May 25, 2013

That Fiend in Hell: On good and not-so-good comments.

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 difference is apparent between the book review comments made by those who have not researched Soapy Smith and those who have.

Cathy Spude's website contains seven comments about That Fiend in Hell by various writers, researchers, and publishers. Of these, only William H. Hunt is known to have published anything about Soapy Smith in Alaska (Chapter 5, "Vigilantes," Distant Justice: Policing the Alaskan Frontier, 1987). Unfortunately, Hunt's 16-page chapter contains the common, erroneous information put forth by previous authors who were willing to pass along hearsay and fiction about Soapy Smith. My aim in addressing this matter is not to belittle those who have written so glowingly of Cathy Spude's book but to point out that these writers have not been serious researchers about the life of Soapy Smith and his immediate environment. For this reason, their glowing comments about That Fiend in Hell tend more toward friendly flattery than authoritative comment.

The exception is William H. Hunt. He points to himself as one who made errors in representation and who learned from Cathy Spude's book. Subsequently he also read my biography and wrote that he appreciated my research and its presentation (see comment, top right column).

A contrast to the statements addressed above about That Fiend in Hell comes from M. J. Kirchoff, twice named Alaska Historian of the Year and author of the new book Dyea, Alaska. It appears in Skagway Stories, a blog devoted to the history and people of Skagway, Alaska. Provided below is this blog post in full, with Mr. Kirchoff's "comment" emphasized.

Yesterday I attended a lecture at the National Park Service by M. J. Kirchhoff on violence on the trails and the Soapy story. There was also a critical review of Spude’s book which many agreed had many false assumptions and mistakes. Mark agreed that Jeff Smith’s book on Soapy is a very good reference for students and historians.

Mark’s new book is called Dyea, Alaska: The Rise and Fall of a Klondike Gold Rush Town, printed in 2012 and available at the Skagway News Depot in Skagway. I leafed through it and was amazed at the incredible collection of historic photos of Dyea that have never been published before. Also at their clarity and good descriptions. Here is Michael Gates description: 'Kirchhoff is a widely respected historian whose previous works include an excellent biography of Jack Dalton as well as Clondyke: The First Year of the Rush… Kirchhoff tackles the overlooked aspects of Alaska and Yukon history and fills in the gaps in our understanding of the North…. Kirchhoff’s book charts the rapid decline of Dyea, and offers an explanation for the eventual death of this once bustling community, but you will have to read the book to learn the answer....
All writers and researchers appreciate friendly comments about their work and tend to publish them in promotions. Sometimes, though, the comments seem not so friendly, and the best of these are the ones that point out the good and the not so good, such as mistakes or perceived failings. When only the comments of those less than fully qualified are presented, all highly flattering, the effect tends more toward puffery than honest comment. In the pursuit of truth, good can come from comments that also find fault. They help to adjust a work and make better work possible.

I guess it all boils down to this: when a work is published, its life is not over. It keeps on living the life that has been given it by its creator. Glowing comments from those not so qualified to evaluate do not establish or preserve the quality of a work. Only its ability to present truths that last over time can do that.

"Lawlessness was rampant, but it did not touch us. The thugs lay in wait for the men with pokes from the “inside.” To the great Cheechako army, they gave little heed. They were captained by one Smith, known as “Soapy,” whom I had the fortune to meet. He was a pleasant-appearing, man, and no one would have taken him for a desperado, a killer of men."
— Robert Service, The Trail of ’98

MAY 25

1787: The Constitutional convention opens in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
1844: The gasoline engine is patented by Stuart Perry.
1844: The first telegraphed news dispatch, sent from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, Maryland appears in the Baltimore Patriot.
1858: The first shipload of gold miners from California arrives in Victoria, British Columbia.
1865: Ten woodcutters from the steamboat Cutter on the Maruias River, Montana Territory are killed by Indians.
1869: Six settlers are killed by Indians in Jewell County, Kansas.
1883: Bad man, Harris Austin, shoots and kills Thomas Elliott for stealing whiskey in the Chickasaw Nation (present day Oklahoma). Austin escapes and remains at large until Deputy Marshal Carr tracked him down in April 1889. He was hung in Fort Smith, Arkansas on January 16, 1890.
1895: James Lee publishes Gold in America: A Practical Manual.

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Thank you for leaving your comment and/or question on my blog. I always read, and will answer all questions left here. Please know that they are greatly appreciated. -Jeff Smith