With his chiseled features, commanding presence and quick wit, Charles E. Rankin (“Chuck” to friends and colleagues) is what you might expect of a Western book editor living in Helena, Mont., and the many honors he’s received for titles published over a long career demonstrate he knows what makes a good story. Rankin recently retired as associate director/editor in chief for the University of Oklahoma Press, a position he held for 16 years. Before that he was director of publications for the Montana Historical Society Press and editor of Montana: The Magazine of Western History and spent 10 years as a newspaper editor and radio news director. But the Tulsa, Okla., native isn’t finished working on Western books.
‘When the editor does bring an absorbing interest to capable material, you get to stand shoulder to shoulder with the author and survey the landscape of his or her narrative’
What drew you to the story of the American West?
Geography. When I was 10 years old and my parents and I motored west on vacation from Tulsa to L.A., we only had to get as far as Tucumcari, N.M., before I knew I’d found home. Crystalline skies, desiccated landscape, unobstructed distance. I hadn’t read him then, but Robert Service, in his poem “The Spell of the Yukon,” had already summed up the allure: “The freshness, the freedom, the farness…the stillness, the moonlight, the mystery.”
What were the best and worst aspects of editing Montana?
Best: recruiting good material, working with truly talented authors, illustrating their work aptly, publishing new things that make readers say, “I didn’t know that!” Worst: managing the details—aka being nibbled to death by ducks.
How about the best and worst aspects of being an editor at OU Press?
Much the same, but with the sense that books have a greater permanency and—knowing that—wanting to make them handsomely striking. Worst: dealing with people who have no such vision.
Which book projects stand out for you?
The first requirement is for an editor to genuinely engage with the author’s material. Not all editors will do that; for some it’s, “Take a number.” But when the editor does bring an absorbing interest to capable material, you get to stand shoulder to shoulder with the author and survey the landscape of his or her narrative. The second requisite is to have a talented author who will listen to you with enough self-confidence (and humility) to take your suggestions to heart (not verbatim) and do something creative with them.
One of the first like this was R. Eli Paul’s Autobiography of Red Cloud, but also Will Bagley’s Blood of the Prophets, Stephen Witte and Marsha Gallagher’s Journals of Prince Maximilian, Ruth McLaughlin’s Bound Like Grass, Jerry Greene’s American Carnage, Paul Hedren’s Rosebud, Jim Ronda’s Visions of the Tallgrass, Candy Moulton’s Mormon Handcart Migration.…The list is long.
What would you look for in a biography about, say, George Custer?
It’s almost a cliché, but I’d look for what’s new—that is, what makes me see one of the most written-about Western characters differently or in a new context that makes sense. After the, what, more than 700 biographies of Custer (and counting) there are still only a few books regarded as must-reads. Admittedly, The Twilight Zone episode on the Little Bighorn made no sense, but it was memorable.
Can you explain the enduring fascination Americans have with such icons?
Even people who know nothing about them have heard of them. That’s why no one ever misses the point of a Custer cartoon. So, fascination with Western icons is built in. Then, when the curiosity bug bites, the more people learn about a thing, the more fascinating it becomes to them. And icons are easy. It doesn’t take long to become conversant if not consumed by the details and controversies. History taken more broadly is harder, and most people don’t have the patience.
What Western nonfiction books would you consider required reading?
Truth is, not many Western history books are overviews—most are topic-driven. So if you want to read about Indians, or railroads, or Mormons, or the cattle trails (the list can go on and on), then you need to turn to the best books on those things. I’d rather recommend authors: Francis Parkman, Teddy Blue Abbott, Theodore Roosevelt, Robert M. Utley, Leland Sonnichsen, Will Bagley, David Weber, William Goetzmann, Francis Parkman, Wallace Stegner, Jerry Greene, Elliott West, Juanita Brooks, Jim Ronda, Paul Hedren, John Wesley Powell, George Bird Grinnell, Helena Huntington Smith, Hampton Sides.
Same question, but this time biographies?
Wallace Stegner, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian; Teddy Blue Abbott, We Pointed Them North; Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My Story; Ben Yagoda, Will Rogers; Ivan Doig, This House of Sky; John Taliaferro, Charles M. Russell; Gary Scharnhorst, Mark Twain (two volumes); Robert Utley, Sitting Bull; Louis Warren, Buffalo Bill’s America; John Turner, Brigham Young.
How about books you didn’t publish but wish you had?
Lee Whittlesey, Death in Yellowstone; Elliott West, Contested Plains.
‘My favorite topic is, logically enough, what I’m working on now—Western newspaper journalism. There’s almost nothing it doesn’t touch: events of the day; the famous, the infamous, the common folk; major occurrences both East and West; technology; women; Indians; humor; small-town life; big-city life’
What are you reading now?
I’m playing catch-up with a lot of stuff, from Jon Meacham’s Jackson and Robert Chernow’s Grant to Tim Egan’s The Big Burn to Gary Scharnhorst’s Mark Twain to Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast and Jack London’s The Sea Wolf.
Who’s your favorite Western figure?
Western writers: Jack London, Mark Twain, Norman Maclean, Ivan Doig, Bill Nye and other Western humorists, Ed Abbey, Tony Hillerman.
What Western history topic interests you most?
My favorite topic is, logically enough, what I’m working on now—Western newspaper journalism. There’s almost nothing it doesn’t touch: events of the day; the famous, the infamous, the common folk; major occurrences both East and West; technology; women; Indians; humor; small-town life; big-city life. And as writers, newspaper journalists tended to be facile and visceral, and therefore interesting. Newspapers were ubiquitous, but as a topic they are more unaddressed than otherwise—hiding largely in plain sight.
What historical figures remain overlooked?
Written about meaningfully: the humorist.
Which have commanded too much print?
Custer and all the other icons (Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, Tom Horn, Butch Cassidy, the cowboy, the outlaw, the gunfight, the train robbery, Indian fights, etc.). As I said earlier, if it’s good, OK, maybe even great! But most of the time it isn’t. New books keep coming out on them, but their authors often have nothing new to say.
Is there a question you’d like to answer?
What’s the direction of Western history going forward? I don’t pretend to know for sure, but I do suspect that between the popularized stuff that just keeps getting rehashed (mainly to make money) and the academic world seeming to grow evermore narrow and politically driven, a middle ground is opening up for good writers to write meaningfully about topics that matter. WW