The Western Avernus

by Morley Roberts

CERTAINLY no one was more BEFORE THE MAST BEFORE THE MAST surprised than myself when I discovered that I could write decent prose, and even make money out of it, for during many years my youthful aspirations had been to rival Rossetti, or get on a level with Browning, rather than to make a living out of literature as a profession. But when I did start a book, I went through three years of American experience like fire through flax, and wrote 'The Western Avernus,' a volume containing ninety-three thousand words, in less than a lunar month.

I had been in Australia years before, coming home before the mast as an A.B. in a Blackwall liner, but my occasional efforts to turn that experience into form always failed. Once or twice, I read some of my prose to friends, who told me that it was worse even than my poetry. Such criticism naturally confirmed me in the belief that I must be a poet or nothing, and I soon got into a fair way to become nothing, for my health broke down. At last, finding my choice lay between two kinds of tragedies, I chose the least, and went off to Texas. On February 27, 1884, I was working in a Government office as a writer; on March 27, I was sheep-herding in Scurry County, North-west Texas, in the south of the Panhandle. This experience was the opening of 'The Western Avernus.'


But I should never have written the book if it had not been for two friends of mine. One was George Gissing, and the other W. H. Hudson, the Argentine naturalist. When I returned from the West, and yarned to them of starvation and toil and strife in that new world, they urged me to put it down instead of talking it. I suppose they looked on it as good material running to verbal conversational waste, being both writers of many years' standing. Now I understand their point of view, and carry a note-book, or an odd piece of paper, to jot down motives that crop up in occasional talk, but then I was ignorant, and astonished at the wild notion of writing anything saleable. However, in desperation, for I had no money, I began to write, and went ahead in the same way that I have so far kept to. I wrote it without notes, without care, without thought, save that each night the past was resurgent and alive before and within me, just as it was when I worked and starved between Texas and the great North-west. Each Sunday I read what I had done to George Gissing; at first with terror, but afterwards with more confidence when he nodded approval, and as the end approached I began to believe in it myself.


It is only six years since the book was finished and sent to Messrs. Smith, Elder, & Co., but it seems half a century ago, so much has happened since then; and when it was accepted and published and paid for, and actually reviewed favourably, I almost determined to take to literature as a profession. I remembered that when I was a boy of eleven I wrote a romance with twenty people, men and women, in it. I married them all off at the end, being then in the childish mind of the most usual novelist who believes, or pretends to believe, or at any rate by implication teaches, that the interesting part of life finishes then instead of beginning. I recalled the fact that I wrote doggerel verse at the age of thirteen when I was at Bedford Grammar School, and that an ardent, ignorant Conservatism drove me, when I was at Owens College, Manchester, to lampoon the Liberal candidates in rhymes, and paste them up in the big lavatory; and under the influence of these memories I began to think that perhaps scribbling was my natural trade. I had tried some forty different callings, including 'sailorising,' saw-mill work, bullock-driving, tramping, and the selling of books in San Francisco, with indifferent financial success, so perhaps my métier was the making of books instead. So I went on trying, and had a very bad time for two years.

Having written 'The Western Avernus' in a kind of intuitive, instructive way, it came easy enough to me, but very soon I began to think of the technique of writing, and wrote badly. I had to look back at the best part of that book to be assured I could write at all. For a long time it was a consolation and a distress to me, for I had to find out that knowledge must get into one's fingers before it can be used. Only those who know nothing, or who know a great deal very well, can write decently, and the intermediate state is exceedingly painful. Both the public and private laudation of my American book made me unhappy then. I thought I had only that one book in me.

Some of the letters I received from America, and, more particularly, British Columbia, were anything but cheerful reading. One man, of whom I had spoken rather freely, said I should be hanged on a cottonwood tree if I ever set foot in the Colony again. I do not believe there are any cottonwoods there, but he used a phrase common in American literature. Another whilom friend of mine, who had read some favourable criticisms, wrote me to say he was sure Messrs. Smith & Elder had paid for them. He had understood it was always done, and now he knew the truth of it, because the book was so bad. I almost feared to return to British Columbia: the critics there might use worse weapons than a sneering paragraph. In England the worst one need fear is an action for criminal libel, or a rough and tumble fight. There it might end in an inquest. I wrote back to my critics that if I ever came out again, I would come armed, and endeavour to reply effectually.

For that wild life, far away from the ancient set and hardened bonds of social law which crush a man and make him just like his fellows, or so nearly like that only intimacy can distinguish individual differences, had allowed me to grow in another way, and become more myself; more independent, more like a savage, better able to fight and endure. That is the use of going abroad, and going abroad to places that are not civilised. They allow a man to revert and be himself. It may make his return hard, his endurance of social bonds bitterer, but it may help him to refuse to endure. He may attain to some natural sight.


Not many weeks ago I was talking to a well-known American publisher, and our conversation ran on the trans-oceanic view of Europe. He was amused and delighted to come across an Englishman who was so Americanised in one way as to look on our standing camps and armed kingdoms as citizens of the States do, especially those who live in the West. To the American, Europe seems like a small collection of walled yards, each with a crowing fighting-cock defying the universe on the top of his own dunghill, with an occasional scream from the wall. The whole of our international politics gets to look small and petty, and a bitter waste of power. Perhaps the American view is right. At any rate, it seemed so when I sat far aloof upon the lofty mountains to the west of the great plains. The isolation from the politics of the moment allowed me to see nature and natural law.

And as it was with nations, so it was with men. Out yonder, in the West, most of us were brutal at times, and ready to kill, or be killed, but my American-bred acquaintances looked like men, strikingly like men, independent, free, equal to the need of the ensuing day or the call of some sudden hour. COWBOY ROBERTS COWBOY ROBERTS It is a liberal education to the law-abiding Englishman to see a good specimen of a Texan cowboy walk down a Western street; for he looks like a law unto himself, calm and greatly assured of the validity of his own enactments. We live in a crowd here, and it takes a rebel to be himself; and in the struggle for freedom he is likely to go under.

While I was gaining the experience that went solid and crystallised into 'The Western Avernus,' I was discovering much that had never been discovered before, not in a geographical sense—for I have been in few places where men have not been—but in myself. Each new task teaches us something new, and something more than the mere way to do it. To drive horses or milk a cow or make bread, or kill a sheep, sets us level with facts and face to face with some reality. We are called on to be real, and not the shadow of others. This is the worth that is in all real workers, whatever they do, under whatever conditions. Every truth so learnt strips away ancient falsehood from us; it is real education, not the taught instruction which makes us alike, and thus shams, merely arming us with weapons to fight our fellows in the crowded, unwholesome life of falsely civilised cities.

And in America there is the sharp contrast between the city life and the life of the mountain and the plain. It is seen more clearly than in England, which is all more or less city.


There are no clear stellar interspaces in our life here. But out yonder, a long day's train ride across the high barren cactus plateaus of Arizona teaches us as much as a clear and open depth in the sky. For, of a sudden, we run into the very midst of a big town, and shams are made gods for our worship. It is difficult to be oneself when all others refuse to be themselves.

This was for me the lesson of the West and the life there. When I wrote this book I did not know it; I wrote almost unconsciously, without taking thought, without weighing words, without conscious knowledge. But I see now what I learnt in a hard and bitter school.

For I acknowledge that the experience was at times bitterly painful. It is not pleasant to toil sixteen hours a day; it is not good to starve overmuch; it is not well to feel bitter for long months. And yet it is well and good and pleasant in the end to learn realities and live without lies. It is better to be a truthful animal than a civilised man, as things go. I learnt much from horses and cattle and sheep; the very prairie dogs taught me; the ospreys and the salmon they preyed on expressed truths. They didn't attempt to live on words, or the dust and ashes of dead things. They were themselves and no one else, and were not diseased with theories or a morbid altruism that is based on dependence.

This, I think, is the lesson I learnt from my own book. I did not know it when I wrote it. I never thought of writing it; I never meant to write anything; I only went to America because England and the life of London made me ill. If I could have lived my own life here I would have stayed, but the crushing combination of social forces drove me out. For fear of cutting my own throat I left, and took my chance with natural forces. To fight with nature makes men, to fight with society makes devils, or criminals, or martyrs, and sometimes a man may be all three. I preferred to revert to mere natural conditions for a time.

To lead such a life for a long time is to give up creeds, and to go to the universal storehouse whence all creeds come. It is giving up dogmas and becoming religious. In true opposition to instructive nature, we find our own natural religion, which cannot be wholly like any other. So a life of this kind does not make men good, in the common sense of the word. But it makes a man good for something. It may make him an ethical outcast, as facts faced always will. He prefers induction to deduction, especially the sanctioned unverified deductions of social order. For nature affords the only verification for the logical process of deduction. 'We fear nature too much, to say the least.' For most of us hold to other men's theories instead of making our own.

When Mill said, 'Solitude, in the sense of being frequently alone, is necessary to the formation of any depth of character,' he spoke almost absolute truth. But here we can THE CALIFORNIA COAST RANGE THE CALIFORNIA COAST RANGE never be alone; the very air is full of the dead breath of others. I learnt more in a four days' walk over the California coast range, living on parched Indian corn, than I could have done in a lifetime of the solitude of a lonely house. The Selkirks and the Rocky Mountains are books of ancient learning: the long plains of grey grass, the burnt plateaus of the hot South, speak eternal truths to all who listen. They need not listen, for there men do not learn by the ear. They breathe the knowledge in.

In speaking as I have done about America I do not mean to praise it as a State or a society. In that respect it is perhaps worse than our own, more diseased, more under the heel of the money fiend, more recklessly and brutally acquisitive. But there are parts of it still more or less free; nature reigns still over vast tracts in the West. As a democracy it is so far a failure, as democracies must be organised on a plutocratic basis; but it at any rate allows a man to think himself a man. Walt Whitman is the big expression of that thought, but his fervent belief in America was really but deep trust in man himself, in man's power of revolt, in his ultimate recognition of the beauty of the truth. The power of America to teach lies in the fact that a great part of her fertile and barren soil has not yet been taught, not yet cultivated for the bread which of itself can feed no man wholly.


Perhaps among the few who have read 'The Western Avernus' (for it was not a financial success), fewer still have seen what I think I myself see in it now. But it has taken me six years to understand it, six years to know how I came to write it, and what it meant. That is the way in life: we do not learn at once what we are taught, we do not always understand all we say even when speaking earnestly. There is often one aspect of a book that the writer himself can learn from, and that is not always the technical part of it. All sayings may have an esoteric meaning. In those hard days by the camp fire, on the trail, on the prairie with sheep and cattle, I did not understand that they called up in me the ancient underlying experience of the race, and, like a deep plough, brought to the surface the lowest soil which should hereafter be a little fertile. When I starved, I thought not of our far ancestors who had suffered too; as I watched the sheep or the sharp-horned Texas steers, I could not reflect upon our pastoral forefathers; as I climbed with bleeding feet the steep slopes of the Western hills, my thoughts were set in a narrow circle of dark misery. I could not think of those who had striven, like me, in distant ages. But the songs of the camp fire, and the leap of the flame, and the crackling wood, and the lofty snow-clad hills, and the long dim plains, the wild beast, and the venomous serpents, and the need of food, brought me back to nature, the nature that had created those who were the fathers of us all, and, bringing me back, they taught me, as they strive to teach all, that the real and deeper life is everywhere, even in a city, if we will but look for it with unsealed eyes and minds set free from the tedious trivialities of this debauched modern life.