Cimarron

Edna Ferber

1930

(The Oklahoma land rush of 1889 gives Yancey Cravat an opportunity to rescue his wife from civilized mediocrity, and head west for the untamed life of the pioneer.)

XiangZhangOklahomaLandRush1893Oklahoma Land Rush 1893, by contemporary Chinese-American painter Xiang Zhang.  This painting can be found in his online gallery.

 

Yancey Cravat is the Cimarron—the wild one, like an aimless river or a jousting bighorn sheep.  He may tote legal volumes as easily as a gun, and be as quick with a Shakespeare quote as with a trigger; and yes, he’s a lawyer and the editor of a socially active newspaper... but this is no milktoast city boy.  This is Buffalo-Head, the tall, gruff, steel-eyed pioneer for whom three years in the same place or a single day without some sort of risk or conflict is evidently his idea of hell.  And, no doubt, the wife of such a one is bound to be some kind of woman: Sabra, a sharp, spirited, strong, self-sufficient saber of a woman.  In fact, although most assessments of this book will tell you that its permanence lies in its presentation to the world of the unforgettable Yancey Cravat, who is it that ties the book together?  Whom does the narrative follow, when Yancey’s itchy traveling bone takes him to Alaska or the Spanish-American war?  Not him, but the determined, toiling Sabra.  Granted, she lacks the explosive flash of her husband-- her way is much too pragmatic to put her in much danger or make her many enemies.  But she is really the central character of the book, the one who grows, the one who succeeds in adapting herself to the various jolting cultural shifts that get thrown into her path by the errant Yancey, or by her son, or by the discovery of oil.  At first entry into the fledgling land rush town of Osage, Oklahoma, fresh from the overprotection of her family the proper Venables of Wichita, she breaks into sobs when kissed by a stranger on the street.  But give her eight or nine years, and she’s riding in the middle of the night into an Indian reservation during a mescal ceremony and demanding that her unconscious son be thrown onto her cart so she can bring him home.  But of course, yes, we do want to hear about Yancey, despite… or maybe partly because of… his refusal to stick around.  He’s idealistic, imposing, and indomitable.  Take one particular tent meeting, for instance. In the course of giving a sermon, he manages to work in a self-defense killing—yes, the actual killing, not the story of a killing.  And when warned that his pro-Indian editorials are going to get him killed, his reply is simply the unearthly death-scream of the Cherokee (ch.8).

CimarronCoverThis book is dramatic and adventurous, with Yancey picking up and leaving from time to time, killing the notorious outlaw The Kid (ch.13), refusing to take political office in favor of wandering off for five years (ch.14).  He returns with a flourish from Alaska and the Spanish-American war (ch.16), marching right into a courtroom where he defends a certain Dixie Lee ex tempore and gets her acquitted (ch.17).  And in the funniest scene in the book, right on the heels of these dramatic events, Sabra makes the mistake of serving an effeminate pineapple and marshmallow salad for dinner (ch.19).  After staring at it for a couple of moments, Yancey leaves again. Eventually he returns-- as a bum catching a big can of nitroglycerine, thereby saving the town at the expense of his own life.

But, as adventurous as Yancey and the setting is, this is not primarily an adventure story.  This is mainly a book about two personalities.  Sabra’s is evidently closer to the author’s heart, but Yancey is more commanding, vivid, and charismatic.  The reader is likely to feel the same ambivalent admiration for him that Sabra does.  Most of the events of the book highlight the interactions between them, including his tearing her away from Wichita and introducing her to Osage, his spontaneous departures, the Wigwam newspaper, the interest their son has in an Osage squaw, and the marital strife occasioned by the flashy working woman Dixie Lee.  Surrounding the interactions of Yancey and Sabra is a secondary focus, the unfolding of the American West, what one might call Edna Ferber’s literary domain.  Osage develops from a wild pioneer town through the oil days into a city during the events of this book.  The Osage Indians are on the periphery of the reader’s view, but their cause weaves in and out of the book in many places, each of them solidly connected with the plot.  Towards the end of the book, the effect of the discovery of oil takes center stage.  Ferber did well to shoo Yancey offstage during these chapters, as this peculiar historical circumstance would have stolen the show.  Oil, that “gorgeous stranger”, came to Oklahoma.  Everyone went “oil mad”.  At the end of it, some still had nothing, while others next door were millionaires.  Even many Indians struck it rich.  The torrent of money was enough to make the tough town into a soft city.  “The sunbonnets had triumphed” (ch.23).  Yancey’s death made sense in this context.  He didn’t fit in the new world.  Like the Indians he championed, the world moved ahead and left him with no niche.

Great literature?  Some might think this too strong a term for the book.  But Cimarron’s the best story we’ve got on the settlement of Indian Territory (there’s Parkman’s Oregon Trail, which takes place further north, but that’s a travelogue).  So Ferber has preserved something important in American history and culture.  And she has preserved it well, in that it is colorful, vibrant, active, optimistic, like the American spirit itself.  The fact that it is uncomplicated and moves quickly with little subtlety is also appropriate for the typical or iconic American personality.  So the book is well suited for its aim.  This is a straightforward story, fun if not inspiring.  Read it quickly, smile and nod, step a little stronger for a while under its influence, be glad for the enriched understanding of the West and for the chance to meet a few of its colorful denizens.  A few days later, though, the mind will wander, looking for another attraction, just as Yancey’s did-- Where’s the next adventure?


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GLEANINGS:

(Some interesting paragraphs:)

  • A provocative picture: men get inspired by adventure, their wives try to tame it, ch.1
  • Yancey on the strong pioneer woman, ch.1
  • Women active in the adventures of America, unlike in European countries, ch.3.
  • Functions of western wear, ch.12.
  • Interesting perspective on the town prostitutes, ch.15.
  • The best example of Yancey’s defense of the Indians: a discussion of peyote at the end of ch.18.

TIDBITS OF SIGNIFICANCE

In many cases material entirely true was discarded as unfit for use because it was so melodramatic, so absurd as to be too strange for the realm of fiction.

-Foreword

 

Anything can have happened in Oklahoma.  Practically everything has.

-Foreword

 

“Do even the flowers have to be useful in Kansas?”

-Felice Venable, ch.1.

 

“I've had enough of it.  Sabra, my girl, we'll leave all the god-damned middle-class respectability of Wichita, Kansas, behind us.  We're going out, by God, to a brand-new, two-fisted, rip-snorting country, full of Injuns and rattlesnakes and two-gun toters and gyp water and desper-ah-dos!  Whoop-ee!

-Yancey, ch.2.

 

...halting of speech, slow of mind, quick on the trigger.

-The jury, "plucked from the plains or the hills", at Dixie Lee's trial, ch.16.

 

Here was the kind of situation that the Southwest loved and craved; here was action, here was blood-and-thunder, here was adventure.  Here, in a word, was Cimarron.

-At Dixie Lee's trial, ch.17.

 

...women were scarce, with the scarcity that the hard life predicated.  And because they were scarce they were precious.  No woman so plain, so hard, so undesirable that she did not take on, by the very fact of her sex, a value far beyond her deserts.  The attitude of a whole nation had been touched by this sentimental fact which was, after all, largely geographic. For a full century the countries of Europe, bewildered by it, unable to account for it, had laughed at this adolescent reverence of the American man for the American woman.

-ch.17.

 

“The Indians started to eat peyote after the whites had taken their religious and spiritual and decent physical life away from them.  They had owned the plains and the prairies for centuries.  The whites took those.  The whites killed off the buffalo, whose flesh had been the Indians' food and whose skins had been their shelter, and gave them bacon and tumbledown wooden houses in their place.  The whites told them that the gods they had worshiped were commonplace things.  The Sun was a dying planet-- the Stars lumps of hot metal-- the Rain a thing that could be regulated by tree planting-- the Wind just a current of air that a man in Washington knew all about and whose travels he could prophesy by looking at a piece of machinery.

“And they ought to be grateful for it.  The government's given them food and clothes and homes and land.  They're a shiftless good-for-nothing lot and won't work. They won't even plant crops.

“’Man cannot live by bread alone.’  He has got to have dreams, or life is unendurable.  So the Indian turned to the peyote.  He finds peace and comfort and beauty in his dreams.”

-Yancey, ch.18.

 
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READ THIS WHEN...

...you want to place yourself among those wagon trains heading west to establish a town in Indian Territory.

 

IF YOU LIKE THIS, YOU'D LIKE:

(for the unflagging pursuer of the westward pioneers:)

  • Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition  (1803-1806).
  • Francis Parkman, Oregon Trail  (1849).
  • Lewis H. Garrard, Wah-tó-yah and the Taos Trail  (1850).
  • Willa Cather, O Pioneers!  (1913). 

(for the seeker of a feminine perspective on the development of America:)

  • Edith Wharton, Xingu and Other Stories  (1916).
  • Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop  (1926).
  • Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind  (1936).
  • Edna Ferber, Giant  (1950).

FIND THIS BOOK:

Hardcover

Cimarron, like so many classics, is out of print in hardcover.  So the best you can do is find a used one:

 

Paperback

It's always a bit odd when a book starts to be upstaged by the movie, to the point where the movie is used to sell the book.  But the "Vintage Movie Classics" edition is the most current and easiest to find:

 

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