Monday, July 30, 2007

Le Plus Ça Change...

I finished reading Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire At Four Mile Creek B&B early Saturday night, so I started poking around among the many old books in the sitting room. I leafed through a couple of 19th century cookbooks, thinking I'd score some good recipes. But cookbooks in those days were written for real cooks, not dummies, so the recipes comprise little more than a list of ingredients and rudimentary directions ("rub the flour with the butter"); one cake recipe even notes that the cook will have to guess how much flour to use. Oven temperatures are only sometimes given, and then just "quick" or "slow"; forget about baking times.

So I soon turned to a pile of novels, the topmost of which was The Virginian by Owen Wister, published by The Macmillan Company in 1902. Not being much of a Western fan, I was only dimly aware of the early 1960s TV series with Lee J. Cobb. Now I see on IMDB that there was a 1946 movie starring Joel McCrea, with the tagline, "The All-Time Best-Selling Love Story of the West... Now On the Screen In Spectacular Technicolor!"

I read the first few pages and the book sure didn't seem like a love story. I assumed that the nameless narrator was a man, yet the movie description begins "Arriving at Medicine Bow, eastern schoolteacher Molly Woods meets two cowboys, irresponsible Steve and the 'Virginian,' who gets off on the wrong foot with her."

Hmm...I think the book may have been changed just a wee bit for the screen; my impression was that it's the narrator who gets off on the wrong foot with the title character. I enjoyed Wister's unvarnished, yet eloquent view of the Old West--which by 1902, he wrote in a prefatory note (from Charleston, SC!), had already vanished:
And yet the horseman is still so near our day that in some chapters of this book, which were published separate at the close of the nineteenth century, the present tense was used. It is true no longer. In those chapters it has been changed, and verbs like "is" and "have" now read "was" and "had." Time has flowed faster than my ink.
However, here's a passage that 21st-century airline passengers will find all too familiar:
My baggage was lost; it had not come on my train; it was adrift somewhere back in the two thousand miles that lay behind me. And by way of comfort, the baggage-man remarked that passengers often got astray from their trunks, but the trunks mostly found them after a while. Having offered me this encouragement, he turned whistling to his affairs and left me planted in the baggage-room at Medicine Bow. I stood deserted among crates and boxes, blankly holding my check, furious and forlorn. I stared out through the door at the sky and the plains; but I did not see the antelope shining among the sage-brush, nor the great sunset light of Wyoming. Annoyance blinded my eyes to all things save my grievance: I saw only a lost trunk. And I was muttering half-aloud: "What a forsaken hole this is!"

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