Monday, June 13, 2011

My new favorite Victorian novel – Life in the Far West by George Frederick Ruxton

My favorite in a quite narrow sense.

Life in the Far West is a postmodern Western first published as a serial in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1848.  The novel describes the life of an American fur trapper La Bonté, his partner Killbuck, and a number of other real and unreal mountain men and Western adventurers.  Ruxton, himself an English mountain man with literary pretensions, in a classic postmodern gesture declared that the book was “no fiction,” italics his, I guess, which is correct if I add one little amending phrase, “except for the parts that are fictional.”

The book has in fact survived as a historical document.  As a novel, it is competent, sometimes just barely; as a description of the manners and methods of the mountain men, it is excellent.  The University of Oklahoma Press has kept it in print for sixty years, which is amazing but understandable.

The main interest in the mountain men is their reversion from civilization.  They voluntarily give up whatever is good and true for a life of freedom and wandering at the cost of hardship, starvation, and a violent and early death.  Their motive is only barely economic, since so few of them seem to be able to hang onto any money, or, in their worst moments, any possessions at all.  Today’s mountain wanderers are seekers after the sublime, like John Muir.  The mountain men may not have had so much interest in knowledge or aesthetics.  What they liked was risk.

Ruxton understands this point and mostly adopts a point of view that keeps a distance from his characters but adopts, or does not critique, their ethics.  Thus, murderous, vengeful expeditions against Native Americans are a part of ordinary life, as is scalping.  Cannibalism is terrible because it violates mountain man norms.  The purchase of wives is normal, bigamy is normal, marriage via kidnapping is normal.  Gambling and drunkenness are super-normal.

What is a current equivalent to Blackwood’s Magazine?  The New Yorker, perhaps.  I don’t want to say that everyone read Ruxton, but that would not be so far from the truth.  Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, and so on would all have at least looked at Ruxton’s pieces, and the subject matter is so exotic and interesting that I do not doubt many of these writers read some or all Ruxton.   I find this amusing.

The novel ends, ludicrously, with the protagonist La Bonté’s return to civilization and marriage to his sweetheart of fifteen years past.  La Bonté has already had two (simultaneous) Indian wives and has engaged in all sorts of other non-Victorian behavior.  Thus, the novel’s status as my new favorite Victorian novel – it is a wonderful example of a novel that describes, coolly, calmly, all sorts of things that were supposedly off limits, that does things Victorian novels supposedly did not do. It is my new favorite counter-example.

Here is an exception, perhaps:

But in the sandy prairie, beetles of an enormous size were rolling in every direction huge balls of earth, pushing them with their hind legs with comical perseverance; cameleons darted about [etc…] (131)

Ruxton can describe bigamy, cannibalism, thievery, and murder without batting an eye, but he can’t give the dung beetle it’s name.  “Earth,” huh?

The author, poor fellow, died of an illness, age 27, just as the serial ended.  In a typical postmodern gesture, he appears in the novel, recognizable by his unusual double-barreled English rifle.

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