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Mother and Daughter, Washington, Yakima Valley, near Wapato. One of Chris Adolph's younger children.
Farm Security Administration Rehabilitation clients, Dorothea Lange, August,1939.
Beauty & History in Clay Reynolds' Franklin's Crossing
This essay was published in Southwestern American Literature, 30.2 (Spring, 2005): 29-44.
Clay Reynolds is perhaps best known for The Vigil (1986), the first of four novels comprising the Sandhill Chronicles, which describes life in Agatite, the fictional counterpart of Reynolds’ hometown of Quanah, Texas. Self-proclaimed years ago as the “The Jewel of the Prairie,” Quanah is a sleepy, one-time rail stop roughly midway between Amarillo and Wichita Falls. Reynolds says that in 1936 Quanah and Hardeman County had 36,000 people (“Autobiographical Notes”). The U.S. Census Bureau estimated that there were 4,440 people in the county in 2003.
The Vigil offers a study in minimalism. Imogene, the main character, sits down on a town square bench to remain there for much of the next thirty years. The question is, what is she waiting for? Literally she is waiting for her teenage daughter to return from buying an ice cream cone. The daughter fled her controlling mother to find love—or at least her boyfriend. Figuratively, Imogene is waiting for Beauty, waiting for life to be as elegant and elevated as promised by fathers to pampered little girls. Her public vigil brings to mind the thousands of other women who wait in a kind of recapitulation of their girlhood and adolescent dreams, now sadly fixed on the Rapture and hopes for a quality of life they can only pray for in the hundreds of fundamentalist churches scattered on the vast prairie.
A distinguished professor and administrator at the University of Texas at Dallas, Reynolds’ first degree was in history. Franklin’s Crossing (1992) is both his “big” book (688 pages) and his most overtly historic novel. A frontier saga set a few years after the Civil War in the so-called Comanche Spring of 1874, its complex plot works like that of a mystery novel. The narrator introduces various characters whose relationships and motives become clear only hundreds of pages later. What keeps many of us reading is the allure of another of Reynolds’ blond beauties, eighteen-year-old Aggie Sterling. His novels typically feature a blond Madonna who incites plot complications that end in violence rather than romance. The frontier history interest of the novel is undercut by a style that offers a parody of a historical romance in which Aggie is pursued by four men and a Comanche war party. Surprisingly none of them win her in the end. Aggie survives, but only at the cost of sacrificing an emotional and sexual life to serve as a historical matriarch and model of perseverance for the region. The price of her freedom from male sexual domination is frigidity. Aggie’s grim resolve anticipates the empty life of Imogene in The Vigil. Imogene’s hysterical outburst against the sheriff, when he suggests marriage, indicates that much of her time on the bench was spent as though on guard against some assailant who would sexually enslave her or at least betray her trust like her daughter and her philandering husband. Aggie survives to become a monumental figure who suggests the dreary life preserved in the dying towns of the region. Reynolds’ characters tend to either succumb to love and libido—only to be destroyed by the overwhelming emotion—or they are maimed by the essentially adolescent crisis, surviving only to lead lonely lives of meaningless discipline.
Reynolds told a reporter about the work he did for Franklin’s Crossing that involved traveling “to museums and events to glean material,” including a visit to see “a Civil War reenactment in Mansfield County, Louisiana, Fort Concho in San Angelo, the towns of Jefferson, Lawton, Oklahoma, and Anadarko, Oklahoma, to study everything from wagons to Indians” (Releford). Elmer Kelton reports that Reynolds told him “every violent incident is patterned after actual events described in J. W. Wilbarger’s Indian Depredations in Texas, the Texana classic published in 1888” (Kelton). In spite of the historical interest, the novel is theatrical, offering a parody of Texas regional talk and tall tales. The plot offers a burlesque of the Holy Grail quest that involves taking Tennessee whiskey to Santa Fe, an enterprise ending in failure with most of the characters dead. One critic wrote that “Franklin’s Crossing is a crass, uneasy mix of women’s romance, men’s action yarn, historical detail, and the deplorable contemporary vogue for sadistic cruelty and horror” (Geeslin). Perhaps because they were published less than a decade apart and because both novels rely on historic records of frontier violence, Franklin’s Crossing is sometimes compared to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985). Both novels are fraught with violence and both authors share a reputation for writing violent fiction. In Franklin’s Crossing, however, violence is muted or masked by the narrative interest in theatrical dialogue. Violence seems more often “told” than “shown.” Mark Twain’s Roughing It provides a model for Reynolds’ style. Violence—what Geeslin refers to as “men’s action yarn”—also serves to curb or control the sentiment surrounding Aggie as the irresistible beauty who motivates the male characters and who is perhaps designed to appeal to female readers as the survivor who achieves independence to become the founder of Reynolds’ version of Yoknapatawpha County, centering on Franklin’s Crossing and nearby Agatite. (Talbert Crossing, the model for the fictional Franklin’s Crossing, is a few miles northwest of Quanah.)
The most likely and conventional mate for Aggie is Todd Christian, a young man who “knew that he would inherit his father’s fortune in a few years” (290). Anticipating that his inheritance will hobble him in a staid and dull life, Todd is intent on “the prospect of adventure in the West.” Like many of Reynolds’ young men, Todd abandons Beauty to pursue boyhood adventure, ironically initiating a search for the very Beauty and meaning that he blindly rejected. Knowing that “she would never see Todd again,” Aggie “resolved that somehow she would find a way to live her own life without putting any faith at all in the promises of men” (294-95). Vapid as he is, Todd’s rejection of Aggie hardly seems traumatizing enough to influence the rest of her life. The incident becomes more plausible in association with the model of her servile mother and the brutality of her foster father, Jack. Aggie ultimately finds a role model in Hannah Morgan, a stalwart survivor of frontier tragedies. Like many of Reynolds’ women, Aggie and Hannah are proficient with shotguns. Aggie suggests the stuff of legends in this regard. She is a kind of female Davy Crockett who “was but ten years old” when “she had killed a man, saved her mother from rape, and been burned out of her home twice” (250).
Aggie’s second suitor is her foster father. Her mother, Gertie, told Aggie that “Jack would try to do more than be Aggie’s father someday, and she wanted her daughter to know that he was nothing to her” (228). Aggie’s biological father is Vernon Belcher, who, after raping Gertie in the wilderness, took her to her father’s house where he raped “her repeatedly for two days. If she resisted, he beat her with his fists until she was unconscious, then returned and completed his rape later. In between times, he drank with her brothers” (230). Gertie’s father learns of his daughter’s pregnancy at the same time that Jack Sterling happens to arrive asking about ferry service across the river. Sterling marries Gertie to take possession “of not one but two horses[,]…an extra saddle with a missing stirrup, and a wife two years older than he” (239). It strains credulity, but the narrator explains that “Jack, confused and naïve to the point of stupidity, never quite understood that his new wife was pregnant, and he greeted the news that Gertie was about to deliver herself of a child as something out of the blue” (239). Jack is a villain almost borrowed from the pages of Dickens: a conniving thief, con man, and murderer. Despite his shrewdness and trickery, “he accepted the miracle of pregnancy as an automatic result of marriage” (240). Perhaps this Gilded Age male ignorance of all things feminine contributes to the sentiment surrounding Aggie. Uninquiring about the mother, Jack is more than a little interested in the beautiful daughter. Gertie and her gorgeous daughter Aggie nearly mirror the mother-daughter pair of Imogene and Cora in The Vigil, which unfolds only miles away but a hundred years later.
The saga of the aqua vitae begins when Joshua Marconi contracts “Jack to take a boatload of bonded whiskey downriver to New Orleans” (314). Sterling intends to steal the whiskey and use the occasion to dump his frowsy wife, putting Aggie in her place. His invitation to Aggie sounds more like a threat: “I’m goin’ to Texas. You can come along, or you can stay here an’ go to hell. This is your chance to stop bein’ a hayseed.” Aggie is too virtuous (or callow) to consider abandoning “Gertie and the children” to “go away with Jack” who, in any case, she loathes (318). What can Jack do with forty kegs of Tennessee whiskey? Of course, he could sell it in New Orleans or somewhere else along the river, but he has other plans. He throws in with Cleve Graham to haul the whiskey to Santa Fe. Cleve is a Yankee Civil War veteran who improbably survived the odds on the battlefield and consequently turned to gambling to make a living. A card game aboard a riverboat turns violent; three players die, and Cleve is the only survivor. “Witnesses told the sheriff they weren’t certain who had started the fight,” but, “when the sheriff was preparing to march Graham off to the Calaboose,” Sterling casually lies to claim that “Graham had done all he could to avoid the fight…and he wasn’t guilty of anything more than defending his own life” (380). It takes some time for Cleve to recognize that “it was the same man who had sold him horses on the Natchez Trace during the war almost ten years before: Jack Sterling” (381). Fearing that his luck is about to run out, Cleve leaves Mark Twain’s riverboats to head west, where he discovers what looks like paradise in northern New Mexico. Jigger Tuttle offers to sell him a property for $5,000 “or fifty head of decent breeding stock” (395). Tuttle muses that “hard cash is harder to come by here than good whiskey, and it tends to evaporate more rapidly. The truth is, I could do as much with whiskey as I could with money” (396).
Months later Cleve and Jack run into each other in San Antonio, where they discuss the dubious quality of the whiskey they are sipping. Cleve mentions that a “keg of sour mash might go for as much as six hundred dollars” in Santa Fe (400). Twenty-four thousand dollars for forty kegs is barroom talk, but at one point in the journey Cleve “figured if he could get to Santa Fe with thirty kegs, he could still get nearly seven thousand dollars for them” (200). The first plan is to swap Tennessee horses to Tuttle for the land. Jack “would take Graham’s cash, over a thousand dollars, go to Tennessee, buy the horses—he was sure he could get them for twenty dollars a head or less” and ultimately take them to Santa Fe where they could be swapped for Tuttle’s land (418). Jack succeeds in wheedling the money out of Graham and naturally squanders it, but the plan is saved by the fortuitous theft of the whiskey. Consequently, “Jack Sterling finally showed up, not with fifty head of prime horseflesh, but with forty kegs of Tennessee whiskey,” telling Cleve, “I got the whiskey for twenty dollars a barrel” (419).
Jack’s designs on Aggie end when Comanches attack the wagon train taking the whiskey to Santa Fe and Jack staggers into the open: “[A]n arrow protruded from his forehead, and he ran around in a circle, clutching at it with both hands” (88). Cleve shoots him with a mixture of satisfaction and some mercy. Although Jack is dispatched early in the novel, the alliance between Cleve and Jack regarding Aggie is not revealed until more than three hundred pages later. Cleve, also in love with Aggie (153), “would recall that first sight of Aggie Sterling, and he would know that from that moment on, he was committed to a partnership with her father” just to be near the daughter (426). At forty-eight, Cleve is thirty years older than Aggie. “She knew he was fond of her,” and “she thought of him as she might of a father—a real father—a man who would care for her and protect her” (298). Cleve fears that killing Aggie’s father has not endeared him to her, but Aggie is indeed grateful, relieved to no longer worry about being raped by Jack: “It means more than I can really say” (376).
A discordant figure with a contemporary interpretation, Moses Franklin is yet another suitor of Aggie, a wooden character who symbolizes the virtues associated with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Franklin’s Crossing opens by introducing Moses, a newly freed slave:
The Southerners hated him for a being a former slave. The Northerners hated him for being a new burden. Only on the empty plains of the unsettled West could he feel like a whole man, for there he had a chance…to prove his worth to other men, white or red. (28)
Moses is hired to guide the rogue wagon train and its load of whiskey to Santa Fe. Things go wrong when they “run right into the whole Comanche nation” because Moses wanders lost on the Texas prairie (108). Just before the Comanche attack, the wagon train stumbles upon a small group of massacred Mexicans. Revealing her girlish notions of conventional virtue, Aggie asks, “Ain’t we goin’ to bury ‘em?” (47). Moses drawls, “‘I reckon we ought to plant ‘em’…while Graham gaped incredulously at him.” Cleve can hardly believe that anyone would be stupid or sentimental enough to risk everyone’s lives in order to bury Mexicans. Before he can say anything, Jack Sterling erupts: “Niggers, Mescans, an’ redskins!” (48). Because Moses is included in that list of outcasts, it is understandable for him to declare, “I’m goin’ to stay an’ dig some graves” (49).
Aggie’s gesture in this scene appears more likely motivated by Reynolds’ sensitivity to contemporary morality—to respect for African-Americans, Mexicans (Hispanics), and women—than illustrative of the fulsome jingoism of the Gilded Age with its advocacy for the policy of Manifest Destiny, which considered everyone of color to be a kind of Darwinian mistake. For example, in 1872-73 James Steele reported his impressions of New Mexico in short stories collected in Frontier Army Sketches. First he informs us that “there is no human power that can stop the migration from east to west. That situation must be accepted not only because it must, but because civilization is of more consequence than barbarism” (101). He then describes the barbarous, who are primarily, “filthy, brutal, cunning, and very treacherous and thievish” Indians (80). He explains that the Indian maiden is as beautiful as a gorilla, “pig-eyed, ragged, wretched, and insect haunted” (84). Mexicans are merely lazy, docile, and Catholic, “not of that class who of their own accord long for freedom,” which explains why “the alert and vivacious Saxon has established himself at the corner of every street in his chiefest villages” (146-47). Steele tells us that “there is something in race, and a great deal in what we call ‘blood,’” so that when faced with Apaches and “when there is no chance of life,” the Catholic Mexican “drops upon his knees and awaits his fate” (160). In contrast, “we should be thankful that the sturdy Protestant is apt upon such occasions to die fighting” (160-61). In 1867 Bret Harte wrote a novel titled Muck-A-Muck: A Modern Indian Novel After Cooper. Muck-A-Muck is a dim-witted caricature of Chingachgook who delivers newspaper speeches like this:
Tell your great chief in Washington, The Sachem Andy [Jackson], that the Red Man is retiring before the footsteps of the adventurous pioneer. Inform him, if you please, that westward the star or empire takes its way, that the chiefs of the Pi-Ute nation are for Reconstruction to a man, and the Klamath will poll a heavy Republican vote in the fall. (298)
In Roughing It (1872), Mark Twain describes “Goshute Indians” as “a silent, sneaking, treacherous-looking race; taking note of everything, covertly, like all the other ‘Noble Red Men’ that we (do not) read about…indolent…prideless beggars…eating what a hog would decline.” Twain suggests that the “Goshutes are manifestly descended from the selfsame gorilla…whichever animal Adam the Darwinians trace them to” (117-20). A generation earlier the popular novel Nick of the Woods (1837) fueled hatred for Indian wars. By day the protagonist is maligned for preaching Quaker passivism on the Indian frontier, but—in a kind of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide pathology—at night he turns into a ferocious Indian killer and thus a champion of Manifest Destiny. A contemporaneous review praised “the great excellence of Doctor Bird’s sketches of character…displayed in his representation of the wild Indian and the frontier settler, hardly less wild. Fiction has invested these with a sort of poetry, which has been harped upon, until it is stale and disgusting” (Southern Literary Messenger).
Perhaps Aggie’s behavior is plausible in the heat of the moment when the teenage Aggie unexpectedly discovers Moses to be an ally against her father. Perhaps we can forgive her because of her youth, unless we recall that she had killed a man at the tender age of ten! Perhaps Reynolds wished to foreshadow the monumental gesture of Aggie founding Franklin’s Crossing, which reminds us of the opening pages of The Scarlet Letter, in which Hawthorne tells us that a cemetery provides the first monuments of civilization. In any case, the wagon train lumbers on, leaving the girl and the black scout together. Cleve and everyone else recognize that Aggie’s reputation is forever ruined. Even worse, the Comanches attack at the very time when Moses has neglected his duty to help Aggie bury the corpses. Cleve tells him, “You risked this whole damned train for a bunch of dead Mescans nobody ever cared about enough to piss on” (72). Mostly out of frustration over Aggie, Cleve vows, “When we get to Santa Fe, I’m goin’ to kill you” (72). Bryce Milligan’s assessment is only partially accurate because he ignores the lure of Beauty that always motivates Reynolds’ men:
Racism and greed are the operative principles here. Yankees and Rebels still hate each other, Blacks and Mexicans are considered barely human, and the only good Indians are dead. Life is cheap and violence or the threat of violence is the general arbiter of even casual disputes. (Milligan)
Perhaps feeling that she is somewhat to blame for Moses’ plight and feeling that they are fellow freedom fighters, Aggie resents Cleve’s anger and tries to protect the seemingly helpless black man from the violent wagon master, a scene not quite recognizable as Aggie defending her unacceptable boyfriend to her dad. When Aggie proclaims, “I hate slavery” and “I’m glad it’s done with,” her anger is fueled mostly by her perception of Jack as a “slaveholder” (58). She feels enslaved and sexually threatened by Jack and, to a lesser degree, by all the other men who are sexually interested in her. Not only is there is no Beauty in her life, but Aggie’s beauty seems to work like Moses’ black skin—it attracts and provokes those who seem only interested in dominating and controlling her. She hates Jack for enslaving her mother in a life of frontier penury. She also hates Jack for dominating her brother Jason, feeling equivocal about the likely prospect of Jason’s killing Jack only because of the penalty that her brother may pay for doing so.
Both Aggie and Moses struggle for freedom in scenes in which Reynolds risks making Aggie too heroic and contemporary. Her pride in caring for the wounded victims of the Comanche attack can be partly attributed to Moses, who ironically leads “his people” into the wilderness: “It was the first time in her life that she had felt so completely in charge. She was totally independent, and she liked the sense of power associated with it. It made her feel proud,” but the experience also puts her on the path to becoming a figure like Clara Barton, the founder of the Red Cross, someone whose emotional life is sublimated by public works (220). Aggie belongs in the company of stalwart and determined men of the Gilded Age being more attracted to power and independence than to beauty or sentiment. She is better suited to nurse the wounded than to raise children.
Grierson, Moses’ former master and the nearest thing he knows to a father, lectures Moses about his responsibilities: “You’re a man, now. A free man…. Least the Yankees say you are. You might find out that there’s more to that than simply sayin’ it” (104). In a parallel scene, Jack scolds Aggie, saying “‘You think you’re a man, but you’re not! …You’re just a ill-bred little bitch who’s too big for her britches. One of these days I’m goin’ to teach you that fair an’ proper’” (227). The narrator suggests other similarities in the situations of Aggie and Moses, for example:
The thought of the scout standing there…his eyes steady as he looked down the barrel of Jack’s pistol, excited her. It made her proud that she had also stood up to Jack once, and it reminded her that she and this black man might have more in common than she had first thought. (237)
Because Cleve has become a father-like adversary to Moses, Aggie associates Cleve with Jack.
Scarred by her mother’s enslavement, Aggie is no more likely than Moses to put herself in hands of any man who might become her master:
She had stood up to him [Graham] twice in as many days, not so much out of any specific purpose but more out of a sense that no man—not her father, not Jack Sterling, not Cleve Graham, not even a boy named Todd Christian—would ever dominate her life again or make her do or feel anything. She was free of all that, she told herself. She was her own person who would make her own choices in life. (251-52)
Reynolds’ interest in the theatrical Texas dialogue that characterizes the novel prevents him from framing this recognition and decision with the psychological depth it requires to explain Aggie’s monumental posture at the end of the novel—how her dedication to memorializing Franklin and freedom makes her life nearly as empty as Imogene’s a century later.
Cleve does not know the details of Aggie’s childhood. That Aggie prefers a black man to Cleve is almost too much for him to bear. When Aggie grows exasperated enough to confront Cleve, her idealism and allegiance to Moses become evident: “Why don’t you shut up, an’ let them that knows how things are take charge?” (458). Cleve, the Civil War veteran, is nonplussed to be spoken to in this manner by the teenage daughter figure he loves. When Moses stands up, “Graham smiled. He figured it was the scout’s turn to feel her wrath” (458). Instead Aggie apologizes to him for Cleve’s treatment: “‘I’m sorry for the way he—the way everybody treats you,’ she said to Moses” (458). She declares, “‘I admire you. I’d rather have you standin’ with me than a dozen men like that.’ Graham couldn’t see her gesture, but he knew she had nodded her head down the line toward him” (458). When the Comanches kill Moses, Cleve “wondered how she would take [the shocking] news that her black scout—her black knight—was dead” (503). He could not guess that she will spend the rest of her life ostensibly dedicated to his memory—or to an adolescent’s notion of freedom—in founding the settlement she calls Franklin’s Crossing. It is doubtful that Reynolds has Franklin killed in order to avoid an interracial romance. Aggie could possibly have become more involved with Moses as a fellow freedom fighter, but she is too traumatized and narcissistic to risk vulnerability for any man.
In the tradition of romance novels, Aggie’s irritation and hostility towards Cleve mutate into affection. She recalls “the feel of Mr. Graham’s hand on her shoulder. It reminded her, somehow, of Todd’s hand when he took hold of her” (508). Aggie “sensed that he wanted to pull her to him, to hold her, and she was surprised to discover that she wouldn’t have minded, not a bit, not even in front of Moses. She needed to be held” (508). But, affection is another name for vulnerability, which is an invitation for domination. Consequently, Aggie vows not to be enslaved by any mere passion or need. “There was just a raw need, but she walked away and left it. Right then she decided to stand on her own: without a man, without anyone” (508). She confirms this disastrous rejection of life and libido when she finds Cleve, skinned but barely alive, tortured almost to death by the Comanches. She shoots him in act of love. “‘Goodbye, Mr. Graham,’ she said quietly. Then she whispered into the grateful, helpless stare of the wagon master, ‘I love you.’ She pulled the trigger and the small gun barked a sharp, snapping shot” (523). Does Aggie love Cleve as a father or a husband? It doesn’t matter since her love is expressed with a bullet.
Leni Ashmore Sorensen, who either found the plot too complicated or the characters not interesting enough to analyze, complained:
Moses Franklin, the black man upon whom the story supposedly hangs, is really just an excuse to guide the blond beauty with the venal and corrupt father, the useless and whining white settlers and the cashiered Union hero into the same geographical area where they can all be murdered by the creatively brutal Indians. (Sorensen)
Moses escapes the Comanche siege, hoping to bring the cavalry to the rescue, when he stumbles upon and rescues Carlson Colfax from the Comanches. An old mountain man who is apparently also lost on the Texas prairie, Colfax is a kind of chthonic force of the wilderness who lives in a secret cave with Beauty or her likeness. His home is literally in the earth in the region that one day will become Franklin’s Crossing and Agatite before it slowly goes back to mesquite and prairie grass. Colfax is a sui generis character who, in a literary sense, is Aggie’s father. At the end of the novel, Colfax dies, leaving Aggie as heir and mythic mother of the blank prairie that she christens Franklin’s Crossing to suggest the hope of crossing into a better world in Texas where men are not impelled by libido to dominate, enslave, rape, and casually murder.
The novel illustrates a caricature of Manifest Destiny in which white men hate black, brown, and red men but dote on the teenage blond daughter figure that none of them touches. Unless men are as depraved as Jack, they sublimate their desire for incest into courtly love, into slaying dragons or Indians in hopes of pleasing Beauty or Lady Liberty. The racial and sexual caricatures expressed in Manifest Destiny are obvious: the chaste blond beauty, who desires only liberty, must be protected from the sexual threats of men of color by keeping them in their servile places or eradicating them as threats to civilization. Reynolds suggests that love and hate are both manifest as domination, enslavement, and violence. Because it doesn’t matter whether the likes of Jack or Cleve loves you or hates you—in either case, both seek to enslave and brutalize you—Reynolds’ only solution to the dangers of libido seems to be found in repression, in waiting out the force of youthful hormones and needs.
In The Vigil, Imogene is a hysterical narcissist. Her case interests us, but she is not an alluring and, hence, dangerous beauty. Rendered as a Madonna, cradling a shotgun instead of an infant, Aggie serves as a reminder of Homer’s Helen. She is an icon to illustrate the Greek and Freudian recognition that beauty and violence are two versions of the same thing. Reynolds’ solution to controlling frontier violence, racism, and sexism ironically dooms the surviving pioneers to found sterile communities dedicated to discipline—to temperance, conventional Main Street life, and fundamentalist religion. Babbitt is the pride of the community. Norman Rockwell is the visionary expressing the hope that the future does no more than memorialize past trauma and sacrifice. They want nothing to change in towns like Quanah because change is violent. “Life does not come slowly. It rises in one massive mutation and all is changed utterly and forever” (McCarthy, 459). For the survivors, everything is different, unknown, and fraught with new threats. This Darwinian recognition, from Suttree, suggests more intriguing parallels between the fiction of the two Texas writers, Cormac McCarthy and Clay Reynolds. The raconteur narration of the Judge in Blood Meridian seems a darker, more philosophic echo of the omniscient narration in Franklin’s Crossing. Aggie is childless and not about to trust her neighbors, much less a husband. Consequently, Franklin’s Crossing withers away, ironically hoping to escape the threats of life by going unnoticed on the immense Texas prairie. So, Aggie morphs into Imogene. Both women are safe and secure and in control but at the cost of renouncing the risks of life and love. Franklin has crossed over to freedom but at the cost of his life. The sheriff cannot coax Imogene out of the safety of her emotional prison. In Threading the Needle (2003), bored teenagers build muscle cars in the 1950s and ’60s to race a quarter mile but never think of simply driving away to escape the ennui of Agatite. Local heroes imitate James Dean’s short life by dying in meaningless races to nowhere.
In Franklin’s Crossing, Colfax is “a wild man, an’ to hear him tell it, he ain’t scared of nothing’” (328). Reynolds copies the old man in the novel that promises to end the history of Agatite. In Monuments (2000), Jonas Wilson is nearly a hundred years old and nearly as colorful as Colfax. Moses explains to Colfax that he is going to find the cavalry to rescue the wagon train. A foul-mouthed cousin to Natty Bumppo, Colfax cackles: “‘I’ll be cornholed by a horned toad! You can’t be meanin’ it!” suggesting that the army is utterly useless (146). Colfax is not eager to meet the Army because he admits, “I was sort of wanted up there in Kansas” where “there was a flier out on me” (348). He advises Moses to “jus’ put yourself in my hands. Them folks down on the crik’ll be all right. If they sit right where they are an’ don’t do nothing’ stupid an’ wait till I get my pecker hard again” (330).
Reynolds puts humorous expletives in Colfax’s mouth to give such homely advice as this: “Get hold of your own pecker, man! What is it you want to do? Save the whiskey or your own goddamn hair?” (471). When Graham says he has a deal to deliver the whiskey, Colfax wryly says, “‘I’d ‘low your deal’s been done.’ Colfax grinned. ‘’Pears to me you been cornholed’” (473). Elsewhere in the book he observes that a Sharps rifle “goes a long way toward givin’ a Comanch’ a case of limp pecker” (353). Significantly, Aggie adopts something like Colfax’s aggressively sexual humor, observing at the end of the novel in what is apparently a teenage pose (since she has had several men die for her), “I never met a man worth the shovel it’d take to bury him” (531). Reynolds repeats this legacy and pose in Monuments, where beautiful Linda, a kind of literary heir to Aggie and the granddaughter of Jonas, also has a foul mouth.
What are the odds of finding two gorgeous young blondes in the middle of a Comanche war party in the Texas wilderness of 1874? Apparently pretty good, if Clay Reynolds is telling the story. Perhaps he means to parody the convention of romance novels that rely on improbable coincidence to further the plot or to reach a denouement. The Tentmaker, another parody of the romance novel, ends in coincidence when the wife of the rancher who threatens to destroy the fledging community of Hoolian turns out to be the protagonist’s domineering mother. Whatever the case, Aggie has a nameless look-alike who cohabits with Colfax in a hidden cave. Confusing as this is, we can perhaps understand why Reynolds resorted to it as something more than a clumsy way to resolve plot difficulties. By putting Aggie’s look-alike into a secret cave with the old mythic man of the mountain, Reynolds provides a fantastic but safe sex life for Aggie. Because of his age, his mythic status, and his constant talk about peckers, we can assume that Colfax is not likely to father children with Aggie’s clone. Their relationship is a fantasy that promises nothing in regard to family, community, or continuity. The under-the-earth, hidden-realm theme suggests a dream to offer Aggie something of a sexual reprieve before she withers away to become a pathological character like Imogene. The look-alike is in possession of a Comanche medicine pouch taken when the Indians slaughtered everyone in her wagon train:
Suddenly something began to make sense to Moses. The young Indian leader’s interest in Aggie hadn’t been born merely out of a desire for the yellow-haired beauty, as he had thought. The chief confused Aggie with this girl. It wasn’t booty they were after or whiskey or even the women. They were after vengeance. (354)
This ultimately puts “Aggie’s life…in greater danger than before. If these people [in the whiskey wagon train] thought they could get away clean by sacrificing her, they would” (443).
In some sense Moses, Cleve, and even Colfax die to defend the unappreciative beauty. More than simply a convention of the romance novel, Reynolds’ commitment to the theme of how the pursuit of beauty animates life prevents us from renouncing our infatuation with Aggie even when—like the teenager she is—she sneers at her suitors and boasts about her immunity to love.1 In contrast, Reynolds, a devotee of the theater, sees life in the image of Lilith as a more feminine process of enticement, teasing, and betrayal. Beauty inevitably provokes violence because she will not submit or even respond to love. The women in Reynolds’ novels are nothing if not controlling and calculating, from Imogene, who waits for thirty years on a park bench for some vaguely conceived vindication of her offended virtue; to Margot, who entrances and manipulates Gil Hooley in The Tentmaker—a novel that Reynolds wanted to call “The Whore of Hoolian”; to Hillary in Players (1997), who attempts literally to buy her beautiful high-school-aged Houston niece in order to resell her to the highest Arab bidder.
With Aggie’s suitors dead and the Indians gone, Aggie looks to Hannah as a model of survival. Hannah says she has “been married more’n most women has kids” (527). Revealingly, Aggie asks if she loved any of her husbands, and Hannah says, “I loved all of ’em. Start to finish” (527). Aggie then asks: “How do you get over it, bein’ hurt, bein’ left alone?” (527). The answer is as old as Homer: life is pain. One cannot escape it nor get over it. It must simply be endured. Using a childish strategy, Aggie seeks to avoid the chances of being hurt. She prefers loneliness to vulnerability. She prefers the safety of boredom, which offers the illusion of control, rather than accept the risks of life.
Franklin’s Crossing is a sterile place devoid of history after its founding. It is only a faint memory a hundred years later when Jonas Wilson mentions it in Monuments. Aggie has been too scarred by Jack and by the example of her mother to trust marriage or any man. Instead of becoming the mother of a brood of children, Aggie becomes a graveyard stone-angel figure and an unwitting model for Imogene in The Vigil. Aggie also becomes a literary image suggesting countless other long-suffering women in the windy region of scattered old houses where hopes for a better life are faint memories of youth, worked over to become religious faith. One critic claimed that Aggie resembles Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne (Marder). But there is no Pearl in Aggie’s life, nor does she love Franklin as Hester loved Dimmesdale. Franklin, the ex-slave, offers only a moral ideal and model for a kind of alter ego. If Aggie resembles anyone, it might be Mother Ann Lee, the founder of the Shakers whose central concern was celibacy, which Mother Ann equated to virtue. Because every Shaker had to be celibate, their once flourishing New England communities withered away to become only a regional memory.
If Franklin’s Crossing is the story of Moses leading Aggie to the promised land of independence, the destination is an illusion. The vestigial town is little more than a cemetery. It is more of a military camp than a place for love, families, homes, and civic development. Franklin’s Crossing leads nowhere. Freedom is as empty and meaningless as the blank Texas prairie. Providing the inauspicious beginning for Reynolds’ history of his fictional county, the novel suggests why the small towns of Texas wither and die: because they are from their inception defensive, conservative, and memorial. They are places of defeat and tragedy, being literally founded when pioneers cannot move on to someplace more inviting. Freedom is not a destination. The life of freedom is empty. Aggie and Imogene illustrate pathological narcissism and debilitating fear. In the pattern of human development, adolescent rebellion and the rhetoric of freedom are props used to grow from being a child devoted to parents to become an adult devoted to a spouse and a profession. Aggie fails to make that transition, and Aggie stands as a symbol for the region, suggesting the stunted history of the hundreds of prairie communities that Reynolds mentions as a litany of forgotten dreams: “Their names evoke another era: Decatur, Bowie, Henrietta, Iowa Park, Electra, Vernon, Quanah, Goodlett, Kirkland, Childress, Estelline, Memphis, and so forth. It’s a mantra for a time long past, long forgotten” (“Autobiographical Notes”). In Monuments, Reynolds has old Jonas Wilson rhetorically ask fourteen-year-old Hugh about local history, “How ’bout Hoolian, Pease City, Naples? …Them was towns, and there was more besides: Goodlett, Franklin’s Crossing, Squaw Creek Store, Medicine Lake, Milltown, Apex, Piss Ellum Church” (213). Reynolds recalls, “Chillicothe, Goodlett, and a handful of farm communities such as Hoolieann, Acme, Lake Pauline, Medicine Mound, and Grosbeck Creek [that] also were fairly populous at that time . These places are all but gone now” (“Autobiographical Notes”). We can anticipate the questions that seem to drive Reynolds’ fiction: Where are the histories? What did it all mean?
These were places of common life where folks were concerned with family, livestock, crops, and friends. If lives had meaning, it was found or invested in relationships in these contexts, rather than in heroic, historic, or objective accomplishments. These common but deep relationships are hoped for but seldom found by Reynolds’ characters. Aggie, for example, refuses to risk responding to Beauty because in doing so she will lose her adolescent freedom and newfound control. But without passion there is no meaning in life, no families, children, or civic development. There is no inspiration or legacy to enthuse the next generation to take up the enterprise at the point where the former generation left off. The hamlets and small towns of the region result from accident and tragedy. Imogene was on her way from Georgia to Oregon, fleeing her husband, when her car broke down in Agatite where she was further traumatized when her daughter abandoned her. What was the point of moving on? In Franklin’s Crossing the pioneers are on their way to Santa Fe when they are nearly all massacred, leaving a few blankly staring and emotionally scarred survivors stranded on the empty Texas prairie. In The Tentmaker, Hoolian is founded when Gil Hooley, in flight from the bad memories of his wife and mother, breaks his wagon axle leaving him stranded on a prairie lacking trees to provide a new axle. Like The Vigil, Threading the Needle offers a study in minimalism. The sole teenage male concern is how to escape Agatite. Culture is restricted to cars as a substitute for frontier guns. Like the women waiting in church pews, the young men are motivated by a hope for escape into a blank and consequently unreachable future. No one has a dedication. No one is motivated by love or a sense of adventure or by an aspiration for a profession or an academic career.
What would keep children and grandchildren in towns like Quanah? Using literary images and perhaps being influenced by his interest in the theater, Reynolds agrees with Freud that life is impelled by the allure of Beauty. Beauty is a dangerous goddess who entices, cajoles, and promises, but in Reynolds’ stories Beauty seldom survives adolescent crisis to wipe off the theater make-up and become a partner in adult dedications to professions and parenting that nurture culture and community. In Reynolds’ fiction Beauty is almost always an untouchable (virgin) and unresponsive teenage narcissist.
Reynolds finally gives us a theatrically happy ending in The Tentmaker where the Madonna is literally a prostitute. Nonetheless, Hoolian, the community that Gil and Margot found, is also an abandoned relic in Monuments. None of the characters have children or make the Oedipal transition to balance Beauty with discipline to allow Beauty to change from an adolescent dream into a nurturing force—to change into something less than an idol to be worshipped. This suggests a problem in thinking of Reynolds’ work as regionalism because we come to wonder if Clay’s Agatite doesn’t, perhaps, resemble the blond Madonna as an idealization.
In describing his life, Reynolds talks often about Quanah: “I was born there, grew up there, left when I was 17 and never wanted to come back. Haven’t, except in fiction” (“Autobiographical Notes”). In one sense, Reynolds never left Quanah or Agatite. As a fiction writer, it is the place he almost instinctively goes back to; it is home. But in another sense, Quanah/Agatite must seem to be something like a stage-play set to Reynolds. It is a place that he remembers and a place where he can imaginatively invent characters and plots. But, since he was seventeen, it is not a place he knows from daily experience. Living in San Francisco, Wright Morris imagined a Nebraska that was also based on childhood memories, but unlike Reynolds, Morris did not seek to answer the question of what went wrong. Why did the little towns that one remembers from childhood as vibrant, colorful, and even exciting wither into shades of gray?
Reynolds’ own life illustrates the answer. Children grow up to look for culture and careers that are not available in places like Agatite. Reynolds’ own enthusiasms and dedications took him elsewhere. The lives of characters we come to know in his novels—heroic, pathological, long-suffering, or tragic—plant seeds that grow only into the careless weeds of West Texas towns like Agatite where Aggie is either unknown or forgotten. Ironically, stories of pioneer endurance offer tales of civic failure. They offer stories of relationships that existed in a bygone era with little, if any, consequence or connection to the future, a future that can only be vaguely hoped for as something miraculous and unknown, like the Rapture, which marks the end of the world we know. Reynolds masks his cynicism by entertaining us with a theatrical style. As we close Franklin’s Crossing, we are more likely to smile at the energetic narrative voice and the talk of Colfax than to muse on the failure of Aggie’s blank and unreported adult life or on the failure of any of the hamlets to grow into middling cities like Amarillo or Wichita Falls, full of stories like those that once flourished in hundreds of small Texas towns.Notes
There is a faint but interesting resemblance on this point between Aggie and
Judge Holden in Blood Meridian. Both characters threaten to rise
above the level of the plot and to stand as avatars for life itself.
McCarthy’s Judge preaches that life runs blood red in a violent Darwinian process in
which no individual is of any importance except as a link in the biological
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_____. “The Missing Beauty in Clay Reynolds’ Agatite Trilogy,” Texas Review, 25.34 (Fall/Winter 2004): 80-102.
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