There’s a funny thing about families: what one member witnesses or experiences may not be the same experience or circumstance the other kinfolk recall. If one of those members is an author willing to release any skeleton out of the familial closet, well then, things can get interesting. Hart Stilwell’s Uncovered Wagon is one of those situations.
For that reason, Stilwell’s mother, Anne Belle Poole, vehemently opposed the publishing of Uncovered Wagon during her lifetime. Before marrying Hartwell Stilwell Sr., a Texas Ranger, drifter, murderer, and grafter, Anne Poole was raised in the fairly well-bred household of her father, an insurance broker from Corpus Christi. And while her husband-to-be was educating himself on the free-wheeling, unfenced expanses of the southwest’s frontier, Anne Poole was earning a degree from the Sam Houston Normal School. Anne’s objections to the publication of Uncovered Wagon arose from a sense of pride: she did not want her family remembered as a fractured, poor, and drifting household living in the midst of deprivation, mental abuse and torture by the words and at the hands of a rapacious alcoholic.
As a way to please and assuage his mother’s sense of pride, Stilwell opens Uncovered Wagon with an author’s note of disclaimer:
Although this book spans the transition from the stagecoach to the airplane in one odd little section of this nation, and the things that are related here are in a general way, a part of history, still the book is a novel. The “Father” and “Mother” of the book are not my father and mother. The sisters and brothers are not mine. The “I” is not I. (Stilwell, Uncovered iii)
Yet as awkwardly and thinly as Stilwell attempted to mask the autobiographical content of Uncovered Wagon, his daughter, Mary Gray Hughes, in the 1974, Texas Monthly Press Edition of Uncovered Wagon, reveals his subterfuge and writes in her foreword:
Uncovered Wagon is autobiography. Hart Stilwell, who was my father, wrote it as autobiography and intended to publish it that way, but he did not have the heart to override the strenuous objections of his mother during her lifetime…Some members of Hart Stilwell’s family may still, as family members sometimes do, see their common history from different angles and in different ways, but Uncovered Wagon is Hart Stilwell’s life—this is how he saw it, how he lived it, and how he wrote it. (Stilwell, Uncovered iv)
Uncovered Wagon is the story of the Endicott family on the south Texas border at the turn of the twentieth century. The narrative explores the fractured and contentious relationship of the young Billy Endicott and his father, the Old Man. We see a poverty-stricken family trying to survive in the harsh environment of untamed lands on the Texas frontier. We follow Billy through his early childhood years, until he leaves for college with his younger, blind brother, Robert. We witness Billy become the protector of his family from the wrath of the Old Man after the death of his older brother, Duke. And ultimately, we see the Old Man’s and Billy’s relationship change as time and age reveal each other and redefines the father and son dynamic.
When exploring Stilwell’s canon and life, we have to start with Uncovered Wagon within the Stilwell pantheon because it represents the childhood of his life and the developmental episodes Hart experiences during life with the Old Man. Don Graham quotes Texas journalist, Stanley Walker, writing in the New York Herald Tribune, as describing Uncovered Wagon as a “sort of ‘Life with Father’ in a particularly lowdown setting” (Stilwell, Uncovered x). Graham continues and adds to Walker’s assessment that the book is not only about “life with father,” but is a book solely about the father, or the Old Man as Stilwell’s Billy Endicott calls him. Taken at quick face value this may hold true; however, there are deeper currents running in the narrative that affords the reader a view into the mind and mores that shaped the man, Stilwell, who lives within the limited and tumultuous universe of the Old Man. The Old Man is merely the backdrop and catalyst of the intellectual development that will define who Stilwell becomes.
John Steinbeck described the move of the American man west as “westering.” Hartwell Sr. was one of these men who slept under the stars, rode horses and drove cattle, and worked for a small portion of his life as a “special” Texas Ranger, in the 1890s. This “westering,” frontier soul that manifested itself in the Old Man was stereotypical of the later boom-and-bust creature that roamed the American west searching for overnight fortune. The Old Man, never content with living a settled life and cultivating the developed land he worked from the south Texas scrub, could easily survive in the harshest environment and even provide well for his family, until the wanderlust of the wild frontier called to him. Once he becomes “settled,” or “fenced-in, as Dobie would term it, the Old Man hatches a new hare-brained scheme that will hopefully lead to his family’s El Dorado. The Old Man will pack house and family into the wagon and go in search of their fortune. Lashing out against the notion of domestication he threatens to kill himself and take the kids with him over such simple affronts as the Mother making baking-soda, rather than flour-biscuits. The Old Man’s frontier-forged loyalty, though, never allows him to abandon his family. Still, he leaves them close to ruin on numerous occasions. Stilwell’s young, alter ego, Billy says, “Looking back on it now, I wonder why he never abandoned his flock, riding on back out to the West that at least meant freedom as he interpreted freedom” (Stilwell, Uncovered 34).
The revelation of the Old Man as an unhappy man, the first insight of the young Endicott, gives us a deep psychoanalytical view into the burgeoning adult psyche of Hart Stilwell. The fear and torture of the family, and especially Billy’s experience at the hands of the Old Man, creates a persona in Hart that was always on the verge of self-deprecation or subservience. Hart, as witnessed through his correspondence with J. Frank Dobie, was a vapid pleaser and strove to find acceptance by fatherly, or authoritative, figures. Letter after letter Stilwell appears to try and curry favor with the elder man of Texas Folklore. Stilwell is constantly offering his assistance in matters ranging from taking care of Dobie’s sick mother to offering to head Dobie’s ill-advised run at governor. This characteristic of Stilwell reflects the constant disapproval the alter-ego Billy receives from the Old Man. Each character Stilwell colors as his fictional self is always the protagonist and later protector and each has an overseeing fatherly figure that provides sage wisdom and direction in life-altering situations.
In Uncovered Wagon, we see the development of this character trait as he grows to accept the Old Man and eventually grow from a tormented boy to the protector of the Old Man. In Uncovered Wagon, the desire to please shows itself must notably, though, through the relationship between Billy and the Mother. The mother’s greatest desire is to see her children get an education and become respectable members of society. Even in their abject poverty, the mother attempts to make the young ladies of the family presentable and the boys, young gentlemen. In the most provocative moments, when it appears young Billy is attempting to side with the Old Man in another of the baking-soda biscuit battles, Stilwell’s character placates the mother’s growing rage by backing down and revealing she is correct. Stilwell, always the pleaser, even takes the Mother’s pride and joy, the blind child, Richard, to the Austin State School for the Blind when he leaves for college. The devotion to the fictional Richard (Robert in real life) does not end with the trip north. In his attempts to please, Stilwell finds himself, each Sunday during college, giving the blind children at the school a ride on the back of his bike and providing them candy. These trips to see his brother stemmed from a promise kept his mother to visit the poor child in the hospital each week. But his devotion to his blind brother and his mother continued for life. In a 1946 letter to Dobie, to please his mother and protect Robert, Stilwell pleads with Dobie to help his brother find a job in the University of Texas’s English Department, which apparently Dobie did attempt. The mother’s wishes to see her children educated and part of society were antithesis to the father’s ranging ways. By capturing a university job, the blind brother will be set for life and not subjected to the whims of poverty.
In contrast and on the edge of frontier and near complete financial ruin, the Old Man, to entertain the family and see them through rough times, cold nights and empty bellies, regales the family with food for the brain rather than the stomach with the stories of his frontiering wild west days before marriage and children. The two able-bodied boys, Duke and Billy, escape into the wild of the Old Man’s old west; however, the affects the stories have on both will have drastically different consequences. The father’s stories, however, are not enough to quench the gnawing hunger that persists from waking to bed. The hardships and turmoil of packing up and frequent moves creates in Stilwell a desire for stability that the mother wishes for Robert and all of her children. In a sense, Stilwell’s tumultuous childhood was rebelling against the Old Man, and this insight reveals Stilwell could never live the rambling, ranging life like the Old Man. Stilwell’s unlanded childhood foisted by the rambling nature of the Old Man and the Mother’s desire to build a stable home like she enjoyed as a child, perhaps, contributed to Hart’s desire to be rooted to a community; therefore, he inherently had to rebel against the Old Man’s frontier.
Billy and his older brother appreciate the wild frontier stories of the Old Man, and for a time, Billy entertained thoughts of becoming an Indian, rather than a ranger like his dad. He imagined himself an Indian, so he could shoot the Old Man. By contrast to Hart’s rebelling nature to anything representing the character or nature of the Old Man, in the novel, there is “Duke,” based on Stilwell’s older brother who died at the age of 19 in similar circumstances as the fictional brother. In Uncovered Wagon, Duke follows in the footloose, frontiering and galavanting ways of the Old Man. On the trail, between moves, and often starving under the bright stars of Texas, the Old Man entertains the boys of the family with stories of the Old West and murdering and rangering and driving cattle. The romanticism, though, is too heavy for Duke, and Duke desired to become just like the Old Man and live an old west inspired lifestyle. Duke’s desire, and healthy stubbornness against the tyranny of the Old Man, leads him to leave the house and become a cowhand, riding the line of a nearby ranch.
The ranch, although this is pure speculation, must have been either the King, Kenedy or Armstrong Ranch. The story of Duke’s last days begins when the family had moved north, near the coastal town of Hacketts, a cold and remote place north of the “citrus orchards” of the Rio Grande Valley. Billy Endicott describes the ranch as a large tract that surrounded the small coastal village. Stilwell describes the power of these ranches:
I learned that the ranch people ‘fixed thing up.’ The man Duke shot got well, and Duke, because of his youth and the fact that there was a romantic element in the shooting, something that always appeals to Texans, was permitted to plead guilty and receive a suspended sentence. The fact that the ranch people controlled the community and the county probably figured in the proceedings. (133)
These revelations, although they require more in depth research, can only lead the researcher to believe the ranches in fact were either the King, Kenedy or Armstrong. The sizes and proximity of the ranches to the coast and Rio Grande Valley provide us the hints. Stilwell even makes the correlation more enticing when he writes, “The fact that the ranch people controlled the community and the county probably figured into the proceedings.” During the 1910s, the period in which Uncovered Wagon is set, the control of the King Ranch had been transferred to Richard King’s son-in-law, Bob Kleberg. The King Ranch is located just outside of Kingsville, which is the county seat of Kleburg county. The Kenedy Ranch, just south of Kingsville, is in Kenedy county. The coincidences are too tantalizing to not make the politically powerful ranch parallels. Duke’s dalliance with his dad’s old way of life removes the eldest son from the house and focuses the Old Man’s wrath on the older girls of the family and on his mother. To fill the protectorate void that Duke represents, Billy is foisted into the roll of protector, when after a short time Duke dies “the way he had lived, by violence” (134). The story of Duke, though, highlights an early learning experience in the young Stilwell that manifests itself throughout Stilwell’s professional and adult life. As we will see later in Campus Town and Border City, Stilwell, even as a child, witnessed the power of “political connection” and the fringe benefits it can afford. Stilwell’s first experience with the power of political connections is positive, as reflected by the power of the ranch to get Duke out of trouble. As we will see later in Campus Town we witness a shift in Stilwell’s perception of political power being benevolent to one where political power can be malevolent. This shift in Stilwell’s perception begins to develop the astute political eye he casts on the political machine later in life.
Stilwell’s early experiences with the political machine of the wealthy ranch owners were favorable in his youth. His intellectual growth in college, though, changes those perceptions and presents Hart with the catalyst he needs to write Border City. Duke’s story, in the greater sense and tradition of a big brother educating a younger one, represents the first major learning experience in the young Stilwell’s life.
Duke’s unintentional lesson, the Old Man’s tyranny, and the mother’s insistence on education are strong themes in Uncovered Wagon; however, missing from the summary of the novel are the lessons a young boy of the frontier learned by simply observing the world around him. Was it the eye of the burgeoning journalist, the outdoorsman, or simply the frequent shift of his surrounding environment that caused Stilwell to take notice of the disappearing wildlife around him? Regardless of the reason, in Uncovered Wagon, we begin to see the ardent environmental conservationist appear that will shape Stilwell’s career after the 1940s.
In the chapters “Battles in the Wild” and “The Yankee Horde,” we see the polemic against man’s intrusion into areas that were not their own. Was it the sense of displacement Stilwell felt as a young child when the family moved to a new town that made him so cognizant of outsiders’ intrusions upon someone’s turf? Or did the infractions of those who moved into new areas and the subsequent human impact on the environment and wildlife make him such an outspoken conservationist? The answers to the two questions highlight the complexity of the man.
In “Battles in the Wild,” Stilwell begins to outline his views of man’s incursion into the wild. He paints a picture of a virtual Eden in the small town of Greenville, which by its description in relation to the Rio Grande River appears to be Pharr or Mission, Texas. The Eden he paints is “a land where people did not even hunt since it was not necessary to penetrate the brushland that far for game—the wildlife around us was so plentiful it became a nuisance” (53). The deer, which are destroying their crops, are so thick that his father and brother have to take turns at night staying awake to shoot them. White-wing dove, which his father never shoots due to their diminutive size, are so numerous in the Rio Grande Valley that their numbers, Billy Endicott reasoned, rivals that of the millions of passenger pigeons that used to take to the skies. Coyotes and wolves live side by side and play havoc with his mother’s chickens. And some nights, in the calm of the witching-hour, a lady’s scream would pierce the night. The ladies scream, of course to the outdoorsman, is the scream of the black puma. The puma coincidentally is no longer a part of the menagerie of Rio Grande Valley fauna. In fact, until recently, the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico were believed no longer to have large cats roaming its slopes; however, this has changed recently through the efforts of a number of concerned individuals who created a large cat refuge and have reintroduced mountain lions and pumas back into the wild.
The situation Stilwell describes, a disappearing population of local wildlife, is a typical Stilwell subject for a polemic. In Uncovered Wagon, Glory of the Silver King, Fishing in Mexico, Hunting and Fishing in Texas and most of his outdoors journalism, this theme is visited frequently. The theme took root early in the frontier roaming young Stilwell. His appreciation of the beauty of nature is evident in “Battles of the Wild” in Uncovered Wagon. He worships the wild bulls that roam among the scrub and huisache who could have been remnants of the herds rustled by Juan Cortina himself who was chased by McNelly across the river and back into the Mexican interior. Captivated by the iridescent beauty of the green jay, young Billy tries, unsuccessfully, to pen raise the jays who feed on the back step with the chickens and bob-whites. Stilwell’s affection for aviary takes deep root; later in life, Stilwell writes extensively in Sports Illustrated, Field & Stream, and Sports Afield about the challenges and rewards of pen-raising wild birds. Stilwell, though, adhering to his anti-human intrusion into wildlife creed, denounces genetic tampering with wild game. Stilwell’s greatest denouncement is outlined in the unpublished manuscript, The Great White Bird and Other Immaculate Toys. The Great White Bird, a genetically altered turkey, is an extension upon the environmental message Stilwell builds in Glory of the Silver King.
Stilwell loves the wilderness and wildlife of the frontier, and it all leaves a deep impression on him. The wilderness is his escape. Into the woods he disappears to escape the drunken, violent attacks wielded by the Old Man. Maybe it was the protection the wilderness offered him that gave rise to his desire to protect the wilderness and wildlife in return. Stilwell held a place in his heart that loved the chicken stealing coyote, the night piercing screams of the puma, the calls of the bob-white, the sky-darkening clouds of white-wings, and the lowing bray of the wild longhorn. It was “during that first year [the animals] were all a part of their lives–we battled with some and enjoyed others.” But as much as he loves it, he realizes the forays of man into the wild are making it disappear. Stilwell decries man as he moves into the wild. He realizes he is part of the problem that is rooting out the local faunae:
But as other farmers came and more and more land was cleared the brushline was pushed farther away, so that Duke and I had to make fairly long trips to hunt. The longhorn began to disappear—the game started thinning out. And even the Mexican disappeared, in effect, from our lives, and there came a people who were stranger to me than the longhorns and the Mexicans and the rattlesnakes. I had never seen such people before.
They were the Yankees. (Stilwell, Uncovered 58)
Even as Stilwell recognized he, like the yankees, is part of the intruding problem, he cannot stop his father’s need to be on the edge of the frontier. Later in life, the lessons learned from those days encroaching on the wild revisited Stilwell while writing Fishing in Mexico. In a letter to J. Frank Dobie, he confesses remorse for exposing the people of Mexico and their fisheries to the “Nordic Horde.” After witnessing what the first wave of Yankees does to his beloved lower Rio Grande Valley during the rise of the Magic Valley in the teens and 20s, a sentiment he shared with his contemporaries Jovita Gonzalez and John Houghton-Allen, he fears what the hordes who read his books will do to the unsuspecting populations south of the Rio Grande River.
The book concludes with an account of his father’s last few years. In the introduction of the Texas Monthly Press edition, Don Graham, describes Uncovered Wagon as “Stilwell’s best book because it is his most honest and the least sentimental” (Stilwell, Uncovered xi). However, the last few chapters are actually full of deep feelings for the Old Man. Slipping into dementia, the Old Man is convinced his next great frontier lays across the Pacific in a faraway land named Australia. He dreams that he will soon go there and deliver the riches he had always promised his family. Billy knows this will never happen, but entertains the Old Man’s dreams anyway. We see a softening of the conflict between the aging Billy and the dying Old Man and the reader witnesses the paradigmatic shift that encounters all fathers and sons when they first see each other as men. Stilwell’s writing powerfully captures this shift between Billy and the Old Man. The older Billy, now with a family of his own, says:
One of the Old Man’s few remaining pleasures during those declining years was taking people on conducted tours of his place…I know I followed him around that little nursery at least five hundred times, and I’m sorry now it wasn’t a thousand times, for no matter how much of a devil he was the Old Man was near the end and he was lonely and he desperately needed the company and sympathy and understanding of his fellow man. (Stilwell, Uncovered 292)
Yet in its sentimentality, Uncovered Wagon accomplishes the task Stilwell sets forth in the fictional trilogy compromising his autobiography: we witness the freeing of the son’s spirit from the overbearing nature of the Old Man’s. As the Old Man lies in bed dying for the last year of his life, Stilwell realizes that he is not as far separated from his father as he had wished. The same stubbornness and orneriness that pushed him to hate his father makes him more like his father than even Duke. What Stilwell witnesses in himself is the same rebellion that like-minded fathers and sons have experienced for millennia. The draw of hating each other forces the son to take the opposite stances and beliefs of the father.
A good example of this is Stilwell’s later alliance with liberal politicians his father would have hated. The Old Man’s frontier, don’t mess with me attitude, was fine while the lower Rio Grande Valley was still a wild and untamed place untouched by government intrusion. Once the FDA and Agriculture Department began to infringe upon his rights to grow any fruit or plant that he saw fit to grow in the fertile soil of the river delta, the Old Man lashed out violently at the New Deal. In fact, the Old Man, a stalwart lover of roses, always has an award winning bed of roses growing even during the hardest and poorest of times. At one point, with the FDA and Agricultural Department breathing down his neck for growing fruit fly inviting peaches in his garden, the Old Man stubbornly renames his most beloved rose, Roosevelt, to Landon, Roosevelt’s right-leaning political opponent. Conversely, as we will see in Campus Town and then Border City, Stilwell embraces the doctrines of the New Deal and becomes a strident denouncer of Roosevelt haters such as syndicated newspaper columnist Westbrook Pegler and a devoted follower of the political left.
Uncovered Wagon leaves the reader with the young Stilwell’s early childhood “education” complete. As we will see in his other two books of the trilogy, Border City and Campus Town, the events that round the sharp edges leave us with a true account of the man that will become the journalist and author Hart Stilwell. Although Stilwell gives us a blurry portrait of the things that happen to him in college in Uncovered Wagon, we see the intellectual development of the day-to-day education he receives on the 40 acres in Campus Town.. As we explore Campus Town, we will watch the young pioneer of the south Texas border become “citified” and examine the tumultuous times that shapes the narrative, the man, and the face of Texas politics, and how Stilwell learned to operate in the world of the politically “connected” that helped Duke out of his troubles. We will find that Stilwell first embraces the life of the connected; soon, however, he abandons it because of acrimonious and conniving forces that his sheltered, parochial life on the border left him unprepared to face.
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