My Reminiscences as a Cowboy

This splendid piece of entertainment was published by Charles Boni as part of the Paper Books series, a sort of book-of-the-month club. The books were paper bound editions - though they could be re-bound in cloth for the modest sum of $1.00 - nicely made and illustrated. On the 25th of each month a new one was sent out to subscribers: this was the 6th in the series, for February 25th, 1930.

Essentially it is a version of the cowboy stories that originally appeared in the first volume of My Life and Loves, but expanded and rearranged to make a better single narrative. In the process of reworking his story Harris seems to have disregarded the fact that any comparison of the two would immediately prove him a liar: for example, the Great Fire of Chicago - which would have been impossible for him to have witnessed in any case - occurs quite early in the My Life and Loves sequence, but appears only at the very end of this volume.

It is a shame that medicine has already made use of the term 'Munchausen's Syndrome' because in a more literary sense it well describes Harris' condition: a need to tell tall tales about himself. His particular case seems to have been the result of having led a remarkable life, while still feeling insecure about his position and the respect he should be accorded. As a result he exaggerated and embroidered his actual achievements, and added fictional ones to their number until he had puffed himself up to such a size that his audience could not fail to be impressed.

Whatever the facts, let us judge this on its merits as a piece of fiction, told as if true. On that basis it generally works well: Harris' prose is spare and economical, which suits his macho, outdoors, rough-and-ready storyline, and his characters are well-delineated - authentically taciturn and gruff. These are not Tom Mix or Roy Rogers cowboys, they are hard, violent men, unpredictable and anti-social.

With appropriately crude-looking illustrations by William Gropper, one of which I reproduce, this portrait of the Old West ultimately convinces most by its sense of what it was like to be a cowboy, to make one's living in an environment on an inhuman scale, by turns monotonous and terrifying, and what it did to those who lived the life. There were thousands of real cowboys who could not have told their tales more convincingly; if Harris had really seen and done all these things would it have made this a better book?

You can read an online extract from this book.