Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Maynard Dixon and Ben Blair


Ben Blair: A Plainsman is a novel by Will Lillibridge published by A.C. McClurg & Co. in Chicago in 1905. It was published in the wake of the growing popularity of the western that followed Owen Wister's The Virginian (1902). (Just think -- that influential novel is more than 100 years old now.)

Like many westerns from the period, there is a heavy romantic element. From the opening of Chapter One, "In Rude Border-Land," the reader might think that all that lies ahead in the novel's 333 pages is rough-and-tough action:

EVEN in a community where unsavory reputations were the rule, Mick Kennedy's saloon was of evil repute. In a land new and wild, his establishment was the wildest, partook most of the unsubdued, unevolved character of its surroundings. There, as irresistibly as gravitation calls the falling apple, came from afar and near—mainly from afar — the malcontent, the restless, the reckless, seeking — instinctively gregarious — the crowd, the excitement of the green-covered table, the temporary oblivion following the gulping of fiery red liquor.

However, a glimpse at the last chapter's title in the Table of Contents gives away the book's secret: "Love's Surrender." On the book's last page, the hero says, "Florence! Florence! Florence!" and the heroine, Florence (good guess), gasps, "Ben! Ben! Ben!"

Oh dear.

Enough of that. We're here because this book offers the reader a single piece of art (not counting the cover), a frontispiece by Maynard Dixon, shown above. The bright contrasting colors, the statue-like solidity of the human figures against the spread of landscape that rolls away into the distance -- these are all the elements that will mark Dixon's more accomplished work in the coming years. Ben wears his gear like a man who knows his business -- although Dixon may have prettied him up a bit for the book's female readers. That hat just doesn't look bashed-in enough to be quite believable to me.

The book's cover includes a relatively simple figure -- a man's face with sombrero and bandana, mostly in shadow. The hat looks pretty authentic here. The decoration is simple, done in the sort of heavy lines that are typical of this sort of embossed book cover from the period, but there's clearly a knowing hand at work. The circular squiggle below the figure -- the artist's signature -- looks very similar to the sort of swirling D that Dixon used in signing some of his work, and I feel pretty sure this front cover design was executed by Dixon.

If you want to immerse yourself in the tear-stained melodrama of Florence and Ben Blair -- or if you want to check out the cover and frontispiece by Maynard Dixon for this novel -- you can find it over at Google Books. Just click here.