The Cowboy Girl
hardcover, Bison Books
$21.95, 338 pages
The rompin’, hard-ridin’, gun-totin’ subject of John Clayton’s new biography, The Cowboy Girl, is early-20th-century novelist Caroline Lockhart. Kansas-born and East Coast-educated, the “stunt girl” reporter, genre novelist, international traveler, heiress and rancher descended on the West, took a number of lovers (mostly married men, possibly some women), cultivated a number of enemies, entangled herself in land disputes and mining schemes, rafted down the Salmon river, homesteaded and sprouted a beard, among other exploits. But what’s most surprising is that Lockhart left little or no impression on the national consciousness, despite her extraordinary life and the body of work she left behind. It’s this disappearance that Clayton attempts to set right.
Born in Kansas, Lockhart spent her childhood astride a horse exploring her parents’ prairie property. Homesteading didn’t suit her parents; her father soon bought up enough land to become a sort of Kansas real estate mogul, and he sent his daughter east for an education. Romanticizing her childhood frontier days, and gifted with gumption, Lockhart spurned school and became a “stunt girl” reporter for several big-city newspapers. She wrote sensational stories about her dangerous or unusual pursuits—climbing to the top of a large statue, riding a “toboggan chute,” going undercover at a cigarette factory—which drew her eventually to travel out West, and later to settle in Cody, Wyo.
The Cowboy Girl takes off when Clayton explains Lockhart’s literary contribution to the world, especially her work as a novelist. Lockhart’s first novel, 1911’s Me-Smith, was a rousing success and earned her a reputation as a good, if not great, “Western” novelist. Me-Smith was a genre novel filled with familiar fare: a black-hatted bad man, a spunky leading lady, an earnest archaeologist, a “proper” schoolmarm—all characters either sentimental or satiric or both.
But unlike typical mythical Western fare, exemplified by Owen Wister’s The Virginian, in which a distinguished and honorable male brings order to the West at the end of a gun, in Me-Smith it’s the cowboy, Smith, who’s dishonorable and irredeemable. Furthermore, the schoolmarm can’t reform anybody and the archaeologist is a literal stick-in-the-mud. It’s Susie McDonald, a 16-year-old half-Sioux sharpshooter, who entraps Smith and saves the day. As a reward, the archaeologist, a long-lost relation, pays for her East Coast schooling. In other words, as Clayton writes, “the heroine thus achieves her happiness not through marriage to a dominant man, but education.” No wonder reviewers “rejoiced at the relative realism of the characters and plot…” One reviewer wrote that Susie “was real, and she represented the West the way it really was…”
But Lockhart was no realist. According to Clayton, the West of Lockhart’s era was already beginning to succumb to its own mythology. And “perhaps the greatest hunger for such myths came from the West itself. The romantics who had come to the frontier…soon fell in love with a set of stories…that called them cowboys, that allowed them to brandish six-guns and talk of vigilantism…Lockhart was a prime example.”
Instead of contributing to the mythos, Lockhart’s work expressed her disappointment at having her expectations dashed. In Old West...and New, her last novel, Lockhart embodied her frustration in a small Wyoming town beset by prim anti-alcohol activists, cowboys turned mechanics or dude ranch workers, and bitterly partisan politics. Clayton notes that Lockhart was writing about issues that still plague the West today: “onerous federal regulations; big ranches increasingly carved into tiny patches of weeds; rich, clueless outsiders moving in…; politicians stealing elections…; lives devastated with illegal narcotics; and a homogeneity of development in which new towns look like anyplace else…” These issues still draw fury from those who think the West’s true nature has somehow been contaminated.
Clayton is relentless in depicting Lockhart’s physical appeal—during the course of the book, he describes her as “stunning,” “buxom yet slim waisted,” “shapely,” and once notes of a photograph that “her weight is voluptuously distributed through her bust and hips.” But in fact she is decidedly unattractive, both in appearance and, more importantly, personality. A glimpse of Lockhart in one of the book’s photos shows her with a heavy brow, piggish nose, large cheeks, jutting chin and pronounced upper lip, all framed, like a plumber in a wig, by the era’s fashionable dainty blond ringlets. “Stunning” seems like at least a small embellishment. Never mind that Lockhart comes across as snobbish, petty, vindictive, aggressive and cruel. This is a woman, after all, who capitalized on her social connections while breaking every convention; who wrote a novel (The Lady Doc) that depicted a Cody rival as a lesbian abortionist; who suffered qualms about paying to have a man killed (the murder never happened), not because of the obvious immorality of the deed, but because she fears she might get caught.
Despite his glowing descriptions, Clayton does seem to be aware of Lockhart’s failings as a person and a writer. But in his desire to reintroduce Lockhart to a 21st-century audience, it more often seems he’s trying to build a myth of his own, an image of Lockhart as greater than she actually was. The mistake here is that Lockhart doesn’t need to be a mythic or even likable figure to impress. She was extraordinary despite her faults. Maybe even because of them.
John Clayton reads from and signs copies of The Cowboy Girl Tuesday, June 12, at 7 PM at Fact & Fiction.