Elegiac to the Future: The End of Eras in Novels

This blog post will be about novels with strong elements of EOAE. Examples Of Author Excellence? Well, yes, but I’m actually referring to End Of An Era.

Yes, a number of novels have a poignant feeling that something major has ended or is coming to a close. Or it might be a “good riddance” feeling, if the era was rotten and better days could be ahead. Or it can be a combination of negative and positive.

My most recently read example of all this was Larry McMurtry’s The Last Kind Words Saloon — which includes an aging Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Buffalo Bill Cody in a cast experiencing the end of the Wild West. Sort of sad, because the frontier era was a major/crucial part of U.S. history, but it was also a time of huge negatives such as the decimation of the Native-American population.

Of course, Alex Haley’s Roots and other novels that include the demise of slavery after the American Civil War make a reader pleased that an atrocious era has ended. Yet there are still plenty of horrors to think about as U.S. racism continued to rear its ugly head in countless ways post-1865, as we see in books such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Then there are many novels that expertly capture the feeling of life immediately after the carnage of World War II. The relief and the optimism, but also the pessimism that sets in when some of the optimism is found wanting. One novel that does the pessimism part of that really well is Walter Mosley’s crime mystery Devil in a Blue Dress, set in late-1940s Los Angeles.

Speaking of WWII, Fannie Flagg’s The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion includes a major story line about women who served as pilots during that war. The part-nostalgic, part-indignant-at-sexism novel is set many decades later — when many of the characters are now old or deceased.

Set in an earlier time, Booth Tarkington’s novel The Magnificent Ambersons depicts, among other things, the end of the horse-and-buggy era and the start of the automobile age.

Going back even further in time, one of the compelling things about Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford is the way a rural, homogenous English village begins to experience the industrial age and the arrival of people with more of an international background.

The end of an era can also involve a specific person, as is the case with the James Hilton novel Goodbye, Mr. Chips that chronicles the life of a beloved teacher at career’s end.

What are some of your favorite fictional works that fit the theme of this post?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which has a literature theme! — is here.

61 thoughts on “Elegiac to the Future: The End of Eras in Novels

  1. Hi, Dave: I’m a week late here and really have nothing to add directly on your topic. But I do want to say that any writing that attracts this from a reader should be toasted: “I believe ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” I’m going to get a T-shirt with that on it. Maybe.

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  2. Even thought it was written in the 50’s, John Hersey’s “A Single Pebble” laments the changes that were about to happen with the realization of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in China. The book is so poignant in describing the end of an era for the men who worked in cargo vessels bringing goods up and down the river, as well as an end of an era for the thousands of people who were about to be displaced from their homes and from their livelihoods. In fact, I think the dam has recently described as an environmental disaster of epic proportions.

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    • Thanks, Mary! I’ve read just one John Hersey book — the devastating “Hiroshima” — and would definitely like to read another. Will try to make that “A Single Pebble,” if my local library has it. You wrote an excellent, heartfelt description of that novel — which sounds like it definitely fits this topic.

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  3. Shusaku Endo’s The Samurai is a historical novel, in which a real expedition taken by Japanese minor officials to Mexico in the 17th century is fleshed out and amplified by the author’s imagination. The expedition takes place in a larger political context– the dawn of the suppression of Christianity in Japan, which led to the expulsion or execution of missionaries, nearly all Spanish,and to the execution or banishment of Japanese converts. But as the novel takes place at the dawn of suppression, alternate aspirations animate some among the Japanese, and among the Spanish missionaries, one of whom, a Franciscan, sees a chance to wrest exclusive control of trade between Japan and the Spanish Empire from his despised rivals, the Jesuits. The missionary manages to convince a local warlord that by sending a trade mission directly to Mexico (with himself at its head), he might establish relations with exporters and merchants there for the feudal lord who might then establish a trading port in his own province, thus bypassing the Jesuits altogether.

    A ship of proper size for such a journey is ordered by the warlord, built by Japanese workmen under the instruction of a crew of shipwrecked Spanish sailors, and Japanese sailors fill out the ranks of the crew. Four diplomatic envoys of minor stature appointed by their local nobles lead group of merchants, who board with a hold full of trade goods and their translator and secret proselytizer, the Franciscan missionary. They set sail, and after arduous travail, reach Mexico.

    I have written at too much length already, so I will not summarize the plot further,but, prey to forces greater than themselves or even their conception of their mission, the envoys eventually, after years, find their way back home, to a Japan entirely busy with the expulsion of Christian missionaries and the repression of converts. They represent a sort of alternate possibility of history, of what might have been had Japan not turned inward and against foreign trade, and at the same time, the timing of their fateful mission marks the end of the previous era of trade and Christian missionary work there.

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  4. Howdy, Dave!

    — What are some of your favorite fictional works that fit the theme of this post? —

    Because I believe ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny — not in a life-science kind of way but in a social-science kind of way — I think almost all my favorite fictional works (and nearly all my unfavorite fictional works) have both an end-of-an-old-error and a beginning-of-a-new-error feel about them, a feel so memorably captured in the following passage in Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”: “[W]e had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

    And, of course, major stops on the route of this train of thought encompass alternate histories such as Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle” and nonalternate histories such as William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” (Which, of course, leads one to conflate the two in the mind such that the character of the erstwhile First Autocrat in the West is rewritten so that he brings about neither the end of the Roman Republic nor the beginning of the Roman Empire, thus consigning to the dustbin of alternate history all subsequent oligarchs, including but not limited to the odious Pomaranczowa Panda.)

    J.J. (Alias MugRuith1)

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    • Thank you, J.J., for your very interesting comment! And a “learned” comment, if I may use that pretentious word. 🙂

      The Dickens quote you posted is amazing, and really does apply to this topic. And, yes, excellent fictional works that affect us on a deep emotional level often have some kind of end-of-an-era aspect — time marching on can really grab our attention.

      Alternate histories definitely put a twist on the end-of-an-era concept. Coincidentally, I’m in the middle of an alternate-history section of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” (the play I’m reading the script of in book form).

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      • — Thank you, J.J., for your very interesting comment! And a “learned” comment, if I may use that pretentious word. —

        Why not? After all, I used both “ontogeny” and “phylogeny.”

        — The Dickens quote you posted is amazing, and really does apply to this topic. —

        The only constant is change, as Franz Kafka could have said in an alternate (and much more pedestrian) version of “The Metamorphosis.”

        — Alternate histories definitely put a twist on the end-of-an-era concept. Coincidentally, I’m in the middle of an alternate-history section of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” —

        I am so J.K. Rowling-naive, I thought Harry Potter was the Cursed Child!

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        • “The only constant is change” — phrases don’t get much better or more accurate than that!

          Harry Potter was definitely cursed in a way in the seven “HP” books. In the play, set about 20 years later, it’s Harry’s son Albus who’s apparently cursed. (I’ve read about half the play so far.)

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  5. Welcome back, Dave. I know you were only a couple of days late this week, but I definitely missed my Monday morning new blog! But big congratulations to the happy couple and thanks to you for sharing some pics.

    I think a lot of books can have a kind of end of an era feeling, at both the beginning and end of the story, knowing that what came before, and what comes after, are slightly different stories than the one we’re experiencing – does that make any sense?

    A specific series that I thought of (though I’m not sure it fits exactly) is Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” (partly because I’ve just finished the audio version of the first novel). The series begins north of the The Wall. It’s cold, and it’s bleak, and it’s… Summer?! The words in the North are Winter is Coming. And despite the bleak tone of the novel, we quickly learn that this ‘era’ is actually a good one. It’s been Summer for ten years. But that era is now ending, and Winter is Coming.

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    • Thank you, Sue! Happy to be back, albeit a couple days late. 🙂 I appreciate the congratulations, and the very kind comments about my daughter’s wedding photos on Facebook.

      Your second paragraph makes total sense, and there are indeed many novels that have some kind of end-of-era feeling, Heck, many novels cover several years, several decades, or longer, so eras are going to come and go.

      And while I haven’t read George R.R. Martin’s epic, I love your description. Definitely fits with this theme.

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  6. Dave, the novel that immediately came to mind was “The Age of Innocence,” by Edith Wharton (partly because it is the title of my mini-travelogue about my trip to Europe in 1969!). But I think that Wharton was very aware of the ending of The Gilded Age and perhaps New York Society as it was then, especially by the beginning of World War I, which changed everything for many countries, including the US, and she published this book in 1920. Then not too long after, the Great Depression. Those two events were truly the end of an era.

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    • Terrific example, Kat Lib, with the description to back it up! 🙂 Even the title of “The Age of Innocence” evokes the end of an era. Great novel; very deserving of the Pulitzer Prize, which I think Wharton was the first female writer to win. And an excellent name for your travelogue, which I loved reading a few months ago!

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      • I’m going to post this here, because threads below were getting maxed out. I’m steamed about the news today that Gen. Kelly came out in support of his boss regarding the condolence call to Sgt. Johnson’s widow that was reported on by a Congresswoman who was in the car, which was en route to receive Johnson’s flag-draped casket back to the US. Kelly instead lambasted the lawmaker for listening in on the conversation from Trump to the widow, which was in a car and on speakerphone — what was she supposed to do, jump out of the car or grab her constituent’s phone to turn off the speakerphone. Kelly blasted her for making this politicized, but sorry, Gen., Trump is the one that made this political by bringing up the entire issue of phone calls in the first place. Most dreadful of all that Kelly went on to talk about how women used to be held “sacred” and as someone who is only a year younger than I, he should know that women only wanted to be treated as equals to men, not as being held “in honor.” And then to forget he’s defending a man who has been accused of sexual harassment, assault, adultery, and perhaps worse, how can he not see that Trump, while perhaps not as bad as Weinstein, is a predator. I lost all respect for Kelly today.

        On another off-topic comment, my sister was here today, and this was the first time she’s been in my Chester Co. artists/music room. The first print of Andrew Wyeth’s that she saw was “The May Pole,” which she said that Andy got the concept from a May Fair at the Chadds Ford Elementary School and borrowed costumes, etc. from those who had staged this whole May Pole idea. Argh! I had no idea that she would use the nickname of “Andy” to talk about Wyeth. I also mentioned to her, jhNY, of the books illustrated by N.C. Wyeth.

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        • Kat Lib, I totally agree that Gen. Kelly greatly lowered himself in defending Trump and criticizing the congresswoman. It seems that almost everyone who works for the revolting Trump gives up their souls, integrity, and decency. And, as you alluded to, Trump of course makes everything political and then has the nerve to accuse others of playing politics.

          Actually, by being willing to work for Trump, Kelly had already disgraced himself — today just made it worse.

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          • Going back to art for a brief moment, my sister and I were looking at a print I picked up at the Goodwill, just for the frame, but then decided that I loved the print so much I decided to put it my artist/music room. It’s of an old man praying at the table over bread, which I was able to find on the Internet by just putting that as the search. I learned that it was originally a photograph by Eric Enstrom in 1918, then was colored in by Enstrom’s daughter, and it’s called “Grace.” It turns out it’s the official state photo of Minnesota, so it does have a connection to me. It still amazes me how one can learn so much on-line that wasn’t easily done before. At any rate, I love it, even while not religious myself and never praying, or saying grace.

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            • Wow, Kat Lib — that print sounds wonderful, plus the Minnesota serendipity. 🙂 Your artist/music room must look amazing! I’m not religious, either, but, like you, can appreciate some religious art.

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          • Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo, has a phrase : ‘dignity wraith’– a sort of being like something out of a JK Rowlings book who swoops down on those who have chosen to use their own integrity to defend the indefensible president– their reward, usually, is to be used and then cheap-shotted by him– but regardless of whether or not the usual takes place– they find that they have squandered something precious to themselves they will never ever get back: their own dignity, as the wraith has got it, as payment for their self-debasement.

            Kelly’s proto-fascist regard for soldiers is beyond the pale of our democracy– he truly seems to believe that no one else here is worthy of such regard. Here is an unfortunate development of an all-volunteer military: too soon, the volunteers hold themselves and their fellows above all others, most especially above all civilian citizens.

            His yearning for the golden days of Never Was is such that he must falsify his own memory, that of a Boston working class Irish kid, into something truly astonishing– he remembers when women were ‘sacred’– though as fellow Irish Lawrence O’Donnell, who grew up nearby points out, that was when domestic violence was habitual, expected and quasi-condoned by local clergy, who counseled women they should not seek divorce from their abusers.

            Further, Kelly lied about FL Congresswoman Wilson’s behavior at the ceremony at the dedication of an FBI facility they both attended, and he lied about her ‘eavesdropping’ on a ‘sacred’ conversation between Trump and the bereaved family– which the family had asked her to take part in.

            Kelly has now held up his own son’s death as a bloody distraction form his employer’s psychopathic lack of empathy. I pity him for selling his soul so cheap, but then, that’s assuming he hadn’t sold it already, maybe several times, by the time he agreed to work at the White House.

            Come to think of it, I take back what I said about the ‘dignity wraith’– it’s obvious Kelly, if he ever had, no longer had any dignity, really.

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            • Perfectly stated, jhNY! Kelly did indeed sell his soul when he joined the Trump administration, and then somehow sold it again this week, in the service of a person (Trump) without an ounce of gratitude or decency. At first I was slightly surprised — Kelly seemed to have a bit more character than the likes of Conway, Spicer, Mnuchin, etc. But he obviously has no character.

              And, yes, this yearning for “the good old days” is only a yearning for the days when white men had virtually all the rights and power. (Actually and horribly, that’s still almost the case in 2017, but to a slightly lesser degree.)

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              • I agree totally with both of your comments. It was made even worse by Sarah Sanders, even after she admitted she had seen the tape in question about the FBI building in Florida, featuring the “empty barrel” Kelly demeaned and lied about Rep. Wilson, Sanders refused to back down and said it was totally inappropriate to criticize a 4 star Marine general. So does that apply to 4 star General Petraeus who shared classified documents with his mistress? And if any of the generals lie, we are still supposed to hold them up as heroes, which goes to jhNY’s very eloquent comments above.

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                • Really well said, Kat Lib. Trump and his administration people are absolutely appalling, but they become even more appalling when they continue lying and defend the un-defendable even after actual evidence — video evidence! — shows they’re lying. I guess they feel their base will continue to believe that even totally provable accurate news is still “fake news.” 😦

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  7. I also enjoyed “The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion.” A book that I read some years back that I believe would fit this theme is “Dancing in a Distant Place” by Isla Dewar. Set in Scotland, the story recounts when the narrator had turned to teaching in the past, purely out of financial need, and found deep intrinsic reward. The book brings the reader up to the present, where she is now an old woman who meets one of her former pupils as an adult.

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    • Thank you, Becky! “The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion” and Fannie Flagg’s other novels are SO good — smart, humane, whimsical, nostalgic. I think she’s a very underrated writer.

      “Dancing in a Distant Place” definitely fits the theme of this post. Thanks for mentioning it, and describing it so well! Now on my to-read list.

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  8. A bit of clumsy wording in that comment. Imagine that it says, “…when they were reaching the ends of their own eras, with one reaching it literally’. If you wish to edit it that way it will be fine with me. Thanks!!!

    That ‘end of an era’ aspect is common, particularly in the ‘revisionist’ Westerns of the late 60’s, particularly in ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ and ‘The Wild Bunch’.

    Some actual historical past their prime characters helped fuel that mythologizing of the ‘Old West’ i.e. characters such as Wild Bill Hickock, who reached the end of HIS era in Deadwood, shot in the back of the head at a poker table. As far as Wyatt Earp is concerned, although his brothers died at much younger ages, including at least one at the O.K. Corral gunfight (I think it was one), Wyatt himself lived well into the 20th century and was a consultant on some of the early silent Westerns, contributing to a ‘revisionist’ legacy of his own legend and helping spur on many of the cliches of the Western genre. I don’t think he died until 1928.

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    • Fixed!

      I know what you mean about revisionist Western movies of the ’60s — definitely an end of an era vibe.

      Interesting third paragraph! And it’s fascinating how some people, like Wyatt Earp, associated with the 19th century lived well into the 20th century. I would include Thomas Hardy in that group as well.

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        • Excellent cartoon, bebe! Thanks for posting it! A shame that the Biloxi, Mississippi, school district banned the novel. Dumb and narrow-minded. 😦 I read that they objected to some of the language, but it was probably more the book’s message of tolerance and antiracism that got that district annoyed.

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          • because of the N..word, but kids need to know the past but Dave present is no better with a predator in chief and racist holding the office . Question is for how long ? His supporters are still on his side with his lies and all. With his lies and cry for wolf, one day he might be addressing a critical issue but all will be in their merry ways thinking it is another of his lie 😦

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            • The awful/disgusting “N word” IS very painful to read, but, as you say, bebe, people need to know history. I have less of a problem with that word in “To Kill a Mockingbird” (where characters say it) than in “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (where it’s used in a more narrative way, though I don’t think Mark Twain was a racist, at least in the context of his time, and he was trying to be anti-racist in that novel).

              And, yes, racism and sexism are still unfortunately VERY widespread, with Trump worsening things to an incredible degree. You’re right — if Trump ever tells the truth (which is unlikely), no one will believe it except for some of his misguided/misinformed supporters.

              Great comment!

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              • The last few days have been terrible for Trump, especially since he decided to take on fallen soldiers as a topic. He neglected to acknowledge the four Green Berets who died in Niger for at least 12 days, then attacked Presidents Bush and especially Obama for not calling or writing the families of fallen soldiers, which is such a lie, telling reporters to call Gen. Kelly if Obama had called him on his son’s death in Afghanistan (Kelly is very, very private about his son), then to call one of the widows (now pregnant) and say, something to the effect that her husband knew what he was getting into, which was witnessed by their congressman, who now Trump is saying that she lied! I don’t know if this will turn any of his base, but I’d hope, especially since many of them must have servicemen in their families, this will make them less supportive of our so-called “Commander in Chief.”

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                • Yes, Kat Lib, an awful past few days for Trump, who has an amazing knack for lying and ALWAYS saying the wrong, insensitive thing. I’d like to think this would hurt him with his base, but, heck, he’s already said many things disrespecting the military (when criticizing McCain for being captured, when criticizing those parents whose son was killed in action, when accepting a gift of a Purple Heart when he was a draft dodger, etc.) without losing his diehard supporters — who either think like Trump or are now too embarrassed to turn against someone they supported against all reason.

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                  • But it was never awful for Trump, he is a cruel man otherwise why he would try to make a few pointers on his lies on Kelly`s grief ?
                    He is externally jealous of Obama always trying to discredit him. In these days W comes off as a better man, I do not believe President Bush was ever a racist . He has done blunders but trying his best to stay away from politics now and trying to help the fallen soldiers.
                    W got a second chance and Donald Trump in his 70`s got a chance to be a better man and failed to do so.
                    History will never be kind to him, after he will soon be forgotten after he takes all of us to the dumps.

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                    • Thanks, bebe! Trump IS so cruel, and jealous of Obama — who I had/have mixed feelings about politically but is always classy. A word no one will ever associate with Trump.

                      History will indeed be scathing about Trump, but I guess he’ll be long gone and beyond caring.

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                    • W may or may not be a better man than the man to who you compare him, but he was asleep on his watch on 9/11, he lied us into a war in which tens of thousands died (I count Iraqis too), and was put into office by a coup in 2000, not by revolutionaries but by GOP operatives throughout the election process. A man who lied us into a war that maimed many, some of whom he now paints strange portraits of by way of some kind of inadequate compensation. He also tried to privatize Social Security– where had he been successful, the retirements of millions would have been ruined in the crash of 2008.

                      I get how awful the present occupant of the White House truly is, but let’s not look at GWB through rose-colored glasses, as they might just be tinted in blood.

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                    • Donald trump is so mean, jealous, hateful person W is getting second chances to redeem himself that`s what I meant. W was awful President created terrible blunders during his Presidency.

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                    • Yes, jhNY, George W. looks “good” only in comparison to Trump. Sort of like Mussolini looked “good” compared to Hitler in the ranks of atrocious dictators. As you allude to, Bush was incompetent, a liar, and thoroughly right wing. His somewhat genial personality and his post-presidency painting make him seem a bit more human than Trump, but W will probably go down in history as the second worst White House occupant after Trump. TERRIFIC last line of your comment!

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          • A sad comment on the incapacity of MS locals to see what a spoonful of sugar TKAM is as compared to the actual practices and opinions of white supremacists of that era and general area. There were far fewer Atticus Finches wandering about than any of us would be comfortable to realize.

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            • Very true, jhNY. As wonderful as it is, “TKAM” sanitized things a bit. And some readers of “TKAM” might assume that people like Atticus were a decent-sized group at the time, albeit nowhere near a majority of whites. But Atticus-like people were few and far between. And the North was little better.

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      • Bat Masterson is a another such, who, toward the close of his life, was employed as a sports columnist for a New York newspaper, and covered the Jack Johnson- Jess Willard boxing match in Havana in 1915.

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          • The Wild West fascinates most of us at least sometime during our lives here in the US, but few of us really appreciate how short a time the West was wild– 30 years?– and how quickly the forces of finance and changes in transportation and communication made the area more like the rest of the country, certain local color and scenery notwithstanding. The Pony Express was around for less than 2 years; barbed wire fenced in the range, train tracks ran from California to New York a few short years after the Civil War, which is why surprisingly, yet unsurprisingly, there would be Wild West denizens still around for publicity stills and lecture tours in the first years of the 20th century. The tint of nostalgia and legend had settled on the West soon after the first settlers settled in, even drawing adventurous foreigners like Ben Thompson to the area to participate in rustling, shootouts and necktie parties– all of which were familiar pastimes to him, thanks to dime novels.

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            • Thanks for the terrific comment, jhNY — hadn’t realized just how short the Wild West period was. I guess one of the reasons it seems longer is that it has been mythologized so much. The reality, of course, was not so pleasant — the atrocious treatment of Native Americans, the writing of African-American cowboys out of history, the killing of the buffalo, the greed, etc.

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              • Also, a bit earlier, the concerted effort to dispossess the original Spanish colonial deed-holders of property in CA through legal chicanery or outright violence.

                And let’s not forget the Chinese men who died, in greater numbers and in greater proportion of their total than their white,often Irish counterparts, to build railroads in the West

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    • I’m glad you tried him, Dave. I have only read ‘The Last Picture Show’ and the two novels about Call and McCrae–‘Dead Man’s Walk’, when they were young whippersnappers, and ‘Lonesome Dove’, when they were reaching the ends of their own eras, with one reaching it literally. I won’t tell you any more about it because if you don’t read anything else by him you should read ‘Lonesome Dove’. It’s long but worth the time. Of course, ‘The Last Picture Show’ is also outstanding and was one of those cases where the film adaptation of it was perfectly rendered. The TV mini-series of ‘Lonesome Dove’ is also worth seeing, with Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones in the Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call roles. I hope to read ‘Commanche Moon’, chronologically the next in their books, between ‘Dead Man’s Walk’ and ‘Lonesome Dove’, then re-read ‘Dove,’ then on to ‘Streets of Laredo’.

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      • I thought “The Last Kind Words Saloon” was really interesting, Brian, and I realize it’s not one of Larry McMurtry’s major novels. My local library didn’t have the biggies, like “Lonesome Dove” and “The Last Picture Show,” when I visited last week; would love to read them at some point. And, yes, that “Lonesome Dove” miniseries is legendary. Thanks for all that McMurtry info!

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        • I’m not sure if my father ever read Larry McMurtry, but I do know that at some point he switched from Stephen King to Dean Koontz to Western novels. I think his favorite was Louis L’Amour. I’m not sure why, but I do remember he got too scared by Koontz and King, so he switched to westerns. I can remember that every night he’d go to bed very early, such as 7:00 to at most 8:00 to read until he fell asleep, something that I find myself doing as well!

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