Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Dorothy M. Johnson: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and A Man Called Horse

I've been going through some American Western classics that have never been translated in Finnish, for some reason or another (someone might remember I read Thomas Berger's Little Big Man over a year ago; this has to do with the same project). First I tackled Michael Ondaatje's pretty cryptic The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. I can't say I understood all of it, but nevertheless managed through (and even wrote an essay on it!).

Secondly, I read two short stories by Dorothy M. Johnson, in the collection called Indian Country. Now, she seems to be a bona fide American classic, but she's never been translated in Finnish, and I can't see why not. She's a very good writer, with a somewhat hardboiled and even modernist understated style to her writing ("less is more", one might say), and her stories are actually closer to the later cycle of revisionist Westerns than the classic Westerns.

"The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance", possibly her best known short story, differs greatly from John Ford's film, and to its advantage, I might say. I for one am more interested in the seedy characters of Johnson than the pleasantries of James Stewart or the macho posturing of John Wayne. Johnson's Ranse Foster (Stoddard in the film) is an unpleasant and uppity young man who almost deserves to get whipped by Liberty Valance, and Bert Barricune - the film's Tom Doniphon (I don't know why they changed the names) - isn't the brave and courageous man of Ford's film. He even ends up in jail in Johnson's story. The ending is also different, and better than in the film, in my mind, but you'll have to read the story to find out.

John Ford's film is deservedly a classic, though it has its setbacks, but "A Man Called Horse" is definitely better than the sensational film. Here Johnson produces a dignified narrative of a man captured by the Crows (in the film they are Sioux). Johnson's story doesn't have the exploitative self-torture scenes of the film, and it's more mundane, which makes it seem more realistic. The ending is touching.

I didn't have the time to read more Johnson, though I definitely intend to. Her "The Hanging Tree" was also made into a film, and here's an interesting essay on the troubled history of the short story or novellette (or novella). The writer doesn't really seem to like Johnson's writing, and I think she's mistaken when she says Johnson relies on stereotypes, but the story behind "The Hanging Tree" is intriguing. Feels like Johnson stopped writing Westerns after the frustrating experience.

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