Ohio Town: Shane
September 2, 1984
Jack Schaefer has just left us, at 83, riding off into that final sunset, and like another Ohio cowboy before him, Zane Grey, Mr. Schaefer spent his life demonstrating splendidly a certain set of mind, one which has always connected Ohio to the West, rather than to our more comfortable pedigrees back East. It's a notion that has historically informed Ohioans, a wonderful rabble of lineage that spilled across the country in all directions, but with a particular westward-looking gleam to its collective eye. Mr. Schaefer's classic character, the reticent but manly Shane, who had come from no one knew exactly where and was headed for the same place, was probably an Ohioan, too.
Ohioans have always been good at inventing themselves, so it doesn't seem strange at all to know that when Mr. Schaefer wrote back in 1949, he hadn't been west of his hometown, which was the rough-and-tumble industrial-frontier town of Cleveland. One of his later book jackets described the author as keeping a horse—its name was Mark—on his small holding in Westport, Connecticut, which, in turn, wasn't far from Yale University where Mr. Schaefer used the facilities there to learn about the West, by reading old newspapers and diaries. He had tried a little postgraduate work, in eighteenth century English literature, but soon gave it up as “a dull and stupid waste of time,” he said. It was the wrong direction, both geographically and metaphysically.
What most of us remember, of course, is the film rather than the book, and Shane/Alan Ladd, whose valorous taciturnity we as grade-school boys hugely admired because we imagined that our energy, too, had a purpose, even if it would years before we learned what it might be, and because we weren’t gifted by speech, either. Taciturn, we told ourselves, that’s the ticket. We loved Wilson/Jack Palance, as well, for his black-hearted nastiness incarnate. We didn’t care much for the other characters, and we made fun of The Kid/Brandon DeWilde; all that earnest, agrarian wholesomeness didn’t move us. I remember my irreverent friend, Skipper Coker, and I memorizing a television parody of the movie:
Boy: You seem mighty thirsty. Have a long, dry ride?
Cowboy: I had a herring for breakfast.
Boy: What’s your name, stranger?
Cowboy: Folks call me ... Strange.
Boy: Strange? What’s your first name?
Cowboy: Very. But you can call me Strange.
Skipper and I weren’t sure exactly what a herring was, but it seemed fairly sophisticated, a good inside joke, and the line reduced us to tears.
It was sometime later before I actually read Mr. Schaefer's original. By that time, I had also read Zane Grey and the unadorned prose style of Shane was like an antidote to Mr. Grey’s sentences, which were so extraordinarily lengthy that the reader began to wish for mileage markers. The scenery of a Zane Grey sentence was often fine, but seated in the back seat of it and watching the verbs roll past, one still felt the urge to lean over and ask the driver: How much farther? Nothing of that sort with Mr. Schaefer. Here’s the first sentence of Shane: “He rode into our valley in the summer of `89.” The prose is like that, like Shane himself, clear, strong, and direct.
Everyone recalls the story, the plot of so many westerns and the true business of America—real estate. Cattle baron Fletcher hires A Gun to force homesteaders off land he wishes to usurp; homesteaders find themselves represented by the mysterious stranger, Shane, who has only half a name. The book brims with archetypes, a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress with the word “Pilgrim” used the way John Wayne used it. Shane is a kind of prairie myth, stuffed with weltschmerz and, instinctively sensing this, homesteader Starrett is almost ready to share even his wife.
“Don’t fret yourself, Marian,” he says. “I’m man enough to know a better when his trail meets mine. Whatever happens will be all right.”
The burdens of the archetype being what they are, however, Shane shows not the slightest inclination of anything but courtliness toward Marian. The book is positively Victorian in its repressed sexuality and, true to form, absolutely nothing takes place. It is as though Marian were looking upon some spiritual creation, which, in fact, she was. At such places, Shane’s mythology suggests a landscape filled with, say, minotaurs, where all the men become half horse, and the upper half is wearing a buckskin vest, the quintessential cowboy, pretty much as he thought of himself.
One of the oddities of Shane now is that the hero finds himself, in modern America at least, a role model exclusively for teenagers; Houghton-Mifflin carries only an edition for juveniles, which is how, almost a half-century later, it remains in print. When it first came out, it was not treated that way and as recently as 1985, the Western Writers of America named it their best western novel.
What happened along the way was that Houghton-Mifflin discovered a teenage edition could be a healthy subsidiary market, erased a dozen “Hells” and several “Damns”—except for one the editors overlooked, said Mr. Schaefer’s son, Carl—and created a juvenile classic. “The adult hardbound edition,” said Carl Schaefer, “is found in places like Japan, which has two different ones, I believe, with all the original language intact. It’s still read in American high schools, of course, and perhaps the downward spiral in our educational standards is due to that one elusive ‘hell.’”
Perhaps this blurring of adult-and-juvenile definitions is due to the rather artless nature of the genre, although I think it is because Mr. Schaefer viewed his story through the eyes of a young boy (which, someone once observed, was how the West should be observed), and because he used a very clear and careful language.
The texture and sensibility of place was Mr. Schaefer’s strong suit, and he thought the movie version of his book was short of both. He liked to point out that in the opening credits, when the camera pans out over the valley, if you look closely, in the deep background, there’s an automobile crawling across the landscape. About the only thing he liked about the movie was Jack Palance, who came out to see him, and they became friends. It was Mr. Palance’s first real chance at stardom and he didn’t want to harm it, so he spent a lot of time practicing a quick draw-and-shoot. He did it so much, in fact, the gun got hot and he burned his hand on it. To protect his blistered hand, he nervously wore gloves, and director George Stevens said he loved the menacing way Mr. Palance pulled on his gloves. Said Carl Schaefer, “It wasn’t menace. It was pain. And the notion, too, that a gunfighter would wear gloves at all. Father loved that. It amused him.”
Amusement was about all Hollywood gave Mr. Schaefer for the movie rights, although the film did give the book a larger readership. Mr. Schaefer didn’t care about going to write for Hollywood and after the success of Shane it has gone through more than 70 editions and nearly 40 languages—moved to Sante Fe, where he bought some acreage that was used as working ranch land by his neighbors, among them a genuine cowboy by the appropriate name of Archie West, who became the model for Monte Walsh, which many of Mr. Schaefer’s readers think is his best book. His carefully crafted westerns, in an ouevre that generally regarded anything past subject-verb agreement as affectation, documented that brief time in American history when the Westerner—the cowboy—was a genuine American workingman, and Mr. Schaefer tried to write truly about him. One of his favorite compliments came when an old man wrote him from Wyoming where he had been a cowboy all of his life and said that he had been reading westerns as long as he’d been a cowboy and Shane was the first one that got it down right.
In Sante Fe, Mr. Schaefer became increasingly concerned about ecological issues. He was, actually, one of our early modern environmentalists, believing that “the Amerinds in general (with some exceptions) were truly civilized and...we whites, better or ahead or whatever you want to call it only in our deadly emphasis on technology, were the invading barbarians.” In his new country, west of Cleveland, Mr. Schaefer felt he was seeing the end of wildlife in the West and he resented the egocentricity of his own species. “Any other creatures who crept in were stage furniture for the human drama,” he wrote.
“He didn’t trust humans as a group,” said Carl Schaefer, “which was why the West appealed to him—it was about individuality. He thought humans were at their best when they were up against the implacable forces. He never had a terribly high opinion of humans; he was an old newspaperman. Finally, he began to admire the implacable forces themselves, more than the humans.” At this point, Mr. Schaefer began to write about animals, not humans, and his stance became increasingly holistic.
The product of the industrial Midwest, as well as an upper middle class education, Mr. Schaefer seemed an unlikely Westerner. In his college photographs from Oberlin, he is bespectacled, wearing a bow tie, looking quite earnest, a schoolmaster just off the train in some dusty frontier settlement, and carrying a suitcase jammed with information no one would have much use for. His father was a Cleveland attorney who, it seems, gave his son his love of the west. The elder Mr. Schaefer regaled young Jack with stories of a character called Paiute Pete, whom he had invented. The old man also stayed in his office late each evening so he could catch The Lone Ranger on the radio before commuting out to Lakewood.
Soon, Jack began to make up stories of his own, one of the first of them winning an honorable mention in a Plain Dealer Christmas story contest. He then spent 20 years working for newspapers, including writing editorials for the Baltimore Sun until he “tired of the daily assembly of facts incidental to his job and sought refuge in fiction,” as one of Mr. Schaefer’s chroniclers eloquently put it. The newspapers, however, taught Mr. Schaefer a simple but rigorous credo, which was, “You put the paper in the typewriter and you write. If it is no good, you throw it away.” He would say, “I was responsible for so many column inches. If the Muse was not visiting, there would be an empty space in the paper. Then there would be an empty space at my desk.”
Two years ago, Oberlin presented Mr. Schaefer an honorary degree. The presenter, William A. Moffett, the director of the Oberlin Library, quoted the critic who wrote that “Schaefer seems to be a writer who found the West in himself, and then himself in the West,” and noted that, ironically, he was better known in Prague than in Cleveland. “He gave us Shane, a good man with a gun, and Monte Walsh, a good man with a horse,” said Moffett by way of introduction. “It is my privilege to present for the degree of Doctor of Literature, Jack Schaefer, a good man with a typewriter, and a good man with a yarn.”
That's a bit quaint in these post-Modern Deconstructionist days, and a bit poignant, too, as if writers who wished to work like Jack Schaefer were themselves endangered, which, no doubt, is what he felt. It makes a good epitaph, though, and it explains why my copy of Shane from my local library, is so frayed and dog-eared after all these years.
And that, of course, is the best criticism of all.