I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012. The full collection is accessible here.

The Englishman’s Boy

Guy Vanderhaeghe

  • Guy VanderhaegheThe Englishman’s Boy (Toronto, Ontario: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1996).

The Englishman’s Boy by Guy Vanderhaeghe is organized into two interweaving narratives. The first narrative is based on the experience of the title character, the Englishman’s Boy, a young man who joins a group of cowboys or wolfers after his employer dies. The group is chasing a band of Assiniboine Indians, who they believe stole their horses, over the Canadian border. The end result of the chase is the Cypress Hills Massacre, an actual historical event during which thirty five Assiniboine and one wolfer die. The massacre is famous for leading to the founding of the Canadian Mounted Police. The second narrative follows Henry Vincent, a young Canadian man trying to make it big in Hollywood during the 1920s. A big studio boss, Damon Ira Chance, contacts him to find and interview an old cowboy named Shorty McAdoo. During both stories the young men struggle with the difficulties of balancing their desire for success with their innate sense of decency and honesty. At the end of the novel it is revealed that Shorty McAdoo is actually the Englishman’s boy.

At the core of Vanderhaeghe’s story is an analysis of the fine line between fact and representation. Often the public is willing to accept, without questioning, the information presented to them by popular culture and hearsay. Vincent is asked to retrieve that which is no longer, to bring the past back to life. But this task is not possible without creating a lie. The past cannot be recreated without the insertion of fallacies. One result of the this mingling of truth with imagination is the myth of the American West, which Vanderhaeghe tries to, if not completely dispel, at least bring into a new light. After his boss dies, the Englishman’s boy declares that he will be his own boss from now on, the pistol he carries making him everyone’s equal. However, the world that he enters is not the romantic frontier that Wister’s Virginian inhabited, but rather a dangerous and corrupt environment. Outsiders, such as the Englishman, are stunned that the inhabitants would even claim that their society was democratic. The Scottish man in the group that the Englishman’s boy joins does not belong because he is too much of a gentleman. Nature and animals are treated with little to no respect, unlike that which is given to animals by the Virginian. These men do not possess the gentlemanlike qualities that excuse other western characters from their brutishness. Vanderhaeghe’s west is one of careless violence.

Despite their less than desirable characteristics, these individuals of the golden age of the West still possess an adventurous, perhaps slightly romantic, mystique. The Hollywood of the 1920s, on the other hand, seems to represent the result of civilization’s rotting forces taking hold of and corrupting the frontier. The machine has taken over the landscape and culture; black smoke tarnishes the sky that once held the reflective rays of nature. Instead of a pure democracy, industrial barons are said to rule the country. Censorship is rampant, and Hollywood promotes a culture in which people are paid, not to think, but to do as they are told. The descriptions of Chance and Fitzsimmons are very similar to those of Dr. MacBride in The Virginian; they are fat, greedy men who have been over-pampered by the excesses of civilization. They have no contact with nature and treat their own lives, including eating, like an assembly line, expecting those that work for them to adopt a machinelike productivity. Despite being as far away from the ideal as possible, these individuals continue to delude themselves that they are part of the individualistic, free-spirited democracy of their homeland, a myth that they continue to feed to the public through their films. They believe that they are continuing to move American forward. Although this dispelling of the frontier fantasy is just one of the themes in The Englishman’s Boy, it is one that allows comparison to earlier works of more traditional western fiction.

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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