The Shelf that Jack Built

The author's lifelong fascination with the Old West and his equally long love affair with finely crafted fiction were sustained and nurtured during his time as an Oberlin student--and the connections linger still.

By Sid Comings '69


The great versemaker Robert Service's charming poem "Bookshelf" begins:

I like to think that when I fall,
A raindrop in Death's shoreless sea,
This shelf of books along the wall,
Beside my bed, will mourn for me.

Service's favorite books include the works of Omar, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Burns, and Rudyard Kipling, along with works by some lesser known poets. Like Robert Service, I keep a bookshelf of favorites beside my bed. Mine, however, contains westerns instead of poetry.

One of them, Walter Van Tilburg Clark's The Ox Bow Incident, was required reading for emeritus professor Dewey Ganzel's American lit class. Ganzel knew a good western when he read one, for in 1977 the Western Writers of America chose it as the genre's second best book of all time. Another volume on my shelf is Louis L'Amour's The Strong Shall Live. In the 1930s L'Amour, an aspiring western writer, palled around with a group of University of Oklahoma professors that included Paul B. Sears--the same Paul Sears who went on to teach botany at Oberlin College. Sears had just written Deserts on the March, one of the first books on ecology, and L'Amour reviewed it for a farm magazine. Still inspired by Sears's book a decade later, L'Amour wrote a fictional account of proper land usage by cattle ranchers in his short story "Merrano of the Dry Country."

By far my favorite westerns, however, are those written by the late Jack Schaefer '29. Many of his works have made the best westerns list, and, of course, you will find Shane, his unforgettable 1949 novel of a boy's love and a gunman's struggle to escape his past, on my bookshelf. (I also own a video of the classic film version that starred Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, and Van Heflin.)

To appreciate Schaefer's storytelling gift one needs only to read Shane. To appreciate his literary craft one needs only to read Monte Walsh, which is as thick--442 pages--as Shane is thin--119 pages. Schaefer's adroit use of the writer's tools--alliteration and personification, for example--are readily apparent in the longer novel. Metaphor is the star of one of my favorite passages: "In the dark of night on a big rawboned bay that fought the bridling and the saddling and tried to paw the stars out of the sky before leveling into a full gallop, Monte Walsh streaked eastward toward town."

And what would a good western be without hyperbole? My favorite Schaefer exaggeration reads: "Nudge that horse right an' it can spin on a nickel an' give you four cents change."

The author was enthralled by the mystique of the Old West long before he was able to read -or to go study the history along with the myth

Two Jack Schaefer young adult books find a spot on my bookshelf: Old Ramon, a 1960 Newberry Honor Roll book, and Mavericks, the writer's last western. The hero of Mavericks, Old Jake Hanlon, is the last of the old-time cowboys, who, along with his beloved herd of mustangs, is unsuited to life in the "New West." But old Jake Hanlon won't die easily, thanks to Schaefer's powerful writing. He convinces the reader that the disappearance of a breed--whether cowboy or mustang--is a hard loss to sustain.

Schaefer's characters were never the outlaws and gunslingers of popular myth, and in his nonfiction Heroes Without Glory, he tells the stories of real-life legends neglected by history. Schaefer "celebrates those overshadowed good guys," writes Oakley Hall in his foreword, "the men who built the real West in which the Erps, the Billy the Kids and Sundance Kids, the Clay Allisons and Butch Cassidys strut and fret their little hours." Heroes Without Glory is a valued addition to my bookshelf.

In the 1970s, Schaefer shifted his attention from good guys and bad guys to wildlife. Disillusioned by civilization's destruction of the West's beauty, he wrote two nonfiction books whose narrators are animals: An American Bestiary: Notes of an Amateur Naturalist and Conversations with a Pocket Gopher and Other Outspoken Neighbors. Both feature his favorite unsung hero--the pocket gopher, whom he called the Old West's hardest worker because the animal helps turn the raw earth of the prairies and plains into fertile soil suitable for cultivation.

I do not know whether Jack Schaefer kept his favorite books by his bedside, but I do know from reading The Shaft, the Oberlin College literary magazine for which he wrote in the late 1920s, that he admired Daniel DeFoe, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Robinson Jeffers. And in a 1989 interview with former Oberlin librarian, the late William Moffett, he spoke of his high regard for his Oberlin professors: Andrew Bongiorno '23, his first Oberlin College English instructor; Ruth Lampson, who gave him an undying regard for the short story; and Charles Wager, who imparted "a feeling of the continuity of the human experience to his students." (I own a copy of that video, too.)

Just as Jack Schaefer was molded by his teachers, so was I molded by two special Oberlin College professors. In his English courses, W. Arthur Turner taught me to appreciate good storytelling and the writing craft that goes with it. And historian Thomas LeDuc gave me the opportunity to study about the Great Plains, the day of the cattleman, the Gold Rush, and the Mormon Migration in his courses. On occasion, Professor LeDuc even wore his Stetson to class.

My little bookshelf serves to remind me of how much I learned at Oberlin College. While I'm not sure where my diploma is, I know just where to find my favorite books.

Sid Comings is a freelance writer living in Oberlin. He extends special thanks to John Elder '53.


The author was enthralled by the mystique of the Old West long before he was able to read--or to study the history along with the myth.