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From Wednesday, 5 February 2014 to Friday, 21 March 2014, I read Clarence E. Mulford's Bar-20 (NY: Forge [a Tom Doherty Associates book], 1992; 2006; ISBN: 978-0-765-35737-3; 284 pps.; includes an introduction by Jackson Cain and a 3-chapter [33 pps.] excerpt from the 4th novel in the series, Hopalong Cassidy [Bar-20 is only 246 pps. long]), which is the very first Hopalong Cassidy novel.

cover to Bar-20 by Clarence E Mulford

Hopalong Cassidy is one of the most famous -- if not the most famous -- Western heroes in the world. Created by Clarence E. Mulford, the first Hopalong Cassidy novel, Bar-20 (whose full title is Bar-20: Being a Record of Certain Happenings that Occurred in the Otherwise Peaceful Lives of one Hopalong Cassidy and His Companions on the Range), appeared in either 1906 or 1907 (although the Library of Congress lists two 1907 editions, one of them, from The Outing Publishing Company, is currently missing), appears to collect a group of stories first published in 1904, but the character would go on to greater fame in a series of 66 movies, as well as his own radio and television programmes.

There is precious little in the way of character development in Bar-20: the characters associated with Hopalong are scarcely distinguishable from one another (indeed, Hopalong's -- he's never called "Hoppy" here, unlike in his other media appearances -- closest friend, Red Connors, is distinguishable from Hopalong primarily by his preferred weapon: a rifle, as opposed to Hopalong's partiality for the six-shooter; both men are redheads), although one might be better at roping steers and another might be better at "broncho" busting, while the foreman of the Bar-20 ranch, Buck Peters, is slightly less impulsive than the brawling, yowling, over-grown schoolboys he rides herd on much as they ride herd on the ranch's cattle due to his age; in terms of personality, there's not a hair's difference between most of them (although the lugubrious Billy stands out as the Eeyore of the group), and thus it's difficult to form a preference for one over the others. Here Hopalong is a 23-year-old who acts more or less how one would expect an actual twenty-something male in the late 1800s to act in his milieu, to wit: he curses (these are largely elided, save for the occasional "damn" or "hell;" more common are semi-humorous, sometimes esoteric, euphemisms, such as, in Chapter XI ["Holding the Claim"], Hopalong calls a calf a "'trellis-built rack of bones'" [p. 112] and his friend Red a "'pie-eating doodlebug'" [p. 113]), smokes, drinks, uses his ferocious skill with firearms to kill when necessary (and sometimes, perhaps, when it's not strictly necessary), and willingly makes the acquaintance of ladies of easy virtue; this is in marked contrast to his other media appearances. Thanks to William Boyd, a white-haired actor whose previous claim to fame was having proposed marriage to his co-star Elinor Fair while filming the 1926 movie The Volga Boatman (she accepted, although they divorced three years later), Hopalong became "'a veritable Galahad of the range, a soft spoken paragon who did not smoke, drink or kiss girls, who tried to capture the rustlers instead of shooting them, and who always let the villain draw first if gunplay was inevitable,'" according to Time magazine. Boyd became so identified with Hopalong Cassidy that he frequently wore his all-black cowboy outfit (Mulford makes no mention of Hopalong being clad entirely in black) in public; he was shrewd enough to buy the rights to the films and novels, and he licensed the character and his image to numerous child-oriented products, while NBC edited the films down to episodic length, making Hopalong Cassidy the first television western series. Indeed, Mulford himself revised his earlier work so that Hopalong and his friends were more consistent with their onscreen portrayals; Hopalong here has no very great regard for the finer points of the law, as when he dismisses Buck and Frenchy's cautionary tale of the sheriff of Topeka requiring all firearms to be turned in to the bartenders before their owners can be served with a rousing, "'To blazes with th' law!'" (Chapter IX: "The Advent of McAllister"; pps. 98-99).

There appear to be four or five stories comprising Bar-20; beyond dividing the stories equally into named chapters, with no other demarcations (such as "Part I," "Book I," or the name of the original stories) to indicate where one story ends and the next one begins, there is no other attempt to convert them into a seamless novel. The first five chapters are the most awkwardly written, with the stiff, formal, Victorian-style prose of the omniscient narrator sitting uneasily side-by-side with the more modern, though stylized, colloquialisms of the dialogue (the characters cannot usually be distinguished by their speech patterns); Mulford doesn't seem to find his voice until the sixth chapter ("Trials of the Convalescent"). (Another oddity: the hats worn by the cowboys are called sombreros, which was apparently what cowboys called any broad-brimmed hat instead of the specific headgear associated with the vaqueros and banditos of Mexico.) After roughly the halfway mark, the writing markedly improves, to the point of implying far darker deeds than Boyd or the Hays Office would ever allow: the conclusion of Bar-20's strongest episode, an all-out range war against a gang of exceptionally crafty rustlers who have successfully preyed upon half a dozen different ranches, strongly implies that one of the supporting characters, Frenchy, tortured and/or mutilated one of the chief rustlers before administering the customary "frontier justice" meted out to rustlers (i.e., hanging; see Chapter XXII: "The Showdown"; p. 213). This tantalizing hint of what Bar-20 could've been -- something more interesting than the gory and obvious Peckinpahesque revisionist western that most obviously suggests itself -- was enough to make this reader grind his teeth in frustration.

The violence in Bar-20 in the early chapters is cartoonish, reminiscent of a parody of the 1980s TV show The A-Team: characters who are fatally shot die immediately and bloodlessly, while characters who are wounded, even to the point of having been shot in a limb, are able to continue fighting without impediment until the fight is over. One only has to have read a couple of H. Rider Haggard's books published twenty years prior to Bar-20 to realize that Mulford didn't have to write his action scenes this way. While the violence never quite rises to the zest and pungency of Edgar Rice Burroughs or Robert E. Howard at their best, it does improve over its earliest appearances.

The provenance of Hopalong's byname is explained Chapter VII ("The Open Door"), where it is revealed that Hopalong "had received the wound that crippled him [really, left him with a slight limp] in saving the sheriff [of Albuquerque, Harris] from assassination" (p. 61); "..from this episode on the burning desert grew a friendship that was as strong as their own natures" (ibid). Mulford ascribes some of the characteristics to Harris that Boyd would claim for Hopalong -- "No profane word had ever been known to leave his lips, and he was the possessor of a widespread reputation for generosity" (p. 62) -- but, two pages after he's introduced, he's killed off, obviating the potential for the portrayal of an odd-couple friendship between Hopalong and Harris.

The appetite for new Hopalong adventures was such that a young pulp author named Louis L'Amour was commissioned to write four of them, under the house name "Tex Burns," by Doubleday in 1950; these were originally published in bowdlerized form in keeping with the portrayal of Hopalong in film, comic books, radio and television, but were posthumously republished with L'Amour's original "adult" writing restored.

If one has a keen interest in the development of the western serial hero, or if one is interested in a slightly more nuanced version of the goody-two-shoes character portrayed by William Boyd, then Bar-20 is worth a read; for the mildly curious reader, such as myself, it's less certain that further perusal of Mulford's work will offer greater rewards than a deeper dive into, say, the work of Rider Haggard, Howard, Talbot Mundy, or Harold Lamb.


*Cross-posted to LibraryThing.



Comments

( 3 monkeys shocked! — shock the monkey! )
dfordoom
Mar. 24th, 2014 12:17 pm (UTC)
I read one of Mulford's Hopalong Cassidy stories (Hopalong's Hop) a while back, in the Otto Penzler-edited Big Book of Adventure Stories. I believe the story dated from 1912. It is interesting to see Hopalong Cassidy before Hollywood cleaned him up.
uvula_fr_b4
Mar. 25th, 2014 11:40 pm (UTC)
I know you aren't much of a fan of modern fiction, but if you've a liking for westerns, you could do worse than Johnny D. Boggs' West Texas Kill, for a no-frills actioner; if you want something that gives a little more meat with the sizzle, Matt Braun's Bloody Hand is a worthy choice; and if you've a hankering for a western from the point of view of the Amerindians / First Nations, Mike Blakely's Comanche Dawn should fill the bill (even if Blakely made an ill-fated choice to introduce a horse as a POV character late in the book).
dfordoom
Mar. 24th, 2014 12:22 pm (UTC)
it's less certain that further perusal of Mulford's work will offer greater rewards than a deeper dive into, say, the work of Rider Haggard, Howard, Talbot Mundy, or Harold Lamb.

I agree with that assessment. Haggard, Howard, Mundy and Lamb in their different ways demonstrate what could be achieved with the adventure story. Haggard and Howard have always retained a strong following but Mundy and Lamb don't get the attention they deserve.

If you're interested I've discussed works by those writers at various times on my Vintage Pop Fictions blog.
( 3 monkeys shocked! — shock the monkey! )

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