We all have come short

This is from today’s Writer’s Almanac.

Today we celebrate the birthday of dime novelist Ned Buntline (books by this author), born Edward Zane Carroll Judson in Stamford, New York (1813) — probably, but not certainly, on this day. As a boy, he got in a fight with his father and ran away to sea. He started out as a cabin boy, but as a teenager he rescued the drowning crew of a boat, and President Van Buren was so impressed that he appointed the young man a midshipman, a low rank of officer. Some of the other officers refused to eat or socialize with him because he had been a regular sailor. In response, he challenged 13 officers to a duel in one day, and seven of them accepted. He wounded four of them and was completely unhurt himself, and after that, everyone accepted him.

After a few years at sea, he decided to take up writing sensational adventure stories. He took his pseudonym, Ned Buntline, from the “buntline” knot that went at the foot of a square sail. He started out writing about gangs and violence in New York — he had firsthand knowledge of that world, being involved in gang wars himself.

After years of setting his popular dime novels in the seedy underbelly of New York, he took a trip out West, and realized that it was the ideal setting for the type of stories he wanted to tell. He met Buffalo Bill Cody, and adapted his adventures into wildly popular and exaggerated stories, a series called Buffalo Bill Cody — King of the Border Men. It was so successful that he made the stories into a play, Scouts of the Prairie, and he managed to convince the reluctant Buffalo Bill to come play himself in the play. Buffalo Bill and Ned himself were terrible actors, and the critics weren’t impressed — the drama critic for the Chicago Times wrote: “On the whole, it is not probable that Chicago will ever look upon the like again. Such a combination of incongruous drama, execrable acting, renowned performers, mixed audience, intolerable stench, scalping, blood and thunder, is not likely to be vouchsafed to a city for a second time — even Chicago.” A critic for The New York Herald wrote that Buntline played his part “as badly as is possible for any human being to represent it.” But despite the opinions of the critics, Scouts of the Prairie was a commercial and financial hit, and it toured all over the country. Ned Buntline and Buffalo Bill parted ways after that, but Buntline had made the western hero so famous that he was able to open his own show, “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West,” and Bill’s story had set Buntline on his path to earn more money from his writing than any other author in the country.

Buntline’s life was one big adventure, and he didn’t slow down even after he became wealthy and famous. He fought in the Everglades in the Second Seminole War, and was an officer in the Civil War until he was given a dishonorable discharge for drunkenness. He went around preaching temperance despite his own outrageous drinking habits — he interrupted every show of Scouts of the Prairie for a temperance lecture, and he was frequently drunk during those lectures. He was thrashed in public in the streets of New York City by a woman who was the target of gossip in his magazine. He incited several riots. He got in plenty of trouble with women, too — he was married seven times, and was jailed for bigamy. At one point he was flirting with a married teenager named Mary Porterfield. Her husband, Robert, challenged Buntline to a duel, which of course he accepted, and he killed Robert Porterfield. The angry townspeople attempted to lynch Buntline, and in fact they strung him up hanged him from an awning post. At the last minute, his friends cut the rope and he managed to survive.

As Ned Buntline lay dying, he wrote a poem, which ends:

“Counting time by ticking clock,
Waiting for the final shock —
Waiting for the dark forever —
Oh, how slow the moments go,
None but I, me seems, can know
How close the tideless river.”

He died in 1886, by which time he had already sent out several false obituaries, further exaggerating his life and claiming that he had been a colonel in the Civil War. At least three of his wives or ex-wives attempted to claim that they were his official widow.

When you read about a life like this, what is your inner reaction?

12 Thoughts on “We all have come short

  1. Wow. First I have to mention, per my obligation, that the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show was what Joseph Campbell often cited as his entryway to the realm of the mythological (it ignited his boyhood imagination, leading him to explore American Indian myths as a young man). Having that out of the way, I now offer Mr. Buntline my salute. He’s kind of the anti-Lichtenbergian, is he not? (How fitting that I am posting this comment as an avoidance project … I should be finishing my book.)

    Anyway, my reaction … is it even possible to live life in this way? It makes for an entertaining read, no doubt. But maaaan … no way am I getting into even one duel, much less — what? Seven at one time? Or was that seven women? I get confused. That, too, is something I just could not handle. I can barely handle one. I do applaud his … thirst for life? Is that how one words it?

  2. craig on March 20, 2011 at 6:29 pm said:

    And today we laugh at Charlie Sheen and call him crazy. I’m actually kind of impressed with Buntline’s dedication to his craft.

  3. If you can remove that whole wincing self-awareness thing, you can do pretty much any other damn thing you want.

  4. And if you drink. Drinking helps.

  5. RE Jeff’s Campbell comment: makes the whole Campbell-Lucas Heroic-Tales-for-Boys Nexus make perfect sense.

  6. Is it just self-justification to reflect that there are plenty of men who live lives like Buntline, only they end up bankrupt, disgraced, convicted and dead?

  7. Ha. This from today’s Writer’s Almanac, poet Billy Collins describing his youth: He said: “I was a most impressionable teenager back in the days of Beatnik glory, so I responded fully to Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti’s ‘Coney Island of the Mind’ — still a good title — Gregory Corso and others. I was in Paris for a summer in the early sixties and hung self-consciously around the corners of the scene on the Boul Mich, as they called it. I sat at the same table with Corso and others, and I even hung around with an American girl named Ann Campbell, whom Realities magazine had called ‘The Queen of the Beatniks.’ (Let’s see … what did that make me??) But mostly I was a Catholic high school boy in the suburbs who fantasized about stealing a car and driving non-stop to Denver. I probably would have done it, but I didn’t have access to those special driving pills Neal Cassady had. Plus, there was always a test to study for, or band practice.”

  8. Well, Collins, affable or no, is a Bard of the Reaction, so I can’t smile and nod along with him as much as I might.

    Beats and Ayn Rand, two inevitable adolescent literary romances.

  9. Beats and Ayn Rand: a teen romance. Damn, I’d hate to see that particular love child.

  10. Jeff, do you have a new email address? Cause if you do, you typed it in wrong; your comment was snagged for spam.

  11. Do I memorize Howl or the Money Speech from Atlas Shrugged?

  12. Howl, for god’s sake. At least it has literary merit.

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