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The title of this book is appropriate, for Harvey Fergusson was born in 1890, the year the national census proclaimed the frontier closed and provoked the meditations of Frederick Jackson Turner. Fergusson, that is, was born too late to experience the real frontier, and he never got over it; thus for him an ideal West was unattainable, although in the frontier's flexible boundaries Fergusson found his predominant theme: mutability. Attention to Fergusson is warranted because he probed frontier myths while refusing popular formulas.
Still, as Gish implies, Fergusson's focus on mutability seems curiously static: in large measure, Fergusson's works are rehearsals for the two great final novels of his career: Grant of Kingdom (1950) and The Conquest of Don Pedro (1954). Fergusson's pattern repeats the history of mortality: of men (like civilizations) who rise—and then fall and die; of the process of life as a gathering of strength, a period of sexual challenge, then an expenditure of energy on some cultural project—and finally a lamentable decline. This pattern becomes tedious, transcended only because occasionally Fergusson draws remarkably human portraits, such as that of the peddler Leo Mendes in The Conquest of Don Pedro.
Fergusson's nostalgia for the frontier life of his grandfather, Franz Huning, and his rebellion against his father are revealing: Gish sees father and grandfather [End Page 300] as Fergusson's emotional and intellectual antipodes. Gish speaks frequently of Fergusson's guilt—related to the suicide of his father and the deaths of his first wife and of a close friend—but seems unwilling to investigate this guilt too deeply. Yet Fergusson's responses to experience—not least his claim to sexual intercourse with eighty women—and the repetitions in his fiction suggest that greater use of literary psychology might have been in order. Fergusson is interesting to some degree precisely because of his need to repeat himself.
Despite the author's care for his subject, this study provides no compelling reasons to reconsider Fergusson's reputation. Indeed, Gish's earnestness in pursuing Fergusson may partially account for some textual infelicities; the book needs a friendly editor. On a single page, for example, we are given two spellings of an author's name, told that "telling some things are forbidden," and asked to believe that Fergusson's portrayal of someone is an "alter ego." Some sentences may give readers the fantods: "Innocence has left him and the 'shades of the prison house' start to descend up to the point of almost committing suicide." And—to be snobbishly peevish—it is difficult to comprehend why James M. Cain is dismissed as a "journalist . . . not associated with the frontier and the American West"; surely The Postman Always Rings Twice is more than journalism, and one might argue (as does Cain's biographer, Roy Hoopes) that it is most certainly Western.
Gish's book is best when it reminds us just how good Fergusson is in Wolf Song (1927), Grant of Kingdom, and The Conquest of Don Pedro; and in the neglected autobiography, Home in the West (1944). If Fergusson's career seems to imply defeat, his work too narrowly focused on the self, his best books have power to move us; they may also suggest a more complex man than the one found in this book.