The Log of a Cowboy
by Andy Adams
 

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

illustrated by E. Boyd Smith

Houghton Mifflin: Boston, 1903

387 pages January 2011

  
Up the trial from Texas

The Log of a Cowboy is the best book that has ever been written of cowboy life, and it is the best book that ever can be written of cowboy life. With its complement, The Outlet, it gives a complete picture of trail cattle and trail drivers.

Why has it been so overlooked by critics and historians?

J. Frank Dobie
"Andy Adams, Cowboy Chronicler", Southwest Review, January 1926
Prefaces  (1975)

  
There is no comparison in magnitude with the great trans-Continental migration from the eastern settlements toward the western open lands, but for a single generation there was a south-to-north cross-current, that of the great cattle drives up from Texas to railheads and slaughter-houses in Oklahoma, Kansas, and even as far north as ranches in Montana. The Log of a Cowboy by Andy Adams (1859-1935) is a novel, or perhaps fictionalized collective memoir, of one such tremendous trail drive from the Rio Grande north to Montana in 1882. As the settlements thickened westward across the Great Plains, the cattle drovers perforce had to take more westerly routes; in this book the route is the Great Western Cattle Trail, or more simply the Western Trail.
  

J. Frank Dobie's praise above is unprovable in the strictly literary sense — histories and novels have been written since his comments in 1927, and will continue to be written. What we have in The Log of a Cowboy is about as close as we get to original source material on the cowboys' life and work by a participant in the glory days. Andy Adams was himself a Texas cowboy for years: he knew the men and their outfits, their horses and the cattle, and the geography of the trail north.

What the book is not is a conventional novel. There are no women waiting at the ranch-stead door; in fact, no women at all except for the acknowledgement of entertaining women in the cow-towns along the way, and they remain discreetly off-stage. The narrative is straightforward. There is no plot other than the grand natural arc of the men herding the cattle up the long Western Trail. Nevertheless, the great cattle drives are the stuff of peacetime American epic.
  

Spaciousness

Despite, or perhaps because of, the lack of most conventional plot devices, there is trail enough and time for the characters of the cowboys. Most interesting of all simply is how they go about holding the steers together despite all distractions and interferences, keeping them fed on range grass and watered from lakes and streams, and moving them forward. Re-collecting a scattered herd of cattle — or their own remuda of horses — is skillful work for both men and horses. A lot of trail riders' work is in the dark: even when the herd is bedded down, always a couple of cowboys are on mounted night watch, rotating through the night. When it comes to separating their herd from intermixture with another herd on the trail, or crossing the more difficult rivers athwart their route, their work is extra dangerous and downright fascinating. Getting their essential chuck-wagon across these rivers comprises a parallel set of engineering problems to solve.

Pushing three thousand head of cattle along the vast trail north from Texas provides a real sense of the spaciousness of the American West, a lovely perspective distinct from that of other types of Western accounts. One's perspective in time and space stretches on the frontier, in the open West. A near-companion herd might be a hundred and fifty miles back along the trail.

Climbing to a high perspective ourselves, I always have believed that this sense of spaciousness is a defining characteristic of our future, the High Frontier. Robert A. Heinlein in his science fiction novel The Rolling Stones conveys this beautifully: see particularly the chapter, "The Mighty Room". But also, in these vast empty spaces, human individuality is appreciated, colleagues are valued and visitors welcome.
  

Andy Adams' The Log of a Cowboy is a traveler's tale in the grand style, and you can drink your Western history where the water is clear.

  

© 2011 Robert Wilfred Franson


  
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