Rafeeq O.'s Reviews > The Argosy Book of Adventure Stories

The Argosy Book of Adventure Stories by Rogers Terrill
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The Argosy Book of Adventure Stories of 1952 edited by Rogers Terrill is a time capsule of postwar popular "men's adventure" literature. "The yen for adventure--the urge to go free-wheeling out to the far, strange places of the world--is as common a male complaint as spring fever, and just as incurable," according to Terrill's Foreword. Yet "[f]or most of us," he shrugs, "it's a kind of life-long, not unpleasant itch" that "can only be scratched vicariously; if we can't go adventuring ourselves, the next best thing is to read about the adventuring of others" (1952 Barnes hardcover, page v). This, naturally, is where the once-commonly seen magazine Argosy comes in. And though Argosy had been around since 1882, "authors, like other men, are mortal. The names change with the years, and story style changes, too," so here "no story is older than the end of World War II" (page v). This anthology thus represents some of the best that Terrill in his editorship "liked...and enjoyed reading" (page vi) over the previous mere half-dozen years.

And how to approach this work? Well, mainly, we need to take it in context. That is, the late 1940s and early 1950s are what they are--we may sigh here and there about "race" and gender relations in this book, for example, but if we actually wanted to complain about these shortcomings in indignant surprise...well, that would be, at best, very silly, wouldn't it? Downright doofusistic, I would argue. We may not, indeed should not, agree with every idea here, unthought-out and smugly unquestioned though some obviously are, such as even the idea that the "far...places of the world" are "strange," but when we purposefully chose a book of popular adventure stories from this era, we knew what we were getting ourselves into, right?

In this book we will find characters like a plucky young teenager trying to get work on a schooner captained by an "old boozer" (page 14) so that he can make the dough needed for a lawyer to clear his feckless pa from a frameup, an Australian Aborigine whose eventual entrance into the white man's world appears nothing but good, a quiet Captain of the French Foreign Legion who apparently Has A Dark Secret To Atone For, a homeless Korean orphan lured into the U.S. Army by three hots and cot to shore up shaky defenses on the eve of a big Communist push and who ultimately Finds His Place Among The GIs, a mountain climber secretly scarred by a partner's years-ago death and both intrigued yet wary of The Icy Lady Of Mysterious Past, taciturn Western ranchers hopelessly but staunchly fighting a plague of locusts, and others--in fifteen stories, to be exact. It's easy to be a little flippant about some of these things, especially from the all-knowing Olympian heights of 70 years hence, but in general these tales are entertaining, some very much so.

My own favorites here, I believe, are Pat Frank's 1947 "The Madman," Merle Costinger's 1950 "The Lady and the Tumblers," and of course Robert A. Heinlein's 1947 "Water Is for Washing," which, since I happen to be a reader, critic, and collector of Heinlein, is the reason I purchased this book.

Frank's "The Madman" is one those then-new post-Hiroshima stories about forest tribesmen whose "Teller of Tales" recounts the familiar history about the men of the fabled past being "gods" who "lived in unimaginable splendor" inside of "cliffs that touched the clouds" (page 41). One of their fellows, though, is termed The Madman because of his iconoclasm. The restlessly inventive and philosophical Madman wants to experiment upon a strange shiny cylinder his people consider a god but which may remind readers of the mid-century vogue of burying time capsules, and then-- Well, you see. It's a tad stagy now, but the tale is hauntingly evocative of the early postwar era, when the threat of the atom bomb was shockingly new and seemingly unavoidable.

Costinger's "The Lady and the Tumblers," set in 1838, begins,

"My great-grandfather was an instructor in the backsword and quarterstaff and was known as Bone-Crusher; my grandfather, also known as Bone-Crusher, was famed for his cutlass play and skill in the prize ring. My father was a professional strong man and pugilist and took the name of Stone-Crusher. The true name of all these men, including my own, was James Thomas Smith. All were wanderers and inn players, rough, hard men, men against the world, but men fanatically steadfast in devotion to family. My mother was killed by a horse in an inn yard in Savannah; I have no clear memory of her." (page 171)

After that paragraph, I'm hooked--admitted. The story really is charming, especially because of the twelve-year-old narrator's roguishly theatrical yet fiercely principled father. Stone-Crusher can read the room with a slow sweep of his practiced eye, and know who will be trouble and who will be a coin-tossing customer. After leaving "an evil inn"--and "[r]oadmen such as [they] have many ways of telling a tavern's honesty at a glance" (page 172)--at which the narrator has stumbled upon a murder, the father quips, "Just another day... Ho-hum" (page 178). The boy then glimpses his father's black eye and bloody nose and wonders if "the innkeeper show[ed] fight"; the man admits that indeed that shady fellow and "a herd of his friends" did, "[b]ut they had a lot to learn about fighting," and in the youth's reply of "They know now" (page 178) is an endearing, masterfully understated sort of pride. There are, moreover, many wonderfully droll witticisms and situations here, along with the dogged determination of Stone-Crusher, who, after finally telling the boy exactly how his mother died, "declare[s]" flatly, regarding the lady of this story beset by villains, that he will "[n]ever again...permit a killer, man or beast, to ride down a helpless woman" (page 185).

Heinlein's "Water Is for Washing" starts with a classically Heinleinian turn of phrase: "He judged the [Imperial] Valley was hotter than usual--but, then, it usually was" (page 209). An unnamed motorist stopping in for a quick snort comments to the barkeep that his chaser is "just the right amount of water in the right place"--as a child he nearly was killed in a dam burst--but finds himself irked at the other's reminder that even this below-sea-level desert could be flooded if just the right earthquake hit (pages 209-210). Of course, you know what happens when a broad hint like that is dropped in the first two pages of a story, right? Especially if someone then scoffs about the workings of undeniable natural forces, and especially if the author is Heinlein, right?

Right. The motorist indeed is something of a jackass, but he learns--he learns. His pooh-hooing of the workings of tectonics across the sweep of geologic ages, as if The Big One could never come again, of course is anti-survival-oriented and foolish, though I confess I don't begrudge him much for the manner in which, when he finds a man with "pale, shifty eyes" and "hands and nails...dirty, but not with the dirt of work" burglarizing his glove compartment, he shoos the fellow away with a gruff "On your way, bum" rather than give the fellow a ride back to Los Angeles (pages 210-11). Later, though, as the catastrophic earthquake-released flood roars down upon them and he has just saved an injured little girl on the side of the road, when the girl says to stop for "a Nisei boy" who is "hurrying toward them," his first reaction is "Huh? Never mind. Just a goddam Jap" (page 213)... Not cool. But he does learn--he does. He does the right thing now, and he helps "the tramp" (page 219), too...and after the seeming mere bum has shown, as Heinlein will put it in his 1958 young-adult novel Have Space Suit--Will Travel, that "[d]ie trying is the proudest human thing," the motorist will make a simple, yet solemn and heartfelt gesture that is not cheesy but touching.

Oh-- And I enjoyed William Holder's 1946 "One Guy, One Gal, One Island" as well. On the one hand, an honest Joe coming back from the service and getting slapped with a divorce by a two-timing hussy--"She had been that kind of woman, He wondered if there was any other kind" (page 243)--can peg the misogyny-meter if you ignore both the then-commonness of the trope and also the obvious fact that Holder is going to turn this once-burned jerk into something besides his current mistrusting grouch. Yes, it may not be super-subtle, but I found it fun, and after a shipwreck caused by an old sea mine, there's a tropic island, and a great cache of guns and supplies from the war, and a unit of marauding Japanese holdouts, and friendly natives in canoes, and pearls and pigs and all sorts of "adventure" stuff. And of course there's the cover art of the original 1952 hardcover as well: The painting shows, amid palms and sand, a man aiming down the sights of a Springfield '03 while a woman in shorts and a halter, concerned but competent and similarly rifle-armed, comes to back him up. This is my kind of gal, and I was very glad to find that such cover art was not just random but indeed did illustrate one of the stories.

The Argosy Book of Adventure Stories is not a text that will help us determine whether we should defund the police, merely frown at old Confederate statues or take them down, or abolish the gender check-box on birth certificates. It is, however, when taken in the context of its time of writing and hence approached with an open mind, quite a decent 4-star read of escapist, and naturally complacent, midcentury "adventure" fiction.

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Reading Progress

August 2, 2021 – Started Reading
August 10, 2021 – Finished Reading
August 11, 2021 – Shelved

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