Adventures in the Fur Trade
WHAT WITH all the publicity engendered by Louis L'Amour, everyone is aware that the western novel is a hot commodity in publishing today. Less well-known is that a closely related genre is doing very well too. It is called by its fans the "fur-trade novel" and it deals with mountain men, 19th-century frontiersmen often involved in trapping and selling furs. One of the most interesting things about the fur- trade novel is that its esthetics differ sharply from those of the western.
"I hate westerns," says one of the leading practitioners of the fur-trade novel, Winfrid Blivens of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. "They're nothing but hot lead and fast fists, ad infinitum. The scope is so narrow. Every hero is tough and tight-lipped and never speaks about his feelings. I was recently a judge in a western-novel contest and it just about killed me. It was spectacularly boring."
The fur-trade novel, according to Blivens and others involved with it, differs from the western in the high premium it puts on evoking the grandeur of nature, on conveying the feeling of wilderness, in tracing the lot of a man who has deliberately cut himself off from civilization. A large part of the readership for fur-trade novels comes from the gang in the National Muzzle-Loading Rifle Association, an organization of 200,000-plus members that has regular meetings in various parts of the country. They dress up in mountain-man garb, complete with powderhorn, and hold various competitions with their muzzle-loaded rifles. Indeed, an organization such as Jameson Publishing Co. of Ottawa, Illinois -- a leading producer of fur- trade novels -- sells a lot of its books at such "meets."
Blivens, a 47-year-old former college teacher at Franklin College in Indiana and at Purdue and once a drama critic for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, bubbles with excitement when he talks about the fur-trade novel.
"I actually studied at the University of Missouri with the great man of the genre," he says. "His name was John G. Neihardt. From 1915 to 1944 he published a five-volume epic called The Cycle of the West. It is written in heroic couplets and the diction sounds like Tennyson, so it has an antique feeling. But once you get into it, it's fascinating. Neihardt grew up on a Sioux reservation in Nebraska where his father was a trader with the Indians. The first three books are about the mountain men and the last two about the Sioux wars with the United States, with great characters like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. Neihardt also wrote a book called Black Elk Speaks that is still in print from the University of Nebraska Press and is tremendously influential among young Indians."
Among other major works of the fur-trade novel, Blivens mentions The Long Rifle by Stewart Edward White (a tetralogy published in the 1930s), A.B. Guthrie's The Big Sky, Frederick Manfred's Lord Grizzly and Vardis Fisher's Mountain Man. "There's also a wonderful writer named Don Berry who published some great books in the 1960s but then completely disappeared from the literary scene. He is now living on Olympia Island in Washington state, editing a computer magazine."
One thing the fur-trade novel does share with the western is a great interest in the technology of guns, in this case the muzzle- loading rifle. "And our readers," says Blivens, "are tremendously interested in how the mountain men really lived. We have to know about mules, about starting a fire with a flint, how to make buckskin clothing and put up a tepee, about sleeping out in freezing weather under blankets and buffalo robes. The mountain men became as Indian as the Indians themselves, and they resented white encroachment just as much. It meant an end to their way of life, too."
Writers in the genre get a lot of their ideas from writings about the material culture of the Indians and the mountain men. A leading source is the Journal of the Fur Trade, a scholarly quarterly put out by the Fur Trade Museum in Shadron, Nebraska. "The mecca of fur-trade novelists," according to Blivens, is the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis, "particularly the papers of the Chouteau family, which had a long history in the fur trade."
Blivens' novel Charbonneau is a continuing good seller for Jameson. It is based on the amazing life of Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, the son of the Indian woman Sacajawea who was a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Charbonneau, also the son of a French Canadian fur trader, was raised partly in a Mandan Indian village in Missouri and partly in St. Louis. In the 1820s he became a proteg,e of Prince Paul of Wurttemburg, a botanist who was doing work on the rontier. The prince took him back to Germany where he attended university and traveled throughout Europe and North Africa. When he came back to the United States in 1829, Charbonneau decided to become a mountain man. Later he was a prospector in the California gold rush of 1849.
Blivens' new book, The Misadventures of Silk and Shakespeare, comes out next month from Jameson. It is a picaresque novel about a 16-year-old boy who comes to the mountains in search of his father but finds only a disreputable, 50-year-old, 300-pound former actor, who proves to be both inept and corrupt. According to Blivens, the pair "do a lot of nutty and chivalrous things."
Sounds a little like Huckleberry Finn, I said. "I hope so," said the ex-professor. The Facts of the Matter
THERE'S a very active softball league among the New York publishing houses, with enough teams for two divisions. The winners of each division meet in a game at season's end for the publishing championship. The winner this year was the team from Putnam's, which defeated Facts on File for the title. Perhaps the oddest thing about the game is the name of the losing team. A few short years ago, Facts on File wasn't even in the book-publishing business. But "Facts" -- as they call it at the home office on Park Avenue South -- now has 450 books in print and is a major force in the library market.
The publishing house started from a solid base -- the weekly reference publication called Facts on File. Founded in 1941 by a Dutch refugee fleeing Hitler, Facts on File is a heavily indexed looseleaf digest of the major American and world news stories. It is a staple of libraries in the United States and abroad. But Facts (and its sister publication, Editorials on File) now accounts for only $3 million of the company's annual revenues of about $14 million. The rest is books.
Several of the best sellers on the Facts list pick up something from the news digest's looseleaf format. The biggest moneymaker is called Maps on File, created at the suggestion of a reference librarian in Texas. It consists of 320 maps on heavy paper. The attraction is that buyers can do unlimited copying for noncommercial purposes. So it is perfect, for instance, for classroom use. The company has sold 10,000 of these volumes at a cool $145 each, mainly to school libraries. Almost as successful is a similar volume called Human Body on File, with drawings of the human anatomy. It has sold 8,000 copies at $145 each to medical schools, nursing schools and high schools.
The greatest part of the company's production has been in mainstream trade books, although always with an eye to the library market. A 1984 book called Corporate Steeplechase by Srully Blotnick, a columnist for Forbes magazine, has already sold a respectable 40,000 copies. It is a 20-year longitudinal study of the kinds of problems that people face during their private and business lives. The Facts list is also thick with encyclopedias, photographic books, dictionaries, travel books and nature studies. Its series of historical atlases, including Egypt, China, the Islamic world and medieval Europe, has been widely praised.
The person behind the rise of Facts on File in the publishing world is executive vice president Edward Knappman, who has been with the company since 1972. Fifty percent of all book sales, Knappman says, are to libraries -- "We keep close to our roots." He has no explanation, however, for the rise of the company's softball team. Go Skins
WHAT'S UP WITH the Redskins? For an expert opinion (although all opinions on the Skins are expert) we turned to Paul Zimmerman author of The New Thinking Man's Guide to Pro Football (Simon and Schuster). "The Skins still have to prove they can win if their running game is stopped." says Mr. Z. "If they have 50 seconds and three timeouts, can they put something on the board? Joe Theismann is a great quarterback, but has he slipped? Or is it the receivers? Charlie Brown and Art Monk proved they could do it but can Mike Clark and Calvin Muhammad? I picked the Skins to win the division but I didn't realize Dallas would be so strong. If they can get the passing game together, I think the Skins could finish 9-7, which might get them in the playoffs."