The original Hopalong Cassidy
Clarence Mulford (1883 – 1956) is best remembered for his Hopalong Cassidy character, which he created in 1904 with a series of short stories and, from 1906, twenty-eight novels, the last published in 1941.
The first of the books was Bar-20, which I have just perused – the first Hoppy novel I have read; my acquaintance with Hoppy dates from a boyhood admiration for William Boyd’s portrayal on TV in the 1950s and the accompanying comics and merchandising (I was too young for the movies, which stopped in the year of my birth, 1948, and the radio show, which ceased in 1952, and I never visited the fabled Hoppyland).
I knew that Mulford’s Hoppy was far from Boyd’s goody-goody one but just how different he was, reading the book revealed. As an adult, I certainly prefer the original. So did Louis L’Amour: in 1950, when the character was hugely popular, then-aspiring author L’Amour, writing under the pseudonym Tex Burns, was commissioned to produce four more Hopalong Cassidy novels, this time with a characterization matching William Boyd’s portrayal, rather than Mulford’s. Although they were his first published novels, L’Amour was unhappy with the assignment, because he preferred the original character, and publicly denied authorship of the novels for the rest of his life.
Bar-20 is quite a long novel, probably too leisurely in pace for modern tastes, and it is also full of hokey language clearly derived from Owen Wister, with standard spelling adapted to render the accent and pronunciation. This may have come across as quite amusing at the time but does seem to us now (or to me anyway) overdone, and it becomes tiresome. But it’s a 1906 novel and you take it for what it is.
“How’d yu know?” queried Johnny.
“Because they’s twelve cayuses behind the hotel. That’s why.”
“They might git away on ‘em,” suggested the practical Johnny.
“Yah, yore a smart cuss, ain’t yu?”
And so on. There’s a lot of dialogue, almost as much as narrative, and so the language is very noticeable.
We meet all the Bar-20 hands, and many of the later novels tended to focus on them.
The outfit of the Bar-20 was, perhaps, the most famous of all from Canada to the Rio Grande. The foreman, Buck Peters, controlled a crowd of men (who had all the instincts of boys) that had shown no quarter to many rustlers, and who, while always carefree and easy-going (even fighting with great good humor and carelessness), had established the reputation of being the most reckless gang of daredevil gun-fighters that ever pounded leather.
But Hopalong, fair-haired and 23 then (the characters aged with the books) is clearly the leading character, and probably the most colorful.
Hopalong Cassidy was a combination of irresponsibility, humor, good nature, love of fighting, and nonchalance when face to face with danger. His most prominent attribute was that of always getting into trouble without any intention of so doing.
We are told that he had a
merry, boyish face, underlined by a jaw showing great firmness and set with an expression of aggressive self-reliance.
His name derived from an earlier incident.
He had been crippled some years before in a successful attempt to prevent the assassination of a friend, Sheriff Harris, of Albuquerque, and he still possessed a limp.
We are told that
Hopalong was very sensitive about his crippled leg and was always prompt to resent any scorn or curiosity directed at it, especially when emanating from strangers.
He consoled himself with the knowledge that what he lost in symmetry was more than balanced by the celerity of his gun hand, which was right or left, or both, as the occasion demanded.
There is a great deal of violence, much of it by Hopalong, all described in a jokey tone.
Two local bad men, Slim Travennes and Tex Ewalt, desiring to establish the fact that they were roaring prairie fires, attempted to consume the placid and innocent stranger as he limped across the plaza in search of a game of draw poker at the Black Hills Emporium, with the result that they needed repairs, to the chagrin and disgust of their immediate acquaintances, who endeavored to drown their mortification and sorrow in rapid but somewhat wild gun play, and soon remembered that they had pressing engagements elsewhere.
The plot, such as it is, basically concerns the Bar-20 men hunting down and jocularly shooting to death a band of rustlers, which was not exactly in William Boyd’s line. But you get the sense that this story is almost incidental to the description of the characters and their environment, and especially their conversation, which is the main point of the book.
I enjoyed Bar-20, though am not sure I want to rush to read all the other 27 volumes. Certainly it’s worth trying at least one if you want to see how Hopalong Cassidy originated and how very much changed he would be on the screen.
In F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Gatsby’s father explains his son’s early character, pulling “from his pocket a ragged old copy of a book called Hopalong Cassidy. ‘Look here, this is a book he had when he was a boy. It just shows you.’”
Of course it does. Just shows you, I mean.