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Book Reviews

Milt Gross Book Review: "The Humor of the American Cowboy" by Stan Hoig
By Milt Gross
Oct 21, 2012 - 9:45:41 PM

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This paperback is loaded with humor of the Old West, and I'm not sure why it's no longer in print. Milt Gross photo.
If you enjoy reading about the Old West and want something far different than the typical tales of cattle thieves and other outlaws, saddle up and take a reading ride through The Humor of the American Cowboy.

I did, even though I'm not a reader of westerns any more than other adventure tales, and I haven't been a cowboy since elementary school. I remember a classmate's wearing a cowboy costume to school and being apparently admired for it. When I wore one, I felt as though I were a bit off the pony.

But I was a boy cowboy, complete with chaps, cap gun, holster, ten gallon hat small enough for a kid cowboy, and boots that were tough running around in on Pennsylvania cowboy turf.

I also watched Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Frontier Playhouse, and the rest on TV at a neighbor's house before my parents got one to keep us all up late at night.

If you haven't figured it out, that was some time ago. Maybe not long after the West was won.

I've read some westerns, and occasionally still do, but this one is different than any I've come across. I came across this one, of course, at our town recycling center, where it's easy to shop for interesting books and even occasional good DVDs. A lot of them are old, such as this 1958 paperback published by Caxton Printers, Ltd., which my cynical nature makes me think may have been a vanity press (the writer pays to have his or her book published) and again in 1970 -- long time between writing and getting it out there for western fans to appreciate -- by the University of Nebraska Press as A Bison Book.

A really positive feature of this book were the apparent pen-and-ink drawings by Nick Eggenhofer, accompanied by cutlines. One illustration, showing two cowboys discussing a third who had been thrown from his horse and had watched his horse gallop off for home, has one cowboy saying, "He let that poor ol' hoss come home all by itself."

I can't find at the moment the tale that probably leads to that drawing and cutline, but one of the book's stories is about a cowboy whose horse throws him and gallops away. The cowboy, slams down his hat, and shouts, "If you're going to be that way, I'll walk home!" Or words to that effect.

Western humor is a "relatively neglected phase of cowboy life," according to the book's back cover. It's been neglected by me my whole life, primarily because, except for a Pecos Bill book I remember from childhood, this is the first I've read about the laughs of cowboys.

I actually find it hard to believe that someone who spent his days and nights during all kinds of weather, some of which wasn't pleasant, thinking humorous thoughts about his life. Maybe, just maybe, that's why there aren't a lot of books about Western humor. Yup, there are some hilarious Western movies, such as Blazing Saddles and City Slickers, the latter of which forms my basic memories of Billy Crystal's acting forays. I'm still not convinced, however, that if I had to spend my days on a horse in hot, dusty country -- especially since I wear glasses , I'd spend a lot of time chuckling.

But the humor of the cowboy was Stan Hoig's theme, some of which I found really funny. Some was more of a cultural difference between us and them than actual humor.

"A cowboy," wrote Hoig, who lost out in a six-shooter argument was being buried by his friends. After the sod had been heaved upon the box, someone 'sorta felt a few words orter be said.' A Church of England prayer book was produced by a rancher's wife, and someone read the verse about the 'quick and the dead.' As he turned sadly from the grave, one puncher shoot his head to another.

"'Ol' Bill wasn't very quick,' he observed, 'but he sure is dead.'"

Hoig spent a little of his writing concentrating on the "...Englishman -- many of them molded themselves with British persistency into the pattern and became real folks of the cow country.

"A favorite joke concerning the English cousins was about the monocled gentleman who was visiting his first Western ranch. When taken on a tour of the ranch, he was amazed at the size of it, but more so at the number of cattle which were upon it.

"'By Jove!' he exclaimed. 'And where do you find milkmaids for all of them?'

"Another is of the Englishman whom two cowboys found starving for water on the edge of a flowing creek. The creek was surrounded on both sides by arid wasteland, and the day was a hot one. As they approached, the Englishman ran toward them waving his arms wildly. His tongue was so badlyu parched he could hardly talk.

"'My word!' he managed to gasp. 'Have either of you good fellows a tin cup about you?'"

On another page, the author shares, "An Eastern lady once inquired of a cowboy guide as to what made him walk so bowlegged.

"'Lady,' said Joe solemnly, 'I've been sittin' astraddle a horse so long that my legs are practically strangers to each other. When I start to walk, my two legs keep saying to each other, 'You let me by this time and I'll let you by next time.'"

Unlike a novel, good or even humorous, The Humor of the American Cowboy has not plot or theme or murder to be solved. At the end, no one even lives happily ever after.

The time my father and I wandered ignorantly into a cow pasture over in Belgrade, at least our story had an ending. When that herd of Jerseys came toward us, obviously in our eyes intent on having us for dinner after goring us appropriately, we ran for the fence and clambered over.

We didn't think it was all that funny.

But unlike us non-cowboys heading for that fence in fairly serious fear for our suburban-based lives, readers evidently in long-ago 1970 appreciated good Western humor, as this book offered.

I found it a book to read over coffee or between other activities, when I happened to see it and picked it up to read from a bit. Definitely during TV commercials, which I find more nauseating than entertaining.

Maybe if the writer were a famous movie star or politician, it would be reprinted today.

But it seems like just another real writer, covering a favorite theme.

So, as TV show Rawhide put it...I think, "Head 'em up, move 'em out."

Let's hear it for real writers.

And after you find a copy in an out-of-print bookstore or online, you can shout, "Yahoo! Yippie yi, yippie yea,"

or whatever readers of old books about the humor of the West shout.

Milt Gross can be reached for corrections, harassment, or other purposes at lesstraveledway@midmaine.com.

Milton M. Gross Copyright 2012

Milt Gross Down the Road A Piece Column

Milt Gross Book Reviews


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