Conversations with Bullwhackers, Muleskinners, Pioneers, Prospectors, ’49ers, Indian Fighters, Trappers, Ex-Barkeepers, Authors, Preachers, Poets and Near Poets, and All Sorts and Conditions of Men ed. by Mike Helm (review)
- Western American Literature
- The Western Literature Association
- Volume 17, Number 2, Summer 1982
- pp. 192-193
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192 Western American Literature Conversations with Bullwhackers, Muleskinners, Pioneers, Prospectors, ’49ers, Indian Fighters, Trappers, Ex-Barkeepers, Authors, Preachers, Poets and Near Poets, and All Sorts and Conditions of Men. Compiled and Edited by Mike Helm. (Eugene, Oregon: Rainy Day Press, 1981. x + 358 pages, $8.95.) It is a generous book that favors its readers with this much fine reading in the title alone. But even with its extended-epithet-like title Conversations with Bullwhackers still carries a sub-title: Voices of the Oregon Territory. Such a surplus of titles may give an initial appearance of redundancy; how ever, excess is not without purpose here, for between them the titles cooper ate in expressing the editor’s posture toward these “voices.” Where the diversity of the main title testifies to the nearly lunatic energy of the migra tion to the far West, the second title, like the “second line” at a New Orleans jazz funeral, defines the unity and exposes the heart of meaning within the experience. Not only are these the voices of old-timers who once competi tively jostled and elbowed each other in a race across the Great American Desert, but they are also the memories of the survivors of that race who made a human community of the Oregon Territory. That these memories exist at all seems to be due to the foresight of Fred Lockley, a writer for several newspapers in Oregon over the period from his arrival in the state in the 1890s to his work as “The Journal Man” for Portland’s Oregon journal in the 20s and 30s. At his death Lockley left files of notes from his interviews with survivors from the pioneer days in the Oregon Territory; these interviews rest today in 58 three-ring notebooks in the Oregon Collection of the library at the University of Oregon. The editing of these aging manuscripts has been undertaken by Mike Helm for the Oregon Country Library; three volumes, of which Bullwhackers is the second volume, are planned to represent Lockley’s work, and the first publi cation, Conversations with Pioneer Women, has also appeared in print this year. The historical utility of the interviews is suggested by the fact that they represent not only the pioneers’ descendants who were born during the making of community on the donation land claims of their parents but also those men and women who took part in the original movement across the plains, mountains and deserts to Oregon. Some indication of what power there was in that original energy is still attainable in these collective memoirs. It is no surprise either to discern a singular spiritedness on the occasions when the interviewees appear to be most deliberately aware of their roles as storytellers, and their tales become informed thereby with a sense of audience; therefore, it is also not surprising to find in these memoirs evidence of the American tall-tale tradition. Among these recollections of the authentic counterparts of Twain’s Jim Baker and Thorpe’s “Big Bear of Arkansas,” Fred Lockley has caught the oral possibili ties of his informants. One man in his nineties who had traversed the plains in an 1846 crossing that featured drunkenness, murder, encounters with hostile Indians, buffalo stampedes and fights among the women, begins his Reviews 193 yarn with this avowal of honest intent: “I’m not figuring on getting married or running for office, so I might as well tell you the exact truth about my age and anything else you care to ask me about. ... So as not to give a one sided picture, I am going to tell you the things that are not creditable about myself as well as the things that are.” So, as Twain himself might say, “There you are.” Many of Lockley’s old-timers recall with immediate detail the actual crossing; they recall their ages at the time, their physical conditions, their duties on the journey. At the age of 91 an informant remembers that “I was in my 17th year when we crossed the plains.” He goes on, “My job was to drive the loose cattle, and if youwant to knowwhat dust isjust drive a bunch of loose...