C.L. Sonnichsen lived, taught and wrote as a man of the Southwestern Borderlands, the center of which is El Paso, a place straddling two countries and two cultures. Just as important, he was both historian and a man of literature, and, certainly, when striding his wordy way across desert country, neither historians nor serious writers trusted him.
C.L. Sonnichsen: Border Fence Sitter
Sonnichsen didn’t have a degree in history. Imagine that! Yet he wrote at least three award winning, “real” histories—Colonel Greene and the Copper Sky Rocket (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1974), Tularosa, Last of the Frontier West (Devin-Adair, 1960) and Pass of the North (El Paso, Texas Western Press, 1968). Others come close to qualifying as “real” history books but were labeled “popular” histories, at term for low, pure-less treatises, at least for the times in which the author published. Books of both “high and low” scholarship won significant awards and some were reprinted more than once.
Not that Sonnichsen didn’t know how to write in scholarly fashion. His PhD from Harvard was in British literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He was awarded the Bowdoin Prize in 1931 (also the year he came to Texas School of Mines, later to become UTEP) for his dissertation on Thomas Sprat, Bishop of Rochester. It wasn’t much help at the El Paso campus that didn’t have much of a library then and was noticeably short on English literature of any centuries.
Sonnichsen lost no time in looking over the landscape and knew he would have to find new bones to dig up—a phrase used to identify historians of the old school. Another problem was that men such as J. Frank Dobie had already staked out the territory and occupied the rooster’s hill. Sonnichsen observed that one “rooster doesn’t want another rooster crowing on his dung heap” (interview with Sonnichsen, 1971). Almost immediately he turned to characters, historical personages, events and activities of the near past of the Border which had already found their way into print, but he included fresh insight and added new men and women to the rooster.
His method? Sonnichsen, himself, characterized his early books as a little on the smart-alecky side because he refused to romanticize violence, ignorance, meanness, bad behavior, or anything else that others softened in writing of the heroes of that time. Rather he did note that such characters were behaving in a manner entirely appropriate to their time and place.
Sonnichsen called attention to the un-heroic with a humorous approach, frowned upon by serious historians. He felt no need to rub noses in the facts. Making witty comments about situations which some would consider frightening, bewildering, or even bad is typical of the author. The pleasantly sharp point of humor is appropriate to his subjects in the Southwest where the landscape is often barbed, the people tough, and the situation thorny.
An example from Roy Bean: Law West of the Pecos:
People died for strange reasons in those days. Some got up too early to see well and threw a saddle on somebody else’s horse. Others got stray calves tangled up in their loops. Many a man died on account of clerical errors made with a branding iron, and many more passed on because of misplaced confidence in a poker hand or a tendency to dilly-dally in drawing their six shooters. . . . Strangely enough one of the favorite ways of leaving the world in West Texas at that time was falling off a bridge. This was partly because there were so many opportunities and partly because there were so many accidents. The railroad had to build bridges over dozens of arroyos and canyons . . . and most of them were suitable places for a mishap. The high bridge over the Pecos, however, was the most dangerous. It was over three hundred feet above the floor of the canyon and was the natural selection of anyone looking for a bridge to fall off of. (Roy Bean, p. 124)
In praising Sonnichsen’s later works, critics also revealed his methods. Benjamin Capps noted in his review of Colonel Green and the Copper Sky Rocket that he “manages to show a vigorous, brilliant gambling entrepreneur with faults as well as virtues.” He also noted that the author “is not above fictionalizing as when he opens a chapter with imaginary dialogue between two characters.” Harwood Hinton emphasized that “at times the book reads like a novel, for Sonnichsen’s prose is lively and vivid.”
Of Tularosa, a reviewer from the Houston Chronicle noted Sonnichsen’s method and commented that “he has a knack of unearthing little known but significant facts and of relating them in an informal, sometimes disjointed, but always highly interesting style.” Lon tinkle said: “Sonnichsen long has made the unwritten history of the Old West his special domain. [ He demonstrates] that he has a sixth sense for getting close-mouthed old-timers, and their descendants to talk straight and to lend letters and documentation. Once he has gathered the details, he writes them up with impressive skill.”
It is not my intention to get into any more of the author’s books—some dozen or so before leaving UTEP after forty-one years of teaching there and another five or so after taking the editorship of The Journal of Arizona History in Tucson for another dozen years. I have provided an incomplete bibliography but you will have most of the important titles to look at.
More important is what he had to say about writing, his definitions of heroes, why and how feuding comes about, characteristics of the cowboy, and how to write history. Sometimes his opinions are found in prefaces of his books; other times in articles, or speeches also listed in the bibliography.
Sonnichsen uses Roy Bean to illustrate certain features of many Western heroes. First, the hero must be fairly ignorant, making him one of the crowd. Too much book learning is viewed with suspicion, as being inconsistent with horse sense. The really wise man is a “natural” man, knowing only what he reads in the papers. Smartness, not to be confused with education is necessary for outwitting lesser men. Poverty is helpful. The hero must be either brave or a good bluffer. Most important of all, the hero must do everything—even his lying—on a grand scale. If the facts of a prospective idol’s life don’t measure up, legend will supply the details. Sometimes the hero himself is aware of his role and often helps the legend along in his own lifetime by dressing and acting the part. (Aside: You might compare these characteristics with Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces.)
Sonnichsen studied feuding in Texas and wrote some three books about the subject or rather about those involved in famous feuds—Ten Texas Feuds, I’ll Doe Before I’ll Run, The El Paso Salt War, and Tularosa, although that book deals with much more than feuding. He concluded that feuds are characterized by the era in which they occurred. His study brought Sonnichsen to the conclusion that Texas feuders all fought their battles differently. In Texas feuds may begin when individuals or groups decide that they have been grievously wronged, their personal code violated. They take the law, which has not protected them, into their own hands. This kind of action, unlawful as it may appear, helps assist the law even if it resorts to unlawful means to do it. It should be noted as well that feuds often occur not only among the rebellious, but also among the conservative elements of society. He explains that feuding seems more prevalent in the South because of ancestral custom. He traces the tradition of personal family honor to the English who settled the South. In Texas, the southern tradition became mixed with the idea of frontier justice and self-redress.
Sonnichsen believed feuds follow a pattern. The feud usually begins over some intolerable conditions or over a violation of a person’s sense of right. Another part of the pattern is that the persons involved must decide to fight or run. If they decide to fight, people—good Christian people—grow accustomed to the idea of killing and lose their scruples about how it is done. Seldom does the fighting die out of its own accord; instead, it gets worse and worse. (Aside: the recent cable portrayal of the famous Hatfield and McCoy feud starring Kevin Costner comes to mind. Even the horrendous problems in all the Middle East are comparable.)
The cattleman’s code is of special interest, to me at least. Because of the period in which he lived and wrote, Sonnichsen noticed that some writers developed a romantic thesis about cow people which asserted that they were noble and pure knights of chivalrous proportions engaged in but a new kind of tournament. Other writers view cattlemen as the antithesis of all that is honorable and good, as destroyers bent on making profit at the expense of others. Sonnichsen represents the synthesis of other viewpoints by showing that the cattleman was both good and bad, chivalrous and ignoble, and that it is unfair to judge him by the standards of another time or place since he lived in a place that had been, for the most part, uninhabitable, and by his own methods and standards, brought the land into usefulness. Feuding was often a natural consequence of the enactment of the code of the cowman. He explained the set of rules by which the cattlemen were playing an often deadly game.
The first essential in the cowman’s unwritten constitution was courage. Running from a fight or quitting before a conclusion was reached showed cowardice. Loyalty amounting clannishness, the next perquisite, bound him to friends whether they were right or wrong, whether they won or lost. A man was expected to finish any job he started, to be tolerant of the weak, never to inquire about another’s past, to be cheerful under grueling assignments and to ask no man to right another man’s wrongs. These fundamental qualities, along with the habit of carrying side arms, often culminated in the most salient feature of the code—murder. According to the creed, it was right to kill a man to avenge a personal insult, to punish him for robbery, or simply to eliminate him because he needed killing. It is well to remember that both the good guys and bad guys played by the same rules and that is why it becomes difficult to tell the heroes from the villains. Tularosa is the best book in which to observe these ideas.
Sonnichsen’s personal method of writing history is found in articles and books. From various sources, especially from “Toward an Order of Minor Historians,” “The Poetry of History,” “The Grassroots Historian: Librarians Overlook Fiction and History” and “The Ambidextrous Historian: History Writing and Writing in the American West” (University of Oklahoma Press, 1981), his methods resonate today.
He usually took a protagonist, placed him on the stage of the Southwest, and moved his character from one scene to the next. The good and the bad are observed in the character without the need of any labels. We find out who his friends were and were not, and who his kinfolks were. To illuminate his character, Sonnichsen used reminiscences from people who knew the person. To enlarge on what was established about the person, he dug up facts from newspapers, diaries, court records and books. There was often a geography lesson. He sometimes employed myth and legend, even if only to debunk them. Often a weather report was provided. Dialogue appeared, always used sparingly and with a reminder to the reader that someone could have said it but not necessarily as it was related.
Throughout his career as a writer and teacher—his most famous course was Life and Literature of the Southwest—Sonnichsen maintained a collection of Western fiction. In “From Hopalong to Hud: Thoughts on Western Fiction,” a collection of essays, Sonnichsen explored fictional literature of the West. He believed that “in fiction—particularly Western fiction—we see our own faces.” The book also reiterated one of Sonnichsen’s theories about folklore, a proposition which says that what people choose to believe about the facts is a fact in itself.
The venerable bard of the border’s last three books centered on humor—The Laughing West, Texas Humoresque, Arizona Humoresque.
Yes, Sonnichsen was a fence sitter if there ever was one, walking the tightrope between history and folklore. It is no wonder that he was president of Western Literature Association, Western History Association, Texas Folklore Society and Western Writers of America. Criticized he may have been, but honored he was.
A Dallas Times Herald reviewer commented that “before publication of Pass of the North, Sonnichsen was perhaps the most unappreciated writer in the state. But then with the exception of Tom Lea none of the El Paso school of writers has been noted in Austin or Dallas.” (Does that sound familiar in the year of our Lord, 2013?)
His words, paraphrased from the definition of poetry, end this paper:
“Call no man historian unless he makes you feel.”
*Disclaimer: Much of the material written here comes directly from my treatise on Sonnichsen (C.L. Sonnichsen, Western Writers Series, Boise State University, 19 79). I make no apology for quoting myself.