A Stroll by Gordon’s Western Bookshelves

by Albert R. Vogeler


           If we agree to take a leisurely stroll with Gordon Van De Water through his collection of Western Americana, we had better be prepared to put away our appointment books and turn off our cell phones. We won’t be back soon. The stroll will be more of a ramble or a meander than a perambulation or a promenade, because we will be circling around and back, following no track, and pausing often. The aromas of chili and cowboy coffee, the scent of weathered leather, and perhaps a whiff of tobacco smoke will accompany us most of the way.  If we are really ready to open our hearts to the writers we will meet, we must not shrink from the sweat, the blood, and the tears on their pages.

           In his book,  “A Stroll By My Western Bookshelves,” Gordon Van De Water (Past President of the Patrons of the Library) manages to mention 146 authors and twice as many titles—yet he is somehow able to linger longer among the most intriguing and appealing of them than would seem possible in 165 pages.  His seemingly naïve scheme of  presenting his books  to us alphabetically is of course an ironic artifice:  everything he wants to show us infallibly turns out to be somewhere between A and Z, and he will get to all of it in good time.  The most rigid and unimaginative organizing principle turns out to be the most fluid and personal.  Besides, Gordon feels free to interpose thematic sections wherever in the alphabet he feels like it—bibliographies of Western books, books of Western photography, books about  California missions, books about the Gold Rush, fine press books, and  books about cooking (Oh! that chili!).

           Along the way we are tempted to handle  fondly his copies of books by or about our dearly familiar literary heroes, Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson. Then we begin  to encounter a series of fascinating   near-strangers  like the legendary outlaw Joaquin Murieta, the reformed train robber George Sontag,  the self-obsessed poet Joaquin Miller, who named himself after the outlaw, and the compulsive  eccentric collector William McPherson.  Should we not long since have known about  the Englishman Henry Vizetelly, who in 1849 published a famous first-hand account of his adventurous trip to the California gold fields—without ever leaving London?  Or about Owen Wister, the privileged Philadelphian and Harvard friend of Theodore Roosevelt who wrote the classic western novel of Wyoming called—The Virginian?  Or about the forever young Frank Norris, who made the streets of San Francisco and the wheat fields of the San Joaquin Valley primal sites of American literary realism long before Dreiser or Steinbeck?  All are on Gordon’s bookshelves.

           If both familiarity and novelty mark Gordon’s Western collection, variety does also.  Much intense experience is recorded here, and daring action, but also much reflection and reminiscence.  Here are books by and about explorers, seafarers,  frontiersmen, mountaineers, hunters, rangers, rustlers, gunmen, outlaws, lawmen, gold- finders, cowboys, tenderfeet, politicians, poets, novelists, scholars, and Chinese laborers;  novels and narratives by pioneer women; books by fighters and also by friends of the Indians.  Often generously quoted,  they pulse with the bustle, bravado, struggle, and strife of life in the old West.

           Throughout our stroll Gordon specifically mentions many of the indispensable intermediaries between writers and readers—book sellers, book clubs, other collectors—all part of the chain of acquiring, assessing,  and savoring books.  Another facilitator of collecting today  is the internet, with its booksellers’  websites ranging from obscure antiquaries to the mighty Amazon.  Gordon unabashedly acknowledges them—including e-Bay—as allies in  saving time and shoeleather.

           Since digression and divagation are in the nature of our stroll, we can feel free to pause here for an  information stop.  Gordon is by no means a  collector only of Western Americana—his interests are wide.  And, as with most collectors, unplanned chance opportunities have created collecting agendas over and above—even competing with--his systematic pursuit of longstanding interests.  Here is one example.  Asked by a friend to advise a graduate student who was comparing the works of Alice Tisdale Hobart  (Oil for the Lamps of China)  with those of Pearl Buck (The Good Earth), he was inspired to begin collecting both authors.  Hobart’s works he soon had complete.   After two years of  further intensive collecting he had purchased every one of Pearl Buck’s books--over a hundred, and found all her articles   He has recently donated  this exceptional collection to the Denison Library of Scripps College “ where women can have a go at seeing what made Pearl tick.”

       Gordon not only collects books omnivorously but writes about them expertly. That he wrote A Catalog of the Works of Pearl S. Buck  is not surprising.  But we would have to know who his favorite printer was to understand the motive behind Fit for Sight and Touch: Fine Press Books of John Henry Nash.   He is a long-time member of the Zamorano Club and  devoted to enlarging his own collection of the club’s list of the eighty most important books of Californiana.  This explains The Zamorano 80 Revisited: A Collector’s Update  of a Classic Work.  He has also written a wonderfully evocative biography of his father, to whom he owes the beginning of his love of books:  No Ordinary Man: the Story of the Life of William Russell Van De Water.  And we all remember his talk for the Patrons’ 2003 Annual Meeting, “The Collecting Bug and How It Bit Me.”

            Would it be ungrateful to ask why in our stroll we don’t meet Max Brand, or Zane Grey, or Louis Lamour?  Or Frank Dobie, or Wallace Stegner, or Paul Horgan?  Or Robinson Jeffers, or Ambrose Bierce, or Jack London?  Or Clarence King, or John Muir, or Edward Weston?  Or Willa Cather, or Gertrude Atherton, or Joan Didion?  Or Dashiell Hammett, or Raymomd Chandler, or Ross MacDonald?  Or Kenneth Patchen, or Kenneth Rexroth, or William Everson?   Yes,  it would.

          There is such a sufficiency already on Gordon’s bookshelves that to ask for more at this point would be churlish. Besides, there may be good reasons why some  fine California and Western writers do not appear.  Gordon’s is, after all, not a comprehensive public library but a selective private one. He collects what he cares for, what he can find, and what he can afford.  Who can demand more?  His collection is of course a work in progress. Many apparent lacunae may in due course be filled, books we do not know may appear, and—who knows—some books may disappear.

           Our fascinating and immensely informative stroll must finally come to a close.  We step into the light of common day with the tantalizing hope that we may somehow be able to resume it.  When at the end we are invited to ask Oliver Twist’s question, “Please, sir, may I have some more?” Gordon very carefully declines to give no for an answer.

          I now have it on good authority that Gordon’s delicate reticence is really setting the stage for a second stroll in another book.  We may  eventually learn more about how the collecting bug bit him and how he chooses and manages his collection   I have every confidence that many of our questions will be answered,  and that our admiration for his achievement will grow even greater.