Ernest Haycox and the Western, by Richard W. Etulain, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2017, $29.95
Not nearly as well-known today as Louis L’Amour or Zane Grey, Ernest Haycox (1899–1950) wrote his share of good traditional Westerns. For most of his career he wrote thrilling formula fiction about the West for pulp magazines and then Collier’s Weekly (47 stories and seven serials between 1931 and ’38). Haycox didn’t introduce history into his works until his 1936 serial Trouble Shooter, in which he set his fiction on a factual platform—the Union Pacific and the building of the first transcontinental railroad. Other historical Westerns followed periodically, such as The Border Trumpet, for which he drew his accurate historical settings from John G. Bourke’s 1891 book On the Border With Crook. Haycox’s 1942 work Alder Gulch united fictional characters with such real-life Montana Territory figures as sheriff and suspected road agent Henry Plummer and vigilante leader X. Biedler. “Haycox levels no harsh criticism at the vigilantes who finally capture and hang the rascal Plummer and his gang of robbers,” writes Richard Etulain, adding, however, the book offers some of the author’s best handling of moral drama and a realization of Haycox’s belief that individuality is sacred but destroys the individual and the community when carried to an extreme.
Haycox’s best-known short story is 1937’s “Stage to Lordsburg,” in large part because two years later director John Ford turned it into the star-making John Wayne film Stagecoach. Etulain considers it one of Haycox’s finest short stories. His best novel was probably Bugles in the Afternoon, which Collier’s turned down but The Saturday Evening Post published in 1943. Bugles was a Battle of the Little Bighorn novel that received warm reviews and sold better than any Haycox novel. Though a success, Haycox had his share of insecurities, especially when it came to what direction he should turn in making his break from traditional Westerns. “Although a resident of the Pacific Northwest for nearly all his life, Haycox chose not to be a regional writer,” explains Etulain. The biographer argues Haycox wanted something more than money and fame; he desired to leave something to posterity “other than a shelf of Westerns.” He only partially realized his final ambition. Haycox once wrote how people defeat themselves, adding, “There is a fire of some kind in all people and a search for some meaning in their lives—a search which seldom produces much.”