BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : All You Want to Know About How the West Was Fun : SEEKING PLEASURE IN THE OLD WEST by David Dary; Knopf $30, 351 pages
All of us think we know what life was like in the Old West, thanks to our exposure to countless books, movies, television shows, commercials and other artifacts of the popular culture.
David Dary, by contrast, is actually an expert on the subject, and he aims to set us straight in “Seeking Pleasure in the Old West,” a scholarly but readable survey of how real men and women on the frontier amused themselves.
“The pleasures Americans created and enjoyed in the 19th century American West,” Dary proposes, “helped to shape the national character.”
The title of Dary’s book suggests something slightly titillating, as if we were being invited into the dance halls, saloons and bawdy houses that we have glimpsed so often at the matinees. But Dary’s definition of pleasure is much more expansive, and thus rather less erotic, than the thrill seeker might hope.
“Pleasure,” as Dary uses the word, includes sex, to be sure, but also dancing the fandango, playing monte, strumming the guitar, racing on horseback, making quilts, baiting bears and bulls, skinny-dipping, smoking and chewing tobacco, engaging in wrestling matches and other forms of mock warfare, and much else that will not raise anyone’s eyebrows or heart rate.
By way of introduction, Dary makes the point that pleasure- seeking was hardly encouraged in the puritanical culture of early 19th century America, an era when “the idea of self-improvement and of not wasting time” made even harmless merrymaking into something sinful.
But the westward tilt busted things wide open, as Dary discovered in sifting through journals, memoirs and newspaper accounts dating to the early 19th century. Life on the frontier, lacking law and tradition, encouraged a certain freedom in pleasure-seeking, and so did exposure to the folkways of native tribes, Spanish and Mexican settlers, and other new peoples.
Dary, a journalism professor at the University of Oklahoma, does not neglect the details. For example, he tells us exactly how the card games of euchre and old sledge are played, what names were favored among the prostitutes in cattle country (Annie, Fanny, Jenny, Katie, Minnie, Hattie and Mattie), and why buffalo gall was used by mountain men in the making of moonshine.
The author writes with decorum and detachment, but he is not above grossing us out now and then. For example, he describes how a couple of mountain men competed with each other to swallow the greatest quantity of buffalo guts, each one starting at one end of a long coil of intestines and eating his way toward the other.
“The greasy viand required no mastication,” reports a contemporary observer, “and was bolted whole.”
To his credit, Dary is something of an iconoclast, and he seems to take pleasure in pointing out exactly how our most cherished icons came into existence. He shows us an old photograph of gun-toting and Stetson-clad cowboys playing poker around an overturned wooden crate, for instance, and notes that “in all likelihood, the scene was staged in a photographer’s studio.”
Not surprisingly, Dary points out that the closing of the frontier brought a certain retrenchment in attitudes toward pleasure-seeking, and even something as innocuous as speed trials by horse-breeders at a country fair became suspect in the eyes of the new burghers of the Old West.
“The frontier had been replaced by farms, thriving villages, and busy towns and cities, and with them churches and schools,” the author observes. “With these institutions of civilized life . . . came Puritan prejudices and orthodoxy that lingered in the minds of [those] who were trying to find their places in the sun as respectable and accepted Christian members of their communities.”
At certain moments in “Seeking Pleasure,” the author’s energy seems to flag a bit, and we get an occasional sentence that functions only as a space-filler: “Like people everywhere, Indians in the West sought pleasure whenever and wherever they could,” he writes at one point. “In this way they were no different from other people in America. . . .”
More often, though, Dary and his book display a winning enthusiasm for the colorful details of real life in the Old West. Indeed, “Seeking Pleasure in the Old West” is indispensable for readers and writers of Westerns who seek authenticity rather than myth-making in the depiction of the American frontier.