Sunday 10 May 2009

Wild West Monday guest blogger - Laurie Powers

Laurie Powers' is a woman with a great knowledge of the history of pulp fiction, thanks to research prompted by discovering her grandfather, Paul Powers had been a pulp fiction writer of some note. Her book Pulp Writer will be reviewed here later this week and it's a fascinating look at the world of the pulp writer at the tail end of pulp's golden age. Check it out HERE.

Laurie also maintains her own blog HERE

Also check out an earlier interview with Laurie HERE

And so The Tainted Archive hands over the controls to Laurie for her Pony Express centric blog post:

Orphans Preferred: the Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express

By Christopher Corbett

Broadway Books, 2003.

The Pony Express, as everyone knows, was a short-lived operation ran by the firm Russells, Major & Waddell that carried mail at the rate of $5 per letter from St. Joseph Missouri to Sacramento, California From April 1860 to October 1861, Pony Express riders captivated the nation as they swept over some of the most inhospitable terrain on the continent. But although it was a noble and ground-breaking accomplishment, it was also incredibly ill-timed, being launched just before transcontinental telegraph service was established and also just as the nation became immersed in the Civil War.

Orphans Preferred is not so much a history of the Pony Express, but a history of the history of the Pony Express. Christopher Corbett’s theme is not the operations itself, but of the opportunists, charlatans, armchair historians and celebrities that sought to capitalize on the Pony Express after its demise and how that has resulted in the history of the Express being tainted, mythologized and pretty much fabricated within an inch of its life.

Which is not a bad idea for a book. Corbett does an outstanding job of those who followed in the footsteps, or hoof prints if you will, of the Express and turned it into a circus. In Buffalo Bill’s case, that would almost be a literal circus, because he made the legacy of the Pony Express one of his highlights of his Wild West show. Buffalo Bill also claimed to be a Pony Express rider, but Corbett argues that this is just one of many claims that cannot be verified.

I know that the problem with the history of the Pony Express has been the lack of original sources – very few things were accurately documented in the beginning. The result has been that even the identity of the first rider is in dispute. Corbett tackles this issue head on.

I particularly enjoyed his coverage of the three partners, Alexander Majors, William Hepburn Russell and William Bradford Waddell, and how the began this venture and what happened to them after the end of the Pony Express. His coverage of the pre-Express years, when men who had migrated to California during the Gold Rush years and how they were desperate to get mail that would ease their loneliness and isolation from the rest of the world, is heartbreaking. And how he weaves Mark Twain’s coverage of the Pony Express made me decide to pick up and read Roughing It soon.

But there are a few things that I just could not get past that, in some respects, spoiled the book for me.

For one thing, there are no footnotes. If I wanted to look up a source for one of Corbett’s claims, there is no footnote or endnote to tell me where he found such a claim. Not that his claims were wrong. But it just would have been nice to know where he found it. Also, the vast majority of his sources are secondary sources: books and journal articles written about the history by other writers. Many of his quotes are from such sources. Which can be treacherous – especially regarding a subject that is drowning in unreliable sources.

It also makes it really hard for the rest of us “armchair” historians who would like to conduct any further research. For example, deep into the book, 200 pages deep actually, Corbett starts to write about a woman who in 1913, decided that she would undertake a monumental project: to interview all of the surviving Pony Express riders. Mrs. Loving was an amateur historian and poet, yet she doggedly pursued this undertaking until her death forty years later. After her death, the book (The Pony Express Rides On!) was published by a vanity press by a friend and literary executrix of her estate. Now that is a book I’d like to get a hold of. The problem is that there is nothing in the bibliography that mentions the book, so I’m assuming that the author used a secondary source for his Mrs. Loving material.

Mrs. Loving’s book is very rare, according to Mr. Corbett. So I can see where he could have been limited to using a secondary source. And I know that I can just as easily google Mrs. Loving’s name and find what I want to find. But I shouldn’t have to do that. A footnote would have solved the problem.

(As a side note: when writing this review, I wanted to go back and read again the passages regarding Mrs. Loving. But I had a hard time finding the pages because…you guessed it: there is no index, either).

Now don’t get me wrong. Orphans Preferred is a very entertaining, informative book and I learned a lot. It makes reading history fun, as opposed to history books in general that have a reputation for being a guaranteed cure for insomnia. And I admired Corbett’s undertaking of this job – it’s one that has rarely, if ever done before. For those that are interested in how the myth of the Pony Express has evolved into what it is today, it’s a good book to have in your library. Just make sure it’s not the only one.


Ray said...

I found that very interesting and informative - thanks Laurie.

Laurie Powers said...

Thanks Ray! I'm glad you found it informative. And thanks to Gary for posting it on his blog.

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