Jack Schaefer, Teller of Tales

by Louis Torres


"Who is this Jack Schaefer?" asked the seasoned proprietor of a secondhand book shop on Manhattan's Upper West Side. "What else did he write?" his partner wanted to know. Like these two booksellers, most knowledgeable readers have never heard of Jack Schaefer, the American novelist and short-story writer who died in 1991 at the age of eighty-three. Though many have seen or know of Shane, the classic film about a heroic gunfighter and the boy who idolizes him, few are able to identify Schaefer as the author of the equally classic novel on which it is based. Fewer still, even among those who have read Shane, know that after its phenomenal international success nearly fifty years ago, Schaefer went on to complete a body of work that ought to have assured him a respected place in the annals of American literature. Instead, today, most of his fiction is out of print, and he is virtually unknown.

Though Schaefer was not an especially prolific writer, and though he tended toward shorter fiction, the range and depth of his work is remarkable. A consummate craftsman, he wrote moving tales about characters of fierce individualism and courage. He wrote sympathetic tales not only about childhood but about old age: no American fiction writer has had keener insight into the need of children for heroic exemplars, or of the need of the very old for autonomy. He wrote parables, humorous tales, a Civil War novel, and two novels for children. The essential purpose of all his fiction, he stated, was "to establish a distinct and individual major character and pit him against a specific human problem and show how he rose to meet it."

What, then, went wrong? Schaefer's misfortune seems to have been, in large measure, that he was the author of quintessentially American fiction about the people and places of the western frontier. Only a handful of western literature specialists have studied his work, and some of them relegate him to the status of a writer of "Westerns"-- a genre little esteemed by general literary scholars and critics, or by other intellectuals. At best, he is considered a "regional writer."

Since most of Schaefer's work is unknown and not readily available, I begin this critical introduction with an overview of his fiction, including sufficient excerpts to permit readers to judge its merits for themselves. I then examine the meager and often misguided critical commentary on his work, and the widespread, cynical tendency to regard all traditional western fiction (and film), regardless of merit, as "myth." As to the ultimate meaning of his fiction, I give Schaefer himself the last word. Finally, I suggest some steps that might be taken to begin to establish his rightful place in the history of American literature. . . .

The Years Before Shane

Little in Schaefer's background would have foretold a career as a writer of fiction set in the West, but writing of some sort was clearly indicated, for he early developed a deep interest in literature and history. He was born in the decidedly midwestern city of Cleveland in 1907, and he grew up immersed in a world of books and literature. Both his parents were avid readers, and his lawyer-father, a "Lincoln nut" as Schaefer affectionately characterized him, was a friend of Carl Sandburg's. As a boy, Schaefer read "everything in sight," from the Edgar Rice Burroughs "Tarzan" stories, early favorites of his, to the historical novels of Alexandre Dumas, for which he felt a particular affinity. Eventually, he would read through the work of Dickens, Thackeray, and Trollope, among other nineteenth-century authors. In high school, following the example of his older sister, Schaefer edited the literary magazine, and was well on his way to being, like her, a "literary nut," as he later recalled.

At Oberlin College, Schaefer's concentration in Greek and Latin classics seemed to presage a future in esoteric scholarship. Significantly, he also studied creative writing, however. Having earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1929, he went onto graduate studies at Columbia University. There he specialized in eighteenth-century English literature-- unlikely fare indeed for the future author of Shane. Yet Schaefer soon wearied of the minutiae of scholarship. "All that piling up of detail! And for what purpose?" he later protested. What he really wanted to study was the development of motion pictures. But the thesis committee at Columbia rejected his proposal, mocking his desire to give serious attention to what they considered mere "cheap reproductions of stage plays," Schaefer afterward recounted. Not surprisingly, he left the university after his first year. Having abandoned the prospect of becoming a professional scholar, Schaefer turned to journalism, at which he worked prodigiously for the next two decades. By his own estimate, he wrote countless news items; scores of feature articles; hundreds of opinion columns; several thousand reviews of books, films, plays, and concerts; and some fifteen thousand editorials--or "small essays, some not so small," as he once characterized them. As a newspaper editor, he developed both a work ethic and a prose style that served him well when he turned to fiction. Spurred on by the high standards of the papers he worked for and by his own "Germanic zeal," he resolved "to try to write well, be literate and direct and concise, express firm conviction based on thorough research and honest reasoning and supported by sound arguments."

He accomplished all that, to be sure. But what would immeasurably enrich and ultimately define his fiction was a sensibility of uncommon subtlety and depth that would enable him to touch the heart as have few writers in America before or since.


In 1945, while Schaefer was on the editorial staff of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, he began to write fiction in the evenings for relaxation. A story entitled "Rider from Nowhere" was published serially in the popular adventure magazine Argosy that year, and four years later a revised and expanded version was published in hardcover, by Houghton Mifflin, as Shane. In view of the modest origins of this first work, its subsequent success is all the more remarkable. The novel has sold well over six million copies, exceeding eighty editions in some thirty languages. It remains a perennial seller.

The opening lines of Shane exhibit the directness and clarity of Schaefer's mature style. The narrative begins:

He rode into our valley in the summer of '89. I was a kid then, barely topping the backboard of father's old chuck-wagon. . . . In that clear Wyoming air I could see him plainly, though he was still several miles away. There seemed nothing remarkable about him, just another stray horseman riding up the road toward the cluster of frame buildings that was our town. Then I saw a pair of cowhands, loping past him, stop and stare after him with a curious intentness.
Observe that Schaefer begins with the narrator's adult perspective, but quickly shifts to the man's vivid recollection of himself as a boy, at a specific moment in the past. By this device, the boy's thoughts and feelings are brought close to the surface, while the man he would become is telling the tale. The special poignancy of Shane derives, in large part, from this dual perspective.

In these opening lines and in the passage immediately following, Schaefer conveys, through keenly observed details, the growing fascination and admiration inspired in the boy by the mysterious stranger. As Shane approaches on horseback, the boy is first struck by the appearance of his clothes: the "dark trousers of some serge material," the matching coat "neatly folded and strapped to his saddle-roll," the shirt of "finespun linen, rich brown in color," the handkerchief of black silk "knotted loosely around his throat," and the hat, unlike any he had ever seen, "plain black, soft in texture . . . with a creased crown and a wide curling brim swept down in front to shield the face." As the narrator recalls:

All trace of newness was long since gone from these things. The dust of distance was beaten into them. They were worn and stained and several neat patches showed on the shirt. Yet a kind of magnificence remained and with it a hint of men and manners alien to my limited boy's experience.
The boy's attention then shifts from these details of attire to the man himself. Shane's steely alertness--as he surveys the homestead where young Bob lives with his parents--unnerves the boy, sending a "sudden chill" through him. But the stranger's first words, asking permission to use the water pump for himself and his horse, dispel all fear. To Bob, the mysterious visitor's voice sounds gentle, bespeaking "a man schooled to patience"--a quality sure to win a boy's heart. The theme Schaefer has begun to delineate in these opening paragraphs is one to which he will return in later tales: the formative influence a heroic figure has upon the young.

The plot of Shane is a simple one. The refined stranger who has happened upon the Starrett homestead, we discover, is a virtuous gunfighter who is attempting to begin a new life. When Joe Starrett, Bob's father, invites him to stay on as a hired hand, he agrees, having learned from Joe that the previous hand had been run off by Fletcher, the powerful and unscrupulous rancher vying for land with the homesteaders in the area. The trust Joe places in Shane helps to forge an uncommon bond of friendship between the two men, which inevitably embroils Shane in the escalating conflict.

Several subplots lend added depth to the story. The most important involves the growing attraction Marian Starrett and Shane feel for each other, notwithstanding her deep love for Joe and Shane's loyalty toward him. In the end, however, it is Bob's unwavering love and admiration for Shane (and Shane's tender feeling for him) that is the heart of the story, as is evident in such lines as these, found at critical points throughout:

For all his dark appearance and lean and hard look, this Shane knew what would please a boy. . . . [M]y heart ached for him. . . . Love for that man raced through me. . . . and I was so proud of being there with him that I could not keep the tears from my eyes. . . . He knew what goes on in a boy's mind and what can help him stay clean inside through the muddled, dirtied years of growing up.
A surprising number of critics have failed to appreciate the significance of this focus. Yet, precisely because the story's perspective seems ideally suited to young readers, Shane is mistakenly marketed as "young adult" fiction by its paperback publisher. It is also widely taught on the junior high school level. But Schaefer did not intend the novel primarily for adolescents--it is an adult novel, and is most fully appreciated by those who bring to it a deeper experience of life.

Not all adult readers are entirely comfortable with the novel's open sentiment, evident in the lines quoted above. In my view, however, the narration and dialogue throughout are entirely appropriate to both the characters and the events. Given that the narrator had been an unusually aware and sensitive child, the memory of Shane would inspire in him precisely the sort of language in which the tale is told.

For many readers, Shane strikes a deep personal chord. In his Foreword to the critical edition of the novel, for example, western historian Marc Simmons declares: "Shane has been an almost lifelong companion. I return to it whenever I need a bit of inspiration or a boost of energy." For him, as for countless others, the book's message is "as deep and vital as the man it describes." [See Simmons's "A Salute to Shane."]

[Excerpted from Louis Torres, "Jack Schaefer, Teller of Tales," Part I, Aristos, October 1996; the remaining sections of Part I are Other Tales of Youth; Tales of Old Age; "Kittura Remsberg"; Other Stories and Short Novels; and Company of Cowards.]

Granting Schaefer His Due

[From the conclusion to "Jack Schaefer, Teller of Tales"]

In writing this appreciation of Jack Schaefer, I have intended primarily to introduce his work to general readers, especially those who value inspiring fiction about people "cut from noble cloth." It has been my purpose, as well, to stimulate interest in Schaefer's work among scholars and critics who have not been aware of it. I urge them to set aside any bias against western literature, and to heed Henry James's counsel: "We must grant the artist his subject, his idea, his donnée. Our criticism is applied only to what he makes of it." I also urge the western scholars whose essays I have cited (often quite critically) to bring their extensive knowledge to bear on a broad-based reassessment of Schaefer's fiction.

Comparative studies of Schaefer's work with that of major American literary figures would be illuminating, and a necessary step in establishing his reputation. His fiction could profitably be measured against John Steinbeck's, for example. Though Steinbeck is not usually thought of as a "western writer," he, like Schaefer, is featured in Fifty Western Writers and A Literary History of the American West. In both volumes, Richard Astro refers to Steinbeck as one of the "most accomplished" of the writers of western literature, adding that he "transcends region even as he writes about the West." (Astro fails to mention that Steinbeck's West is not the Old West --a fact that makes "transcending" the region somewhat easier.) Recall that the editors of Fifty Western Writers also place Steinbeck with authors whose work is "acknowledged as significant by critics of all regions," while they consign Schaefer to the pulp heap, along with Max Brand, Zane Grey, and Louis L'Amour.

Schaefer's work could also be compared to that of his acclaimed contemporary Ernest Hemingway, whose Old Man and the Sea, for example, immediately brings to mind Old Ramon, Schaefer's tale of a wise and venerable shepherd and a young boy.

Finally, Schaefer's Company of Cowards invites comparison with Stephen Crane's classic Red Badge of Courage. Both short novels have the Civil War as their background and deal with the issue of cowardice, but Schaefer's is the superior work in every respect, not least in style. Crane's work, for all its historical significance as an early naturalist novel, is marred, among other things, by stilted prose. Moreover, the disparity between the two novels in psychological insight--and thus in dramatic intensity--is considerable. . . .

Publishers ought to take a fresh look at Schaefer's body of work. The University of Nebraska Press (which issued the critical edition of Shane and a new edition of Monte Walsh) might now consider reprinting additional works by Schaefer, including the short stories. And Houghton Mifflin--the original publisher of all of Schaefer's fiction, as well as of the collected Stories and Novels, and of Heroes Without Glory-- might consider reissuing all his titles (including Conversations with a Pocket Gopher). A standard trade paperback edition of Schaefer's complete works might be a profitable undertaking, if the books were marketed as mainstream rather than "Western" literature.

Finally, 1999 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Shane. Would not a celebratory hardcover edition (aimed primarily at adults) be appropriate? . . .

[Excerpted from Louis Torres, "Jack Schaefer, Teller of Tales," Part II, Aristos, December 1996; the other sections of Part II are Monte Walsh; The Critical Literature; The "Myth" of the West; An Ultimate Faith in Mankind.]

© Copyright 1996 Louis Torres

For letters commenting on "Jack Schaefer, Teller of Tales," see Readers' Forum.

For further information, see the Jack Schaefer Home Page.

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