Friday, February 3, 2012

Adventure classics -- Parlez-vous lonesome cowboy?

Smoky the Cowhorse

by Will James


The best Will James story may be the one he never wrote -- the true story of how a French-speaking Canadian teenager became the author of a classic of the American West -- Smoky the Cowhorse.

I hoped to use some of his charming drawings to illustrate this post. But while checking the copyright dates for Smoky as well as James’s purported autobiography, Lone Cowboy, I had a bittersweet moment of the kind he might have used in his books, if he’d dared. The rights were renewed by his brother, Auguste Dufault -- member of the Canadian family James refused to acknowledge during his lifetime.

(William Gardner Bell, author of Will James: The Life and Works of a Lone Cowboy, discusses the copyright issue in detail in an article in Corral Dust magazine, Vol. XV, available at

On its face, James’s life is classic Americana -- a boy named Ernest Dufault runs away from home and builds a new life for himself, including a renaming and a new language. After a prison term for the quintessentially Old West crime of cattle rustling, he reinvents himself again, becoming an award-winning author. (Smoky received the Newbery Medal for children’s literature in 1927).

James might have declared himself even after publication of the book, a Black Beauty-like, or War Horse-like, saga of a horse’s life turned upside down by human interference and greed. (Although even there, he had started to build his own trap with the preface comment, “My life, from the time I first squinted at daylight has been with horses.”)

But by the time of Lone Cowboy in 1930, he had dug himself too deeply into his persona to find an honorable way out. Lone Cowboy became a bestselling Book-of-the-Month Club selection, but not even his wife Alice knew the truth of his origins.

Until his father’s death in 1926, he still wrote to his Canadian family in French, notes Anthony Amaral in the biography, Will James, The Last Cowboy Legend. Afterward, he wrote only to his brother Auguste, and only in English, which his widowed mother could not read.

And in spite of being at the peak of his career following Lone Cowboy, “inside he was drowning in dread of being ‘found out,’” Amaral writes. “Alcohol became his anesthetic. . . And every time he drew a sober breath, the misery returned and drove him back to the bottle.”

At last, estranged from his wife and family, his writing deteriorating, he died September 3, 1942, at the age of fifty from complications of alcoholism. Alice heard the news of his death from a radio announcement. Later that month, while his horses grazed, his ashes were scattered in the countryside he loved near Billings, Montana.

(All books mentioned in this post, including James’s, are available at For additional information, see also the Will James Society at )

(Next Friday, Adventure classics continues a month of animal adventures with Jack London’s The Call of the Wild.)

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