J. Evetts Haley and the Mind of the South

American historians often write of a contrast between the South, a closed reactionary society, and the West, free and open and characteristically American. The dichotomy thus presented is a false one. The West is the South. That is, to the extent that the West is a theatre for heroic action, rather than just a place to start a new business, it is the Old South transmitted to a new environment. The cowboy, to the degree that he represents the embodiment of a code of life rather than just a person who tends animals, is nothing more or less than the Virginia gentleman on the plains.

It is no accident that the most famous Western novel, written by a Pennsylvanian, Owen Wister, and set in Wyoming, was called The Virginian; nor that the most memorable character in Robert Service’s Alaska poems was from Tennessee; nor that John Wayne’s best Western movie, The Searchers, begins in 1865 with the hero riding up to his prairie home in tattered gray.

But the Southernness of the American West is not just in the realm of romance. The romance in this case merely reflects the facts. Boone, Crockett, Lewis and Clark, the heroes of the Alamo, Kit Carson, Jim Bridger, Jesse James, nearly all the epic heroes of the frontier were Southerners. The “cowboy humorist” Will Rogers was the son of a captain in the Confederacy’s Cherokee brigade. You will hear nothing except Southern accents today on America’s only remaining frontier, the North
Shore oil fields.

We repeat: The West is only Western because it is Southern, because it bears the impress of the culture of the Old South rather than the Old North. That is why Oklahoma produces cowboys, oil wildcatters, country music singers, writers and scholars, evangelists and outlaws, and Kansas produces wheat and an occasional communist.

Many know J. Evetts Haley as a Texan, a rancher still active in his eighties, and a politician of the Southern conservative stripe. He is best known, perhaps, for his audacious 1956 cam¬paign for the governorship of Texas and for his 1964 book, A Texas Looks at Lyndon: A Study in Illegitimate Power, a work that was accurate in both its history and its prophecy. Many fewer people know Haley as an historian of the American Southwest. As an historian, Haley has been so prolific and skilled in portraying the heroic frontier of the Southern Great Plains that it takes nearly 60 pages just to list his books and articles and a whole book has been devoted to them. (See J. Evetts Haley and the Passing of the Old West, edited by Chandler A. Robinson, 1978.)

Guy Brown’s essay is an appreciation of Haley the historian and an exploration of that cultural nexus where the South and the West come together, where Haley’s history of the Southwest becomes a phase of the Southern literary Renaissance. –Clyde Wilson (1982)

James Evetts Haley, rancher, is perhaps Texas’ greatest I living man of letters. His first publication appeared be-I fore the United States entered the First World War in the national magazine Boys’ Life, when the author was fourteen. Typically, that brief notice dealt with range life. For Haley is a plainsman whose life and letters are arch-typically Southwestern. His life’s production, which spans more than half a century and includes over four hundred published items, provides a core for the study as well as the celebration of the Southwest.

In these writings Haley fulfills equally the Old Southern genteel model of the man of letters who composes from the plantation porch and the more recent critical paradigm of the “Renascent South”—renascent at least in literature— of the man of letters who addresses the duties of literary “citizenship” and, perhaps, even must “enter the common arena” of politics. Indeed, when he officially entered that arena himself during the 1956 Texas gubernatorial campaign, Haley’s announcement, States’ Rights—The Issue! Interposition the Way to Preserve Them, glossed Calhoun’s doctrine of nullification, as well as proclaimed the primary need for “simple honesty and principle” in politics for “the supreme good of Texas and her citizens.” What is more, a commentary on Haley opens with the statement that “J. Evetts Haley could have stepped from the pages of W.J. Cash’s classic study, The Mind of the South.” It is clear that, for a Harvard observer, Haley represents “the mind of the South” much as Rooney Lee at Harvard had done for the young Henry Adams over a century before. Neither mind, it would seem, has changed very much. Yet, as much might be surmised by a glance at his most acclaimed works, for the subjects of these books were themselves all Southern men—Charles Goodnight, of Charles Goodnight, Cowman and Plainsman (1936), a scout for Confederate Texas’ Frontier Regiment; Jefferson Davis Milton of Jeff Milton, A Good Man with a Gun (1948), namesake of the President of the Confederate States and son of Florida’s Confederate Governor; and George Littlefield, of George Littlefield, Texan (1943), Major, C.S.A., the dedication for whose biography reads:

To Sons of the Old South

Builders of the New Southwest….And the transplantation of his own family from South to Southwest is rendered in Haley’s latest book-length effort, Rough Times, Tough Fiber, A Fragmentary Family Chronicle (1976). This kinship is of course deeper than may be ap¬parent from the first glance. It extends naturally to matters of theme and purpose, and for contemporary readers and students it is kinship which is ripe with instruction, for it is rich in certain informative tensions and even problematic divergence, as well as in deep affirmation and confirmation. Moreover, its exposition may in time provide the proper basis for the oft-sought after definition of “Southwestern literature,” a definition which includes but is not limited to “setting.”

As represented by Haley, the characteristic Southern paradigm of the purposeful, responsible planter amateur (who is, to be sure, often primarily a nostalgic projection or a prescriptive fiction in the service of apologiae for the policy of the Cavalier South), may be traced—via Charles Gayarre, Edmund Ruffin and others—to John Taylor of Caroline County, Virginia, the “Old Republican” among Old Republicans, from whose example the Southern model is largely drawn. This paradigm and the tradition it crowns require no lengthy rehearsal here. As that tradition is related to Haley’s writings and represented in Haley’s writings, no better general introduction could be found than the opening chapters of Richard Weaver’s The Southern Tradition at Bay: A History of Postbellum Thought, and the several related discussions of the role of the man of letters in the modern South that have emerged (after the First World War) as part of the “Southern Renaissance.” The Southern Renaissance, capped by the works of William Faulkner and the Southern New Critics, is generally thought of as the most significant and provocative development in American literature in this century. J. Evetts Haley’s writing represents a distinctive and important part of this renaissance.

Haley’s place in the older Southern tradition is best ex-pressed in two related themes, one comic and the other tragic. The first and most enduring of these is, as it is in the fiction, lyric, and theory of the Southern Renaissance broadly, the land. The land, the ranges of the southern Great Plains in West Texas and eastern New Mexico especially, is not merely the setting of Haley’s works but is part of the theme of those works. That is, the land is not primarily “landscape,” but, as it were, “scapegoat,” the moral setting for significant, meaningful action, for human action proper, rather than the merely physical setting for “behavior.” This understanding of the land is essential to what sets Haley apart from mere local-colorists on the one hand and from contemporary modernists of various schools on the other, from the regionalists of mere space, one might say, and from the mere regionalists of time. And it is what places his work in the most challenging tradition from John Randolph and Taylor to Andrew Lytle and Faulkner, namely, that tradition which presents the land—the earth and sky—as the stage of thought and deed, as theatron in the Greek sense, not as opposed to the city (for it is the ground of the city) but as opposed to what is above and below, to “Heaven” and to “Hell,” and upon which stage men emerge as men, rather than as angels or as beasts, culpable, worthy of the praise and blame of their fellow men.

The men who so emerge as praiseworthy—and as anyone knows who has so much as glanced at his biographies of Southwestern pioneers, Haley admires above all and is concerned above all with praiseworthy men—may become the standard for all men. Hence the second of those constant themes which lead from the Old Plantation to the Home Ranch is the theme of Honor, here capitalized because in all of Haley’s writings, to say nothing of the tradition he presents, honor is the summary of the person; it is the face of the family toward its own and toward other families. Honor is the central theme of Haley’s work. This theme as it is presented in Haley’s writings amounts to an ethic.

Perhaps the following observations may serve to indicate its range, including some of its strengths and limitations. In the first place, the reader and student must distinguish between what Haley understands by “honor” and what is nowadays called “respectability.” Respectability, as it were, lops off the rough edges and smooths the sharp corners of honor as it was once understood. It sands down salients as “old fashioned.” As an historical phenomenon, this degradation is observable as the secular bourgeois substitution of utilitarian morality for aristocratic virtue. In Haley’s writings the distinction between respectability and honor is most often presented as a contrast between “the debilitating craze for conformity” and the fad- and fashion-mongering that goes with it, and the “remarkable individuality of the frontier characters” he depicts. This “remarkable individuality” is their honor, the evidence or mark of what Haley calls “superior nature.”

Honor, as the basis of true individualism, comprises the highest virtue, understood as aristocratic virtue or “valor deserving of admiration” on the one hand, and honesty, the virtue of “simple, unlettered, straightforward” men, or what Jane Austen’s characters call “openness of manner,” on the other. Haley would thus appear to agree with Thomas Hobbes that “Honor and honesty are but the same things in the different degrees of persons.” But whereas Hobbes goes on to hold that virtue so comprised cannot provide the legal basis of the civil state, which conquers the state of nature (replacing it with security and easy convenience) in which justice is primarily prudent obedience of the sovereign’s laws, whether the sovereign is monarchic or democratic, Haley holds that virtue so comprised does provide or is inseparable from the just basis of civil life and that justice is the obedience to just laws, or in other words, that justice is the only authority and honor of the law.

Haley nowhere in his published works analyzes and sets forth the theoretical foundations of justice thus understood, but he depicts this understanding in all of them. The acknowledgement that the honorable is above all that which is in accordance with nature is inseparable in Haley’s writings from the association of the setting and the man of letters, explicitly in “Personal Justice on the Arizona Desert” and at least implicitly in all of his work, often under the rubric of what he calls “genuine character.” This association finds its strongest and most mature presentation in his chapter “Fresh Lands and Far Horizons,” where it is hardly too much to say that it receives a treatment of almost Greek dimension. We perhaps may begin to grasp the import of this association if we imagine for a moment that the place occupied by the understanding of nature in, say, an Artistotelian treatise on ethics (that is, a teleological understanding of nature), is filled by the setting in Haley’s range histories: “an heroic stage.”

The intimate association of these elementa is what makes Haley’s writings all of a whole cloth, whatever their immediate topic, as well as what unifies his extraliterary activities whether public or private. A reviewer of his most recent editorial effort, The Diary of Michael Erskine, summarizes: “He always writes about something that matters: character, loyalty, the nature of responsibility.” Indeed, this is his true purchase upon us, and the pursuit of the clarity about the association in question is thus what must guide the student of Haley’s histories. It is, as we have mentioned, this same association which brings us into contact with the thought of Thomas Hobbes, which is to say with the forxs et origo of the “Leviathan state” or of what Haley calls “the philosophy of the authoritarian state.”

This philosophy is today very much with us, whether in vulgar form or in the more rigorous form given it by Hobbes’ philosophical and ideological successors, as the horizon in which fundamental problems emerge broadly as such in terms of an antagonism between “collectivism” or “socialism” and “individualism.” Haley passionately and unreservedly embraces individualism. In so doing, however, he opposes “the philosophy of the authoritarian state” most emphatically as a clear and present danger not so much to “good men and true” who have been or are now among us—such men can take care of themselves— as to “the cultural heritage of the Christian world,” to “civilized life itself,” which necessarily depends upon those who are not yet men, that is, upon the education or cultivation of the young. It is clear that Haley’s impassioned individualism and opposition to the philosophy of the centralized state is fundamentally much closer to what was once known as the tradition of Christian Humanism than it is to that individualism which appeals primarily or essentially to certain “economic rights” or to that which presents itself as “humanitarianism.” The deepest stratum of Haley’s thought may be characterized as consisting of a tension between the ideal of the man of action, on the one hand, and the ideal of the man of letters, on the other, or in other words as the question of the primacy of theory or of practice, of word or of deed. The object of this thought does not change in Haley’s writ¬ings from his earliest mature production to his latest. He pursues this object unswervingly and with increasing lucidity from the beginning. Simply, this object may be described as the heroic, and Haley’s pursuit of it as, to use his own language, a “comment” on heroism.

The tension spoken of above has its origin in Haley’s concern with heroism and hence with the setting for heroism, “the heroic stage.” The typically Haleyean movement is compactly presented as in this paragraph from “A Day with Dan Casement” (1949):

The lovely grass of the Folsom country, holding in animated suspense the soil and substance of the Old Cross L range, prompted stories of the loyal and untiring work of that reckless Prairie Cattle Company wagon boss, old Bob Haley, one of the greatest waddies that ever wasted effort in awkward cowboy walk.

The land is occasion for manliness: it leads Haley to men. This movement reaches its fullest expression in the unforgettable concluding image of “Fresh Lands of Far Horizons,” the last chapter of Haley’s family chronicle, where, having arrived at his own “last deed”—handing down— the heir of deeds past conjures up, in the solitude of his evening fire at a remote range camp, a memory of the old Bone Gatherer. The Bone Gatherer comes almost explicitly to represent the man of letters, a Conradian “secret sharer,” as engaged in summary dialogue with the old Cowboy-Rancher, the man of action, before the bar of eternity. “I looked up and saw the Seven Sisters”—Homer’s “Plaeides and late-setting Bootes,

And the Bear, which they call, too, by the name
of the Wagon, Which turns in one place and also points at
Orion, down on me.”

Who is the rightful heir of deeds past? The old Cowboy-Rancher unequivocally affirms the life of action, and he seems to have the last word. But of course it is a mistake to see this figure simply as Haley or his affirmation as unambiguous. Who is the old Bone Gatherer—modest of being where the other is proud of the “struggle” of possession? He affirms another life. Haley describes him as “some old, lonely bewhiskered and bedraggled phantom,” who, for the imaginative or the reflective, poses a query. In thinking about this query, one may be led more than once to consider, in comparison and contrast, Conrad’s bedraggled phantom, the Harlequin, in “The Heart of Darkness”:

His very existence was improbable, inexplicable, and altogether bewildering. He was an insoluble problem— Sometimes I [Marlow] ask myself whether I had really seen him—whether it was possible to meet such a phenomenon!…

Both spirits recede into the night as the narrators sleep.

We can provisionally summarize the import of this dialogue as it bears on Haley’s writings by saying that the one figure embraces the “struggle, denial and challenge” that are the “prices of possession” in any age, the outcome of which struggle is death, the price of human life, while the other, the man of letters, engages in the struggle between the inherited past and the immediate future, a struggle whose outcome could preserve an as yet partially surviving tradition.

Yet while accurate and adequate as far as it goes, this gloss does not do full justice to Haley’s works, for it ignores the tension inherent in the tradition, tension made explicit in the distinction between the Cowboy-Rancher and the Bone Gatherer, which arises from the fact that neither is finally reducible to the other. They represent fundamental, original alternatives, even though the former is prior to the latter in time. The one is limited and hence defined by death, whence his honor derives: he is (in the Greek sense) tragic in so far as he is equal to his death. The other “collects death”; he is superior to death—in Haley’s words, a “phantom”—and not a phantom of memory merely (now that he has been replaced by “progress”) but a phantom “then,” i.e., before “progress.” What is the account of him? The reader may mistake the complexity of this tension as but the nostalgic recreation of the past. Yet, as Haley points out, “Nostalgia feeds the wells of sentiment.” We are what we remember in so far as memory determines what we do, but Haley in teaching us what is memorable never replaces the ongoing struggle for morality with memory.

We may note as it were in passing that “progress”— including “believers in progress” (“cranks”)—plays an apparently ephemeral role in the story of the Bone Gatherer and the Cowboy-Rancher. “Progress,” boosterism, and anti-progressivism all are mere distractions from the fundamental question posed by these two figures. Haley dismisses them as so much escapism. “I have no obsessive desire to relive primitive times,” but the distraction—the self-forgetfulness—of progressivism is unworthy of its setting. In another place he writes,

Times have changed, we are truthfully told. But what we are not so truthfully told is… that the underlying principles of a free society, as well as the ambitions, basic motives, patterns’ of conduct and passions of men remain essentially the same.

In a word,

Man changes little, and the lust for power not at all.

The “lust for power,” animus of the man of action, is the primary human quality restrained by that man of action the Cowboy-Rancher. How it is restrained, i.e., by what other human quality, is the most important question to ask of the man of action. For lust, or human desire, is not restrained by lust, to say nothing of being restrained by technological progress. Hence one may say that, for Haley, the advantages of progress are always “dubious advantages.” Progress as it is usually understood and preached is nothing more than a process of “magnifying our problems.” There is no true, unambiguous progress possible for mere men beyond the dialogue concluding “Fresh Lands of Far Horizons.” And it is the phantom-presence of the Bone Gatherer which provides this horizon, a glimpse beyond the struggle of possession, and his lingering “fragrance” which ironically brings “fresh air” out to the land.

This potency which is equal but dissimilar to the animus of the man of action is also taken up in the beginning of “personal Justice on the Arizona Desert,” where the author distinguishes between flesh and blood action that is “antecedent to the electronic age” and the “simulated action and canned commercial spirit” of the “pale screen” behind which there is nothing significant for men. In contrast to one-dimensional shadows on the screen the people celebrated by Haley moved

across a vast, real and rugged stage of half a continent of sweeping plain, rocky mountain, searing desert. It was an heroic stage for that vital action that was the essence of their life, and they were worthy of the setting….

Which leads me, not unusually, to a story— a story of an unusual cowboy with a strain of Cherokee blood and Southern code of honor who worked his way from the Cross Timbers of Texas into the desert ranges of Arizona, and then for some reason unfathomable from the record, laid aside his rope and saddle but not his sixshooter–and, to use the term loosely, settled down to a “literary career.”

The desire for men in age to tell their stories… is psychologically understandable. But one wonders at the force, the very power of that compulsion that sometimes sends simple unlettered, straight-forward young men living colorful lives of action off to wrestle with the vast complexities of the written word.

Their struggles, when we pause to consider their hard, patient, and sometimes pathetic efforts to reduce their thought to writing, have sometimes seemed to me equally heroic as their courageous deeds on the stage of action. And I have often thought that some compassionate master of the marvelous English word, some Conrad, sensing their struggles for light in “the heart of darkness,” might well loose his pen to pay them the tribute their valor deserves.

The heroic westering work deserves an account from one whose language of the boot, saddle, lariat and spur equal Conrad’s own possession of the deck and spar, line and sail. Haley’s own work provides this heroic account. Yet, while this work as a whole clearly testifies to it more than to any other impulse, it does not explore that other powerful “compulsion” to which it above all points, a quest that is by admission at least equally heroic, beyond the glimpse provided by the Bone Gatherer and the bones in “Fresh Land of Far Horizons.” That quest, which is identified as the more Conradian, recedes in the service of the other. Hence where we might have reasonably expected it, we find rather a brief illustration of personal (and social) justice. It is possible that the reason for this—the replacement of the ex-oration of the writer’s “struggle for light” with a story of the relation of law and justice—is to be found in the connection perceived of old (and shown for example in Plato’s Laws) between what Haley describes as the “compulsion” ward writing and the awareness of what he calls simply he law.”

As we have pointed out in connection with his ruling concern for ethics and ultimately for heroism, in short, for honor, Haley’s characteristic production is not fiction but biography. His biographies have been praised by reviewers with one voice for their historical accuracy and for their lack of the kind of “romance” that is typically (with whatever presence or absence of understanding) associated with Southern—and Western—efforts. Yet, at the same time, the subjects of his biographies are often presented as one would gloss an epic hero or the leading character of a novel, viz., in relation to what is called “setting” or, more generally, terms drawn from analogy to pictorial art. This is testimony no less to the craft of Haley’s writing than to the appeal the subjects naturally have among men. For example, language reminiscent of Haley’s own in Those Who Came Before Us, J. Frank Dobie observed of the Goodnight biography that

Goodnight [was a] powerful individual and extraordinary observer, [who] summed up in himself the whole life of range and trail [and] Haley’s book, packed with realities of incident and character, paints him against a mighty background.

M.E. Bradford observes more fully of the same work that it

is a central document in the literature of the Southwest—as much a work of art as it is a study of a man and a culture Its response is to a whole man, and particularly to the verve and exuberance, honor and courage with which he performed in creating a world. Here, of course, is another epic analogy. For Haley’s chosen exemplars are either founders or models of their frontier milieu. They make or sustain something, sum it up in themselves.

Rupert N. Richardson paraphrases Haley’s own dictum, “worthy of the setting,” to which we have been attentive in the foregoing pages, in reporting that the Goodnight biography is

the life story of a notable and most unique cattleman, a book in keeping with the stature of the subject.

These comments perhaps suffice to show that Haley sums up in his own works all the qualities of the novelist, whether despite or because of the fact that his works are not novels.

Repeating the terms these writers employ is enough to have us recall that “setting” in any work is never “merely” setting, neutral, “value-free,” pointless, but is always an elemental part of the whole. Setting often “makes the point” of a work; it always makes the point possible. In Haley’s writings the land, its particular value-giving quality as setting, its ineluctable if capricious presence as a fundamental repository or exemplar of significance, is what is characteristically Southern, and thus what distinguishes Haley’s Southwestern works from the typical fare of New England or Western literature, to say nothing of “pop” or vulgar regionalism.