- Charles M. Russell: The Storyteller's Art
Although many treatises have been written on Charlie Russell's artwork, his literary efforts have usually been treated merely as vehicles for his illustrations. Raphael James Cristy inverts this pattern and analyzes Russell (1864–1926) as a storyteller and writer who intended his artwork to illustrate points within his stories or who used his artwork to tell stories in and of themselves. This book is well organized, with an introductory chapter examining Russell's mastery of the verbal arts and the authentic yarns he spun about the lives of Montana cowpunchers of the late nineteenth century. Cristy looks at particular characters in Montana who collectively mentored Russell in his early years as a cowboy and who were themselves noted storytellers; the discussion shows how Russell came by much of his style and, perhaps, many of his stories. Russell's audiences grew with his fame as an artist and eventually expanded to include socialites as well as cowboys, as revealed in accounts of Russell related by his friend Frank B. Linderman.
Cristy discusses how Russell's writings put many of his oral narratives into print and notes that Russell was not a natural-born writer; despite his skills as a storyteller, Russell considered the act of transforming the spoken word into printed text to be very hard work. Nonetheless, he published several books of short stories, including Rawhide Rawlins Stories (Great Falls: Montana Newspaper Association, 1921), More Rawhides (Great Falls: Montana Newspaper Association, 1925), and Trails Plowed Under (Garden City, N.Y.: Garden City Publishing, 1927). Cristy discusses these narratives in four chapters, organized by subject: stories relating to American Indians, stories about interactions of people with wild animals, character sketches of Western cattlemen, and stories of changing times in the early twentieth century. In each of these chapters, Russell is shown to be a very sophisticated storyteller, choosing themes that comment on human nature and employing humor to deal effectively with tragedy and to make subtle comments about the state of Western traditions in the face of rapidly changing politics and environments. Real-life persons and events employed by Russell include Mormon Zack Larson, an old-timer who refused to adapt to the twentieth century, and Pat [End Page 374] O'Hare, who moved his flimsy frontier hotel with a wheelbarrow when he found that the laying of new railroad tracks was forcing his entire town to relocate. A constant theme in this heavily illustrated book is the relationship of Russell's artwork to his writing and the ways in which he used his art to make unspoken commentaries on each of the major subjects of his narratives.
Where Russell's writings fit into American literature and how they compare to the work of other frontier writers and humorists, including George Ade, Alfred Henry Lewis, and Andy Adams, is the focus of chapter 8. Cristy compares Russell's writings to those of his peer Frederic Remington and shows how their writings and artwork relate to one another in an often-contrasting fashion. Remington's serious literary efforts based on the Western frontier were often military in theme, while Russell's easygoing storytelling focused mostly on cowpunchers and their experiences and employed a wryly comic perspective. How Russell's art and writing were or were not influenced by other writers of the day—Mark Twain, Owen Wister, Walt Coburn, and others—is also explicitly discussed. Cristy highlights many instances in which Russell's writings did not conform to formulaic Westerns, showing instead that they were derived from actual incidents that could be traced back to particular persons.
The final chapter discusses how Russell was perceived by his peers and contemporary critics. His art and writing are shown to have been first appreciated for their "historic accuracy" yet later viewed as "myth-making" (p. 268). Researchers and art historians cite as one of Russell's most lasting legacies his insistence upon basing his writings...