Talking More, Lassooing Less

Michael Rogin

  • American Original: A Life of Will Rogers by Ray Robinson
    Oxford, 288 pp, $30.00, January 1997, ISBN 0 19 508693 7

Will Rogers died in 1935 the most loved man in America. Ray Robinson, who was 14 years old, remembers the news reaching his summer camp by radio and spreading like wildfire from bungalow to bungalow. No death since Abraham Lincoln’s (the kidnapping and killing of the Lindbergh child aside) had moved the country so much. Motion picture theatres around the country darkened their screens in honour of a top Hollywood star. NBC and CBS went off the air for 30 minutes, paying homage to the most popular voice on radio – a few years earlier Will Rogers had hosted a variety show which had gained the largest audience in history. For the first time in nine years, ‘Will Rogers Says’ – the boxed comments that appeared daily in five hundred newspapers – did not appear. Rogers had been featured on the cover of Time; he had been received at the White House by five Presidents. However, unlike his famous male contemporaries – Charles Lindbergh, Al Jolson, Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin – Will Rogers has left no aura. In my tiny recent poll of English intellectuals, no one knew who he was. Nor, having now read Ray Robinson’s reverent but clear sighted biography, do I.

Will Rogers was billed as ‘America’s Greatest Humorist’, the successor to Mark Twain. But the legendary examples of his humour – ‘We are the first nation in the history of the world to go to the poorhouse in an automobile’; ‘My epitaph: Here lies Will Rogers. Politicians turned honest and he starved to death’ – sound flat and familiar today. Unlike the later Twain, Rogers had neither anger nor specificity to drive his jokes; unlike the earlier Twain, his deadpan humour produces no hilarity. Mickey Rooney remembers Rogers as ‘a Gentile version of Mort Sahl’, but whereas both chose political targets, Rogers did not want to give offence. In 1934 the former socialist Upton Sinclair won the Democratic primary for governor of California as the leader of EPIC, a mass movement to End Poverty in California. Sinclair terrified the rich, Hollywood moguls prominent among them. As Gregg Mitchell describes it in The Campaign of the Century, the moguls orchestrated the first ever mass media political campaign. They levied a tax on their employees to raise money for Sinclair’s opponent, and filmed and showed in their cinemas fake news clips in which actors playing bearded foreign anarchists declared their support for Sinclair. Some screenwriters and an occasional actor (James Cagney, Katharine Hepburn) defied their studios and supported Sinclair; Rogers managed to conduct a running commentary on the campaign without ever taking sides.

Will Rogers was the friend of the New York immigrant Jewish blackface comedian Eddie Cantor (he contributed a Foreword to Cantor’s autobiography), of the black Hollywood star Stepin Fetchit, of the famous boy aviator, Charles Lindbergh. He admired the anti-union, anti-semitic Henry Ford, the prounion FDR, and, like many other Americans, as well as Winston Churchill, Benito Mussolini. Taken aback when the dictator greeted him with the Fascist salute, Rogers ducked and said: ‘Don’t shoot.’ Will Rogers denied ever uttering his signature phrase, ‘I never met a man I didn’t like.’ ‘I never kidded a man I didn’t like’ were his actual words, he claimed. So when President Calvin Coolidge took offence at a radio impersonation of his speeches, Rogers rushed to make amends. The only time he is on record as using the more familiar tag-line is on a 1926 visit to the Soviet Union. Rogers regretted having missed Leon Trotsky, ‘for I never met a man I didn’t like.’ The young Dwight MacDonald, on the path that would take him from American Trotskyist to mass culture critic, didn’t like Rogers. MacDonald raged at the ‘cheerfully trivial tone’ of his Depression-era movie State Fair, when ‘the American farmer is faced with ruin.’ Only Tom Stoppard could imagine Rogers meeting and liking Trotsky, not to mention the other way round.

What might seem an encounter between American innocence and European revolution would actually have emerged from violence on the American side as well. Exactly a century before Rogers died, the fraudulent Treaty of New Echota between the United States and the Cherokee Nation – opposed by the elected leadership and a vast majority of the tribe – had dispossessed the Indians of their land. Will Rogers’s paternal grandparents, who belonged to the Cherokee Nation, emigrated the next year to Indian territory in the South-West. The bulk of the tribe followed in 1838 on the horrific Trail of Tears, the forced journey that killed – from expulsion through migration to resettlement – a quarter of the members of the Nation. Two decades later, the Civil War further divided and decimated the Cherokees. Rogers’s father, a slave-owner, like others among the Cherokee élite of mixed Indian and white ancestry, fought with the South; Will was named after a member of the Cherokee Supreme Court who had fought alongside his father.

By the early 20th century, when he was the oldest delegate to the Oklahoma statehood convention, Rogers’s father owned his own large ranch. Cherokee tribal government and communal land had been abolished in the wake of the 1887 Dawes Allotment Act. ‘The common field is the seat of barbarism,’ explained an Indian agent. ‘The Indian must be imbued with the exalting egotism of American civilisation so he will say “I” instead of “We”.’

Turning it into private property was one way to attack Indian communal land; war was another. In the wake of the Plains wars of the late 19th century, Wild West shows and dime novels – constitutive of the developing mass culture – turned the killing of Indians into popular entertainment. Rogers emerged from this milieu. He got his start as a trick rider and steer roper in Indian territory rodeos; he signed courting letters to his future wife as ‘your true friend and Injun Cowboy’. Growing up as the son of a well-off rancher rather than in a traditional tribal community, Rogers ‘found his true identity’, his son reminisced, in Texas Jack’s Wild West Show in South Africa. He also toured New Zealand with the Wirth Brothers circus as ‘the Cherokee Kid’.

But Rogers adopted neither the Indian agent’s ‘exalting egotism’ nor the dime novel’s Western violence. Although he rode alongside the famous Apache raider, Geronimo, in one Wild West show, he refused to shoot on stage or to hunt off-stage. He relinquished the rodeo horses in New York vaudeville, talking more and lassooing less. By 1919, the year he published two books as ‘the cowboy philosopher’, his Indian identity had been assimilated into a homespun Western populism. Rogers had traded in ‘the common [Indian] field’ for a common American culture. Seeing themselves reflected through Rogers’s self-effacing eyes, Americans moved through Indian dispossession, war, depression and class struggle while remaining on familiar ground. In what Ray Robinson calls his mode of ‘polite but sly insult’, gentle mockery was inseparable from national flattery.

Making Americans feel good about themselves, Rogers presided over the birth of mass culture as folk culture in the United States. Films produce stars at a distance, John Fiske has written, whereas television creates personalities. The glamour of stars sets them apart from and above their fans; the familiarity of personalities offers a more intimate, equal relationship. Well before television, on radio and in talking pictures, Rogers was a personality. The personality keeps small-town America alive as imagined community, even as he celebrates the new technologies that shatter it on the ground. Appropriately, then, the fate of the personality, unlike the star, is to be ephemeral. As he and Stepin Fetchit were playing around in Judge Priest, a paean to interracial harmony between master and man in the leisurely Old South, Rogers was also continuing to play his role as the foremost advocate of a new method of travel, flying. Born on the old Indian frontier, Will Rogers celebrated the new frontier: aviation. At the age of 56 he flew to Alaska in a makeshift two-seater with the famous one-eyed pilot, Wiley Post. Taking off into foul weather from Walakpa lagoon, 16 miles north-west of Barrow, the plane fell into the Arctic Sea. Will Rogers was found by the last people to whom he had spoken, several Eskimos. In his typewriter rested his last column, counterpoint to the tragedy, which slid effortlessly from his new friends, the Eskimos (‘I don’t hunt or shoot myself’), to an old friendly target: its last words were, ‘Now I must get back to advising my Democrats.’