from which he graduated in 1923.
He began to write in his last year at high school, and did much more at college, where a professor, WFG Thacher, became a mentor – and would be a lifelong one.
Ernest was a leading light in college journals and contributed often. It is clear that writing did not come easily to Haycox: he had to work at it, and always believed that untiring effort was a requisite for success.
The first published story beyond college papers appeared in June 1921 in Overland Monthly. The Corporal’s Story was based on his experiences on the Mexican border. Other magazines followed but he also accumulated large numbers of rejection slips. In 1923 Haycox signed on as a reporter at The Portland Oregonian for thirty dollars a week, to earn his bread and butter. From 1924 he began what Etulain calls his “apprenticeship in the pulps.” He made a career-shaping decision to specialize in the Western magazine short story, then enormously popular (in the days before original paperbacks, Western movies and TV shows killed them off). His early stories dealt with Oregon and the North-West, mainly in the twentieth century, but gradually he wrote more of what we would call classic Western stories. His submissions to posher outlets such as Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post being rejected, he submitted stories to the likes of Adventure, West and Western Story. Between March 1924 and December 1930 Haycox published 93 short stories and serialized five novels or novellas. Etulain tells us these stories were pretty basic white-hat vs. black-hat efforts in which “he tells rather than suggests the meanings”.
In 1925, Haycox married Jill Chord, and they would have two children (one of whom, Ernest Jr, would later write a biography of his father). Haycox now had to make a living to support a family, and he wrote solidly for the pulps. No evidence exists that Haycox was even reading contemporaries such as F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway or John Dos Passos, let alone trying to write like them. He was content to populate his stories with characters who did not burden the reader with verbal or interior reflections. However, there was a reverse process: later Hemingway would write, “I read The Saturday Evening Post whenever it has a serial by Ernest Haycox.”
Haycox’s first novel, Free Grass, was serialized in West magazine at the end of 1928 and beginning of ’29. It had some promise but Haycox himself knew that “the thin part of the book is the plot.” His second novel, Chaffee of Roaring Horse (later in ’29) was weaker. It had “shallow, unimaginative characters”. Whispering Range followed in 1931. Haycox was gradually, slowly learning his craft. “He was on the precarious rim of acceptance.”
Between 1929 and 1934 his earnings ranged from $10,000 to $12,000 a year. He was finally able to buy a house and a Studebaker roadster (curiously for a short man, as he grew wealthier he surrounded himself with giant dogs, huge cars, the biggest yacht on the Williamette River and a vast house). A turning point came in 1930 when Collier’s finally accepted a story.
Haycox believed there were three stages to his writing career; he was quite deliberate about it. First, he would make a decent living writing stories for the pulps. Then he would write stories and serialized novels for the glossier magazines like Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post, which paid more, were slightly more up-market and would enhance his reputation. Lastly, and only when he was secure and established, he would turn to writing ‘literature’. It was really, though, as a writer of Westerns for the slicks that Haycox became best known. He had honed his craft and improved his style. He started to introduce more characterization and became well known for what Etulain calls his ‘Hamlet heroes’, central characters who were self-questioning and reflective, not simply white-hat invincible superheroes.
Haycox even had a kind of Hollywood career, when one of his Collier’s stories, Stage to Lordsburg (1937), reviewed separately, was taken up by John Ford and made into the 1939 movie Stagecoach, and then several other stories became films, such as Paramount’s big A-picture Union Pacific (based on Trouble Shooter), the excellent Jacques Tourneur-directed Canyon Passage, Universal’s The Far Country directed by Anthony Mann and starring James Stewart (though Haycox’s book Alder Gulch was only tenuously the basis), and more (eleven in all, that I know of). One serialized novel, Bugles in the Afternoon (also separately reviewed) in 1943, which was his debut in The Saturday Evening Post, was very good (some think it his finest novel) though the movie made of it, Warners’ Bugles in the Afternoon (reviewed) of 1952 was disappointing.
His reputation grew. The great Luke Short, another of my all-time admired Western writers, said, “My favorite Haycox yarns don’t lean on a known time or place. … In these stories, I suspect Haycox made his own geography, named his own towns and mountains and rivers; he peopled them with tough abrasive characters whose only law was their self will.” Short did that himself, of course. Some of the Haycox stories were fictional but thinly disguised historical accounts, such as Trail Town (1941) about the fictional River Bend and its sheriff Dan Mitchell – clearly Wild Bill’s predecessor Bear River Tom Smith in Abilene.
As the 1940s dawned, Haycox felt ready to spread his wings, a little anyway, and began working on what Etulain calls “the historical Western”. His Bugles in the Afternoon (1944) was a Custer novel (or peripherally about Custer) which proved to be his all-time best seller, and Etulain says, “Only The Earthbreakers (1952), Haycox’s last written novel, ranks unquestionably above Bugles in the Afternoon in literary merit.” Bugles is indeed a superior historical Western.
Now Haycox wanted to go further. He wanted to move away from the ‘Western’, and the strict guidelines of the magazines that published them, and write a ‘proper’ historical novel. He wanted, ambitiously, to create an American Les Misérables or Lorna Doone. But the closing years of Haycox’s career were in many ways his least productive. Canyon Passage, his last serial in The Saturday Evening Post, has its limitations as a book. “The excessive pell-mell action and multiplicity of characters … limit its strengths.” (Etulain). And the writer adds, “Lacking an entirely believable hero, heroine, or villain, the novel fails.” Actually, here was a case where the film version was an improvement on the book because the movie was obliged to slim down and streamline, cutting out the verbiage and padding, and beefing up the central characters (played by Dana Andrews, Brian Donlevy, and Ward Bond as the villain). Haycox was fully aware of the weaknesses of the novel and was happy to help in the making of the movie.
Long Storm (1946), Head of the Mountain and The Adventurers (both the last two published posthumously) were all attempts at the historical novel set in the West (rather than Westerns) but they were of limited merit and not especially successful. His characters were “too talky” and “there were too many think passages”. 1947 and ’48 were difficult years for Haycox. But he embarked on what was to be the first volume of a great trilogy set in the North-West, The Earthbreakers. It was to become his last and finest novel. Before he was able to make final revisions of it, though, he was diagnosed with abdominal cancer. Surgery was not successful and he died, aged only 51, in October 1950.
Etulain says, “Throughout his lifetime, Haycox frequently promised more literarily than he delivered as a writer.” This is perhaps why he is not always regarded as one of the leading Western story-tellers. But “his fiction moved gradually but steadily upward in literary merit.” Another Western writer, DB Newton, perceptively wrote that Haycox “very nearly succeeded, single-handed, in doing for the standard Western what Hammett and Chandler did for the private eye detective story – made it respectable.”
Etulain’s book is, frankly, a model of how to write a literary biography. It is lucid, perceptive, interesting and, above all perhaps, succinct. I thoroughly recommend it.
But let us leave the last word on Haycox to the great American writer Bernard DeVoto, whom Professor Etulain quotes at the head of his Epilogue, who wrote in 1954: