Tuesday, April 22, 2008

"Death Valley Lore": Book Review

Two Richards, Lingenfelter & Dwyer, edit this 1988 collection of "Classic Tales of Fantasy, Adventure, and Mystery." They compile them from sources that kindled the public fascination with this supposedly inhospitable, magically hidden, stupendously lucrative, yet utterly fatal place. So the legend was printed, to paraphrase John Ford. Forty-niners gone astray, John Brier & William Lewis Manly, provide their own powerful narrations from when they found themselves trapped there, the first white men to witness its terrifying and dispiriting sights. Prospectors like Shorty Harris and promoters like George Graham Rice share their polished, yet engaging, accounts, as do editors of newspapers from the camps. They're joined by a host of flimflamming publicists eager to cash in on the crazes in the later 19th and earlier 20th century surrounding hoaxes, self-dramatizing forays after lost mines, Death Valley Scotty's mendacity, and the Bullfrog discovery. Yarnspinners and poetasters-- the best being Paul DeLaney surviving the summer's heat and Sydney Norman's debunking of Scotty-- round out the breathless array of selections.

It's a handsome volume, but it would have benefited from a more detailed map than the dated, single inset one prefacing the book. I also wish more period illustrations had been interspersed throughout, instead of only at the start of each chapter. Also, the editorial material's very slim, a short introduction to the collection and brief notes prefacing the selections offering not much explanation or context for the entries. While these do often speak for themselves, the editors could have assisted the reader who does not know fact from fiction here.

For the truth, Lingenfelter's standard 1986 history, "Death Valley & the Amargosa," gives you in exhaustive but not exhausting detail a well-told in-depth survey; John Soennichsen's "Live! From Death Valley" entertains with a personal travelogue that captures the sense of the terrain from a modern perspective. (Both works reviewed by me on Amazon and this blog recently.) This subsequent anthology, on the other hand, revels in the rather dated, inflated and hyperbolic styles of the past. These types of stories made the impressions on those who never came within a thousand miles of the desert what it "must" have been like, in all its romance, horror, and hyperbole. Some of these impress-- the harrowingly detailed yet efficiently sketched forty-niner Manly or Brier's eloquence humbles you, when one realizes the limited formal education such men likely had, and how well they used their ability to tell a gripping first-person survival account better than any "reality" t.v concoction.

John Brier sums it up: "One tires of writing about yielding sand and impeding scrub, so effectual in stretching distance and consuming strength and time." (33) Either the teller begins to risk tedium by being honest, or conceit by being imaginative. Endless pages of despair don't hold one's attention; ghosts, skeletons, glitter, and wild Indians do. These rhetorical flourishes, set to separate elsewhere fools from money, or at least audiences from spare change for a paper, may wear down the contemporary reader, but they do provide an insight into how the popular press plays upon fads and puffs up trends. C.C. Julian (surprisingly absent from these earlier reports, but see Lingenfelter's history) and Death Valley Scotty foreshadowed the Tony Robbins and Donald Trump, relentlessly and inventively selling themselves as they sold you for decades on end still more of their secrets of success. They never let you peek openly into their hoard, but these early promoters know how to keep you hoping to learn more. Much of the stock market frenzy, seller panic, and buyer lust can be seen in today's e-commerce and globalized markets no less than the semi-fictitious boasts by inside traders and secrets whispered by PR spinners over a century ago from this place that still haunts dreamers and provokes schemers.

Photo: Harold Davis digitalization. See: Death Valley Sunrise 2

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