Carving out identity

KU librarian chronicles link between books on the frontier and America's self-image

Sunday, December 7, 2003

Richard W. Clement was researching books and publishing on the American frontier, but one particular character kept capturing his imagination.

It's little wonder. Buffalo Bill Cody kept thousands of 19th-century readers awake at night, reading by candlelight about his mostly fictional adventures. More dime novels were written about Buffalo Bill than any other frontier hero, and his image helped shape the values of American people through the 1930s.

Parts of his life story as told in literary accounts were true. He grew up in Kansas, served in the Civil War, worked as a scout for the U.S. Fifth Cavalry and ended up winning the Congressional Medal of Honor.

"He's just a fascinating but very enigmatic character. During his lifetime he was known around the world, an instantly recognizable figure," says Clement, special collections librarian at Kansas University's Spencer Research Library who teaches a course called History of the Book. "I began to ask the question, if he had such visibility ... what was the impact? What message, if you will, what values are being propagated? And that led me to go back and start looking at Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett and consider how it is that the frontier has become such a defining factor of the American character."

But that's jumping ahead to the last chapter of Clement's "Books on the Frontier: Print Culture in the American West, 1763-1875" and to a topic Clement would like to flesh out further in his next book.

This text begins by chronicling the history of the book trade and publishing across an ever-expanding American frontier. Clement explains the tricky logistics of moving paper and presses over long expanses; sketches profiles of frontier readers and reading; details the emergence of cities where newspapers and book publishers flourished; and recounts the steadfast convictions and dramatic encounters of early publishers.

Secret leisure, bitter conflict

Clement began research for the book in 1996, right after he published "The Book in America," which takes a much more sweeping look at the history of publishing and printing from 1638 to the present day. Research for the second book took him several times to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Each of the 72 illustrations in "Books on the Frontier" came courtesy of the library, which published the volume. Clement also combed Buffalo Bill dime novels at the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyo., which has the complete collection of the popular books.

Clement's decidedly scholarly book is chock full of primary-source documentation of intriguing slices of history, such as an examination of the way early pioneers spent their time during long periods of inactivity or while making the long, arduous overland trek westward by wagon. One Illinois farm woman describes her passion for reading, despite her husband's disapproval:


Richard Gwin/Journal-World Photo

Richard W. Clement, a special collections librarian at Spencer Research Library, displays his latest publication, "Books on the Frontier." The volume, published by the Library of Congress, chronicles the spread of printing and presses across the expanding American frontier.

"Later, when I was married, I borrowed everything I could find in the line of novels and stories and read them by stealth, for my husband thought it was a willful waste of time to read anything and that it showed a lack of love for him if I would rather read than talk to him when I had a few moments of leisure."

Clement also writes of the drama that could surround frontier publishers. One such printer, Joseph Charless, editor of The Missouri Gazette in St. Louis, fought a bitter battle with a competing newspaper run by men of a different political ilk -- a battle that came to a head when his opponents beat and nearly shot him on his way home from work.

A national identity

Though most publishing pioneers did not meet with such resistance, they faced other difficulties, not the least of which was getting people to pay for newspapers, journals and books. They certainly weren't in the business for money.

"It took a certain kind of person who was willing to do this, but the payoff was really prestige, and there's more to it than that," Clement says. "You have to have that other intangible aspect of someone who is literary minded, who enjoys literature or who is culturally minded. There is that philanthropic aspect, perhaps, that you're willing to give something to society, and you hope you're going to make money at it -- you probably will -- but you do this for some greater good."

That greater good was the dissemination of literacy, knowledge and -- since the frontier expanded long before the birth of radio or television -- entertainment.

Clement's book explains that while frontier publisher and printers specialized in pragmatic texts needed in new communities, such as newspapers, law books, maps and guidebooks, schoolbooks and Bibles, tales of frontier adventure, ironically, were imported from established publishers on the East Coast.

In no other place did books play such an integral part in the expansion of the frontier and the forming of a national identity, Clement says.

"The very word frontier in a European context is a border. And it's just that; it's a line between two different countries. But the whole idea of the American frontier is this great space," he says. "It's the ideals of the frontier that give meaning to our lives. It's translated, in a way, to the American dream: that anybody can succeed through these frontier values."