The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans


Ernest Haycox: “The significant and talented western author whose presence continues to exert power on the page and the screen” (Susan Kollin)

On this blog we’ve looked at the work of
various Western writers – the likes of Zane Grey or Max Brand, for example. And
back in 2015 I also wrote about Ernest Haycox, one of the very greatest writers
of the Western short story. But I’ve just read Ernest Haycox and the Western (University of Oklahoma Press,
Norman, 2017) by Richard W Etulain. Professor Etulain is
always worth reading on anything to do with the West (see for example his
excellent Telling Western Stories,
which I reviewed back in 2013, or his life of Calamity Jane).
His
study of Haycox is a fine book and in the light of reading it I’d like to revise my
earlier thoughts somewhat.

It is clear that for most of his life Ernest
Haycox (pictured left), born 1899, died 1950, regarded writing as a matter of livelihood and earnings.
He was not trying to write the great American novel but measured success in
terms of stories sold to magazines, first the pulps, then the slicks. Probably
his childhood insecurity, social and financial, had something to do with that. And
he did succeed on those terms too, making a very decent living, supporting his
family and building a fine new house. Later in his career he felt secure enough
to branch out a little (his cautious temperament made it only a little) and if
he did not write a literary masterpiece and is not regarded as one of the truly
great American writers, he did at least give us a fine novel, a first-class
book, The Earthbreakers (published
posthumously in 1952), about settlers in Oregon. In any case, all his stories,
long or short, were crafted, professional efforts and if they were not all
great (especially some of the earlier ones for the pulps) they are all still
today very readable – although I have yet to find a really good collection in
book form of his short stories.


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.

Fine book
 

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.

Prof. Thacher


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.

Young Ernest
 
Soldier
 

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”.

Pulps
 

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.”

A rather posed picture of the Haycox family
 

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.

Stage to Lordsburg, in Collier’s, became…
 
…John Ford’s movie Stagecoach
 

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
writing. 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.

Slicks
 

Haycox even had a kind of Hollywood career,
when one of his Collier’s stories, Stage to Lordsburg (1937), reviewed
separately (click the link), was taken up by John Ford and made into the 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 (from the book Alder Gulch), and more (eleven in all, that I know of). One serialized novel, Bugles in the Afternoon (click the link
for a review of that) 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 of 1952 (again, click) was disappointing.


They became big movies, directed by DeMille, Mann, Tourneur, among others
 

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.

1941 serialized novel
 

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.

Some regard it as his best novel
 

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.

It had its weaknesses
 

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.

Late novels
 

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:


Ernest
Haycox, who was the old pro of horse opera and came closer than anyone to
making good novels of it, left his mark – I should say brand – on the style as
well as the content.

 [Recent
writers of the West] are all trying to be Haycox, and to go beyond him, though
no one as good at the job as he has yet arrived.

 

9 Responses

  1. I have quite a number of western novels boxed up in my attic. One of the first westerns I ever read was Ernest Haycox's "STARLIGHT RIDER". I also have "WHISPERING RANGE", I believe, but have still not yet read it.
    "STARLIGHT RIDER" put Haycox's name up in lights for me from then on. Must be 60 years since I first read it.

    1. You ought to dig them out!
      I've read quite a few short stories and Bugles in the Afternoon. I think my next will be The Earthbreakers.
      Jeff

  2. Great post. But …. what really strikes me is this: looking at those magazines covers and some of the interior illustrations, I realize how debased and ugly our pop culture has become.

    1. I always felt that reading Luke Short, whose quite serious books were disfigured by the lurid paperback covers. At the same time, though, I do rather like those sensational book covers and movie posters of the 50s. They have a pulp-fiction charm.

  3. Am I correct in thinking Haycox's 1941 serialized "TRAIL TOWN" was filmed in 1946 as "ABILENE TOWN", a personal favourite Randolph Scott film?

  4. Jeff, maybe I am wrong !? But I do not find your comments on Stage Station which has been adapted twice – Apache Trail by Richard Thorpe with Lloyd Nolan, then a pale photocopy – but an important final twist if I remember well – Apache War Smoke shot 10 years after whose major asset is a freewheeling Gilbert Roland. JM

  5. Thank you for your very positive comments on my book ERNEST HAYCOX AND THE WESTERN. Much appreciated. Dick Etulain

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