Monday, July 20, 2015

Joseph Altsheler and Vardis Fisher

Chance has brought two lesser-known authors to my attention within the past week: Joseph Altsheler (1862-1919) and Vardis Fisher (1895-1968). Altsheler I knew from my youth and I just happened to run across one of his books at the Humane Society thrift shop in Salem.


I paid $4.50 for it - more than I thought it would be (the sign said $2 for books on Thursdays, but I overlooked the fine print that made an exception of books with a green tag, which this one had). But this book online costs much more. 

V. Fisher I had never heard of until I saw a memorial to him yesterday at a rest area east of Idaho Falls. It's sort of odd to have someone buried at a rest area (but on second thought, what could be more appropriate? Rest in peace!) It turns out he was born nearby in Rigby, ID, and lived and wrote most of his books not too far away in Hagerman, ID. He is perhaps Idaho's best-known native author. (Hemingway lived in Idaho for a while but was not a native. Ezra Pound was born in Idaho Territory but left the state at age 18 months, never to return, so his connection with Idaho is tenuous at best). I was a bit surprised to find that the Alpine Library had only one book by Vardis Fisher, considering he is a "local" author. That book is Mountain Man, which is, at least in part, the basis for the film Jeremiah Johnston, starring Robert Redford. 



In an odd sort of way, these two authors have some things in common. While born 33 years apart, they both wrote about "the Old West," and did so in a way that glorified a certain kind of maleness - a very physical, independent, resourceful, survivalist type  - the epitome of the "rugged individualist." Sam Minard, the protagonist of Mountain Man, and Henry Ware, protagonist of The Scouts of the
Valley are both superb specimens of manhood, very much capable of taking care of themselves in dicey situations. E.g., in just the opening pages I have read of each book, Henry Ware easily dispatches a black bear he encounters, quickly dresses it and feasts on its roasted meat; Sam Minard encounters a grizzly bear and watches with fascination as the grizzly is attacked by a badger and becomes enraged (and the badger almost wins!). 

Both these authors are outrageously politically un-correct by today's standards. Altsheler is racist in his attitudes toward Native Americans and Mexicans (though perhaps no more so than Donald Trump!). In the current book, "Indians" (regularly referred to as "the redman" and as "savages") are portrayed as inherently cruel, violent and brutal  (with some exceptions ) whereas the white young men like Henry Ware are only violent in self-defense and even then with a sense of tragic necessity. The colonists generally are portrayed as victims, fighting in self-defense.

Fisher is more complicated. He was, and still is, highly controversial in his portrayal of women, and he appears to have been almost obsessed by gender issues, but I haven't had a chance to figure him out yet. He obviously was something of an eccentric. But a fascinating one! His monumental work was a series of twelve novels, called The Testament of Manwhich traced the history of mankind from Cro-Magnon times to the present. His portrayal of Jesus in this series was considered so blasphemous that most publishers refused to print it. More on all this later.

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