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The New Picture Books

July 2024
5min read

The Frontier Years , by Mark H. Brown and W. R. FeIton (Holt: $10), perhaps the best of this year’s picture histories, is also the most limited in time and space. It is built around the life of one man, L. A. Huffman, a photographer who came to Fort Keogh on the Yellowstone, in Montana, in 1878 and remained in that area until his death in 1931, taking pictures of just about everything that happened or appealed to him there. In his photographs—and in the letters and notes he left behind, which the authors quote extensively—he left a record of a raw, rough portion of the West as civilization moved in and made over the land. Some of the pioneers themselves deplored the change and agreed with Badger Clark:

”… I loved my fellow man the best When he was scattered some.”

Of all the tragedies which time wrought in the land Huffman loved, none was so great as that which overtook the Indians, whom he photographed superbly in all their strange, impassive dignity. No two races, the authors point out, understood each other less than the white man and the red, and the white man wrote the histories. Here is a glimpse of the other side, of men who were honest and truthful until the alien race taught them otherwise. Here is the red man, according to Huffman, after twenty years of white supervision: “And some of these withered ones with the furrowed faces, with habiliments and dwellings neither savage or civilized, their faces tell me a sad, sad tale, for only yesterday I saw him in his lodge of skins; his robe was glossy, and upon the inside of the rude dwelling there was the odor of white clay, the pungency of willow bark and the incense of sweet grass; and he walked uprightly and proudly, and the covering upon his feet, the skin of beasts, was gayly tricked out with the quills of the porcupine, dressed and tinted by the loving hands of the women of his household; but now that indescribable something in the courage and the general tout ensemble of the red men and women that was so apparent in these people is gone and they are woefully changed.”

The American West , by Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg (Button: $12.50), is a gaudy thing of Indian scouts and desperadoes, miners and cardsharps, barrooms and bagnios. Mr. Beebe, the last of the great dudes, has mined a good many pictorial lodes of western Americana but his biggest strike was made in the files of the Police Gazette. The authors are at their rollicking best when dealing with such “pretty waiter girls” of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast as The Galloping Cow, The Roaring Gimlet, Lady Jane Gray and The Little Lost Chicken. They linger lovingly at the famous pleasure dome of the Everleigh sisters, who dazzled the cow barons of Omaha with a $15,000 goldplated piano played by a professor in evening dress.

Messrs. Beebe and Clegg, who now run the famous old Territorial Enterprise at Virginia City, Nevada, are naturally partial to this greatest of all the bonanza towns, the capital of the Comstock Lode. But they grant the claim of little Bodie, which San Francisco papers like to place in Nevada but which was really inside the California border, to its rank as the wickedest town in all the West. “The smoke of battle,” wrote an awed correspondent, “hardly ever clears away altogether in Bodie.” The tale was told of a miner who was moving his family to the dangerous town when he overheard his little daughter praying: “Good-bye God, we’re going to Bodie.” The Bodie Free Press , however, always maintained that what the little girl really said was “Good! By God, we’re going to Bodie!”

The Settlers’ West , by Martin F. Schmitt and Dee Brown (Scribners: $7.50), devotes itself to the soberer aspects of the western saga. Here are the covered wagon pioneers, who built their first houses of sod and made their fires of buffalo chips or even of prairie hay, and who wanted the West to be as much like the East as they could make it.

Tales of the Mississippi , by Ray Samuel et al (Hastings House: !7.50), is filled with the lore of river boats and river people. There was, for instance, George H. Devol, slickest of the steamboat gamblers. One night on the Robert E. Lee a fellow whom he had just cheated of $800 at monte pulled a Colt pistol.

“See here, friend,” he said, waving the roscoe, “that is all the money I have got and I will have it back.”

“Did you think I was going to keep the money?” asked Devol coolly.

“I knew very well,” said the fellow, “you would not keep it. If you had, I would have filled you full of lead. I am from Texas, sir.”

As he pulled out a roll of money, Devol whispered to the Texan: “I didn’t want to give you the money before all those people because then they would all want their money back too; but you offer to bet me again and I will bet you $800 against your pistol.”

Pleased, the Texan handed his pistol to a stakeholder. Devol threw the crooked cards and the Texan, naturally, picked the wrong one. Grabbing the pistol, Devol pointed it at the man and said: “Now, you’ve acted the wet dog about this and I will not give you a cent of your money, and if you cut any more capers, I will break your nose.”

He could have, too, because Devol was the head-butting champion of the lower Mississippi. When a gambling victim gave him trouble, Devol would lower his head and rush at the man, aiming to hit him between the eyes. Doctors told Devol that his skull was an inch thick over the forehead and opponents who hit it barefisted reported that it felt “like a cannon ball.”

Mathew Brady : Historian with a Camera, by James D. Horan (Crown: $7.50), presents a number of interesting Brady pictures that have not been published before, along with many that have had far better reproduction elsewhere and some that are too poor to deserve reproduction anywhere. Messy layout combines with the poor printing to obscure the greatness of Brady’s photographic achievement.

Buffalo Bill and the Wild West , by Henry B. Sell and Victor Weybright (Oxford: $6.95), is a spirited story of the Indian scout who lent himself so well to the arts of promotion that he ended up as the incarnation of the West. The authors, one of whom—Sell—is a kinsman of the game old showman, have written a splendid text which could well stand independently from the nostalgic pictures.

Pictorial History of American Presidents , by John and Alice Durant (Barnes: $10), is a workmanlike assembly of pictures and text which ought to find a good market in an election year.

Tin Lizzie : The Story of the Fabulous Model T Ford , by Philip Van Doren Stern (Simon & Schuster: $3.98), is an affectionate history of the little car that changed the whole pattern of American life.

Civil War in Pictures , by Fletcher Pratt (Holt: $10), is made up of drawings from Harper’s Weekly and other illustrated papers of the period. This is how the northern public actually saw the war, for photographs were not reproduced at the time. Fortunately for the eyes of their readers, the weeklies were able to reproduce the original drawings, instead of printed copies, and to give them greater size as well as better printing than they get today.

The American Wars , by Roy Meredith (World: $10), is a record of battle art from the French and Indian Wars to Korea. Even the Revolution had such distinguished artists in uniform as Colonel John Trumbull [who painted the head of Washington on the cover of this issue] and James and Charles Willson Peale. By World War I the Army had a staff of artists under the Corps of Engineers and by World War II combat artists were sketching under fire in every theater. This record of combat art would be far more impressive if it were reproduced in its original color and more impressive still if it did not have to stand comparison with the work of the war photographers. Perhaps the bright, theatrical brush of the painter suited the formalized actions of another age, but the grim, relentless eye of the black-and-white camera seems to make the truest record of modern war.

Oliver Jensen

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