I wish I had read a book like James Oliver Curwood, Disciple of the Wilds, by H.D. Swiggett, when I was in school and had to write a book report. I would have had the material for a real book report. I knew teachers wanted something different from a summary of the plot, but I really didn’t get what that was. The reports my fellow students gave also varied from rambling plot “summaries” to concise ones, but little about the quality of the writing, the editing, or the message.
While proofing this book for Distributed Proofreaders, my mental process started with, “Who is this guy James Oliver Curwood and why did someone write a book about him?” Once that question was in the process of being answered, then my questions were more along the lines of, “Why was that random information included?” and “Really, didn’t you just tell me that but in different words?” to “Wow! Where did that come from?” and “Did the editor actually review this book? Did the author slap together articles into a book? Did he take research notes, shuffle them like a deck of cards, then turn them in as a book?”
I would have actually had material for a book review.
So, who is this guy James Oliver Curwood and why did someone write a book about him?
Curwood (1878-1927) was, in his day, a famous author with over 30 books published between 1908 and 1931. Two of his books each had more than a hundred thousand copies printed and sold of the first edition (The River’s End and The Valley of Silent Men). At least eighteen of his books and stories inspired movies. In fact, The River’s End has been turned into a movie three times: a silent version in 1920, and sound remakes in 1930 and 1940.
Curwood was an avid outdoors person from boyhood. He was not particularly attentive in school and dropped out or was expelled in tenth grade. As his biographer tells it,
When he was not present in school he was either writing tales of the wilds, or living them along the banks of the rivers nearby. In fact he had absented himself from classes on many occasions to devote more time to his stories. Jim Curwood finally developed into a real problem for his teachers in high school.
One day as he quietly came tip-toeing to his seat … the teacher … completed what he had to say with: “And dear Lord, we thank Thee for returning Nimrod safely to us this morning.” From that day forward his nickname at school was “Nimrod.”
As a teenager, Curwood went on long outdoor trips. He was a hunter who later became a serious conservationist/anti-hunter. Though he was American, his real love was for the Pacific Northwest of Canada. He turned his experiences in the outdoors into a series of adventure novels in that setting.
Curwood’s first published story was “The Fall of Shako,” printed in his hometown paper, The Argus of Owosso, Michigan, on November 21, 1894. He was 16. He wasn’t paid for it, but it brought him some notoriety. A resident of Owosso who didn’t like James’s father, also a James, assumed the father had written the article and wrote a blistering criticism which derided “the story [as] an insult to the intelligence of the people of the community and one composed of childish drivel.” The editor, seeing the possibility for publicity, published the criticism on the front page. The community sent hundreds of letters objecting to the harsh criticism of a youthful writer. The story made it to every large paper in the country. As Swiggett put it, “He was getting his name before the public as a writer and that in itself was worth its weight in gold.”
While Curwood didn’t complete high school, he passed an entrance exam to attend the University of Michigan for two years. He left to become a reporter, and thus started his adult writing career.
With the publication of Curwood’s first two books and the release of numerous articles and short stories in various magazines, all set in Canada, the Canadian Government offered the now somewhat famous James Oliver Curwood the sum of $1,800 a year plus expenses if he would explore the distant wilds of the Dominion and use all he saw as a basis for material in his future writings.
OK – so that’s the “school book report,” a short retelling of the story. Now for the review of the biographer’s style. In the first part of the biography, Swiggett lays out information about Curwood in an informative and easy-to-read story form. But the second portion provides randomly presented information, repetition, and unsubstantiated statements.
Perhaps I’m overstating it when I say “unsubstantiated,” but this passage seemed unsupported to me:
Jim was gloriously happy, of that there was little doubt, but for some apparently unknown reason, his wife was not. Perhaps it was because he had excluded her from his real life….
Had she stopped to realize that her husband was on his way to the top of the ladder and would eventually reach that goal, the marriage might have lasted.
This passage implies that, though she may have been seriously neglected, had Mrs. Curwood known that her husband would become rich and famous, the neglect wouldn’t have mattered and she would have stayed with him. I saw nothing that supported this and much to indicate that she was simply left behind to care for their children alone while he went off on his travels.
The next chapter discusses books being submitted and accepted for publication. It then jumps back to Curwood neglecting his wife and this resulting in divorce. Next it hops to book submissions and publication. The sense of a story is lost.
From this point forward the book seems to consist of a few paragraphs about a topic, a jump to something else that may have already been covered, and then another jump. For example:
⦁ A three-month trip to the wilderness with his brother
⦁ The offer from the Canadian government to pay him to explore and write about it
⦁ A trip to northwest Canada
⦁ Decision to settle in Owosso
⦁ Church supper in Owosso where he meets his future second wife
⦁ A trip to the wilderness with his new wife
⦁ Starting to write his third book in the wilderness cabin
⦁ Back to Owosso to build a house and writing studio, Curwood Castle
⦁ Back to the wilderness
⦁ Lots of books published
⦁ Jump back to book three
⦁ Discussion back and forth of books
⦁ Contract with publisher Bobbs-Merrill ends
⦁ Back and forth about his book Kazan
While the first half of the book told a story, the second half felt like the result of a stack of reference cards being dropped on the floor, picked up, poorly assembled back into order, and then just slapped into text. I suspect a deadline approached with less time than needed. However, the first half did create enough curiosity that I took a look at a James Curwood book as it went through the rounds at DP. But that’s a story for another day!
This post was contributed by WebRover, a DP volunteer.
I’ve seen Curwood Castle–it’s still in Owosso. It’s quite a building. Mr Curwood is semi-famous in the central Lower Peninsula of Michigan. I have to confess something, though: I’ve never read one of his books. >_<
Thanks for a great article, WebRover.