A Swallow Press Book
Without humor, the American West would be a vast territory of arid clichés — stolid cowboys and fearless lawmen, or, in more modern visions, dastardly land developers and fanatical environmentalists — all of them as lifeless as an alkalai flat. In The Laughing West, Professor C. L. Sonnichsen presents a generous selection of humorous western writing and shows how the humorous perspective comes closer to the truth about the west than either the romance of the “old West” or the sometimes bitter anti-romanticism of the new west. As Leslie Fiedler has observed, “to understand the West as somehow a joke comes a little closer to getter it straight.”
The Laughing West consists of twenty-one pieces of humorous western writing, along with a general introduction, section introductions and an afterword. Throughout the book, the humor is based on character, and on how our perception of the familiar character types has evolved over the years. The reader is treated to a gallery of western originals: from the practical joker Slewfoot Samuels in Bill Gulick’s “The Marriage of Moon Wind,” to Eddie Bud Boyd, the fast-talking cattle broker in Glendon Swarthout’s The Cadillac Cowboys; from the Texas A&M-educated Sheriff “Freight Train” Flowers in Peeper by William Brinkley, to the brilliantly devious Governor Cullie Blanton in The One-Eyed Man by Larry L. King.
In addition to the traditional cowboys, Indians, and Mexicans, The Laughing West shows some contemporary western faces: the new breed of lawman, the rootless pilgrim, and the new urban westerner, typified by “Slick,” in Dan Jenkins’ Baja Oklahoma complaining about the “Chateau-le-44.50” in the poshest restaurant in a Dallas shopping mall.
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Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, America was captivated by a muddled notion of “etymology.” New England Transcendentalism was only one outcropping of a nationwide movement in which schoolmasters across small-town America taught students the roots of words in ways that dramatized religious issues and sparked wordplay.Shaped by this ferment, our major romantic authors shared the sensibility that Friedrich Schlegel linked to punning and christened “romantic irony.”
An excerpt from Stories from Mesa Country:“They are coming back from the burial ground. I can see them walking, two abreast, along the narrow track by the wash. Tom has his head down, his hands in the pockets of his black suit. Beside him, Reverend Sherman is talking, waving his arms, trying, I’d guess, to comfort. Behind them come Enid and Faith, square shapes in best blue dresses, and then Seth and Arch, leggy as colts, uncomfortable in Sunday suits, in the shadow of tragedy.
Ann and Josie Bassett were members of Butch Cassidy’s inner circle, ranchers, and cattle rustlers. Based on interviews, written records, newspapers, and archives, The Bassett Women is an indelible portrait and one of the few credible accounts of early settlers on Colorado’s western slope, one of the last strongholds of the Old West.
A mile down the road from the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, a woman unearths an ancient shard of pottery bearing the thousands-year-old thumbprint of a Navawi‘i woman. A marriage is thrown into crisis by the husband’s discovery, on a fishing trip, of a girl’s corpse. To impress the prostitute he wants to marry, a man constructs a homemade atomic bomb.