Saturday, August 18, 2012

UNUSUAL WESTERNS DEPT.--Book Review: FORGOTTEN PIONEER by Harry Golden


FORGOTTEN PIONEER by Harry Golden.
128 pages. A Fawcett Crest Book, 1966
[Originally published 1963 by World Publishing Company.]



I bought this little book a while ago because I thought it might be interesting. Although clearly non-fiction and only marginally about the American Frontier, I found it in Tucson at Bookman's Used Books in the "G" section of the Western Paperbacks selling for a scant 2 dollars.  I am now very glad I vested those bucks because this was a great little read.

Harry Golden [1902-1981], a once popular Jewish columnist, publisher and author, says in his preface that he wrote FORGOTTEN PIONEER-- this quaint tribute to the traveling peddlers of America's past-- to "remind us that the human story remains the same way today as is was yesterday, as it will be tomorrow."  Indeed, the appeal of the book is as much in it's human interest as in the historical information it so charmingly imparts.

Golden tells about the different types of peddlers [pack, trunk, wagon, wholesale, etc.] who first immigrated to America through the great "Ellis Island wave" of the 1800s.  That approximately 75 to 80 percent of these established peddlers were Jewish is a matter of great pride to the author, and this is really where a lot of the charm of the book rests.  Golden not only loves these men as a rich part of his own heritage, but they fascinate him as Great Unsung Heroes of the economic history of our nation.

I have long believed [especially since falling under the influence of Christian Libertarian thinkers like Laurence Vance and others] that the greatest force for peace and well-being in our world [besides the Religion of Jesus Christ] is unmolested Free Enterprise and the maintenance of a Free Market Economy.  I now count this great little book as a powerful testimony to that secondary "gospel."

Golden writes in his preface:
"The pack peddler practiced free enterprise in its purest form. He had no help from anyone, except perhaps an initial loan from a relative who had proceeded to America--a loan of forty dollars at the most. The peddler went to the supply house, filled his pack with forty dollars' worth of merchandise, and then he was completely on his own... it is a story that belongs in the history of the American mercantile and industrial complex."
These men not only carved a trade, but innovated, introducing such items as buckled belts, "blue jeans," and sturdy, flathead "shaker brooms" to their fellow pioneers.  More importantly, their relations with the Native American population grandly support the thesis that free enterprise DOES truly foster Peace:

"Army commanders of frontier outposts used the peddler to negotiate with hostile Indians. The peddler was one of the few white at home in the Indian Camp. The Indians recognized his non-fighting status; he was bringing merchandise, and furthermore, he was not a settler. He was not after their land or displacing them in any way. The peddler was merely passing through."
Golden was a life-long Liberal Democrat, but his sincere love of Commerce and American Freedom, so readily seen in this book, made him COMPLETELY palatable to me... [and yes, you may consider that statement, coming from me, to be the rendering of great compliment. :) ]

Golden's last chapter is of great interest to any of my fellow students of Frontier History.



Entitled "One Man's Name," it tells the story of Levi Strauss, a peddler among the Sourdoughs of the California Gold Rush who one day literally invented demin workpants in a desperate flash of inspiration.  Golden tells this story in better form than than I've ever encountered it before, and this re-telling alone makes this book worth finding.

Also of interest to me was the recounting of the Jewish Peddler's invariably warm reception among Evangelical Christians:
"... the important reason for the peddler's happiness in the South--the Bible Belt--was his religion. The Anglo-Calvinist culture was fundamentalist in its Protestantism, with heavy emphasis on the Books of the Old Testament. In small towns and rural communities where probably no one had ever seen a Jew before, the peddler was the living witness of Biblical Truth, and many people were particularly happy to have him as a lodger for the night... the southern farmers listened to them with respect and looked forward to their coming."
I think I would have gotten along well with these farmers AND their esteemed guests!

One more thing I should mention is that this old paperback was full of wonderful sketches by artist Leonard Vosburgh, which really serve to enhance the reading experience.

All in all, I highly recommend FORGOTTEN PIONEER.

PEACE

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