We announce with pleasure that The Collected Works of James Wyatt Oates are now published in the Comstock House digital library.
Oates wrote 20 essays and short stories between 1879 and 1915 that he collected in a 3-ring binder. He apparently kept it close at hand, rereading and editing his works over the years; the cover of the binder is stained with coffee cup and glass rings showing it was used frequently as a coaster. Thankfully it was preserved by the Comstock family and handed down to us, 92 years later, and we are particularly grateful to Martha Comstock Keegan for recognizing its historical merits.
Oates was a very good writer, and apparently considered himself a professional journalist for a few years. He was a part-time editor of a “country newspaper” in Arizona and occasional contributor to The Californian, then the top literary journal in the Western U.S. There Oates rubbed shoulders with literary giants such as Bret Harte, John Muir, Frank Norris and Joaquin Miller.
There are no lost masterpieces to be discovered between those stained covers. But there are several things well worth reading, particularly if you have an interest in the Civil War era as viewed by someone who grew up in the South, living there ten years on either side of the war. Here are summaries and commentary of his most interesting writings:
|WAR AND PREPARATION (1915) A memoir of June, 1861 and the start of the Civil War.|
|THE SOUTHERN STATES (1910) A remarkable short essay, both profound and personal, touching on the root cause of the Civil War. It wasn’t a struggle over noble principles such as states’ rights or preserving the Union, Oates writes; it was simply about prying slaves away from the clutches of slaveholders. Also, it was the hypocritical way Southerners justified slavery using the Bible that brought Oates to loathe religion at an early age. He writes, “I was raised in Alabama in the midst of slavery and slaves. While a boy of eight to twelve years of age I heard ministers of the Gospel, honest, noble men, many times, from the pulpit announce with absoluteness that slavery was morally right, ordained of God, and cite passages from the Bible to sustain them. Though a child and surrounded by intense pro-slavery influences, deep down in my heart I felt that they were wrong. I could not refute their biblical citations nor explain away any of those proofs, but I felt that in some way they could be answered, and then and there was implanted in my very nature a distrust of religion and the Bible, from which I have never been able to escape.”|
|GANDER PULLING (1878) This early short story is Oates’ best work, but be forewarned that it contains graphic descriptions of extreme animal cruelty.|
|THE “HARDSHELL” (1889) An amusing character sketch about a backwoodsman’s relationship with his “Hardshell” church. Oates describes his odd views on children’s names: “The oldest girl was named Martha – plain, Biblical Martha – but he called her ‘Pid.’ The oldest boy was named Mathew – plain and again Biblical – and he called him ‘Bud’. The next boy, named George Washington, he called ‘Coot’. And so on down. How the old chap supposed a man could get on in life with ‘Coot’ for a name has never been explained.”|
|A THEOLOGICAL PUZZLE (1913) If an all-powerful God exists, there is no such thing as free will because God knows everything that has or will happen. Therefore, God cannot judge us on our actions or morality. “We in fairness should not be punished in any way for doing a thing we can not help doing.” It probably goes without saying that there were no clergy found among Oates’ social circle.|
|LINCOLN (1905) Here Oates comes out as firmly belonging to “The War of Northern Aggression” camp. While he admired Lincoln, the president didn’t grasp that the South had a right to secede because the whole North-South relationship just wasn’t working out. In particular, Oates writes Lincoln wronged the South in the Gettysburg Address by implying Southerners were less patriotic Americans, pointing to the passage where Lincoln said the dead had not died in vain, but to ensure our government “of the people, for the people, by the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Oates counters: “The South was equally zealous, was as devoted to government of, for and by the people as was any Northern man who fought in that contest…the question in issue was rather whether there should be one government by, of and for the people North and another government by, of and for the people South or one government for both.” In sum: Oates believes the president betrayed the Founding Fathers by keeping the United States united.|
|THE SOUTHERN CRACKER (1913) A character sketch of an old fellow who went off to fight in the Civil War, motivated by rumors and fuzzy ideals.|
|THE INDIAN PROBLEM–MR. SCHURZ REVIEWED (1881) One of (at least) four essays published in The Californian, Oates is commenting on an article by Carl Schurz, “Present Aspects of the Indian Problem.” Schurz wrote with some authority; he had been Secretary of the Interior in the Hayes administration, which had ended just a few months earlier. Per Indian matters, Schurz had progressive views for his day. He wanted to keep tribes together, opposed permanent reservations, encouraged assimilation through the establishment of Indian schools (particularly education for girls), and wanted Indian families to become farmers by giving them small plots of land that were protected by federal law against theft by whites. Oates offers a far more radical proposal: Ship every Indian in the United States to Indian Territory (which in 1881 might have meant all of modern-day Oklahoma or just the southeast corner) where they would be given plots of land and farm tools and seed. U.S. troops would patrol this mega-reservation. Plus, it would be a very cost-effective solution, Oates argues without a hint of irony, because whites would now be able to obtain valuable mineral rights on their former reservation lands. This was his last essay to appear in the magazine; 1881 was the year he settled in Santa Rosa and perhaps he became too busy to continue writing. Or perhaps there was such outrage over his ridiculous Indian proposal that the editor was forced to drop him as a correspondent.|
|THE BOOK OF JOB (1914) Oates dismantles the story of Job in an enjoyable essay worthy of Mark Twain. “No God of whom I can conceive would do the petty, mean, onery things that story says he did…This puts both God and the Devil on the same plane as two boys, one with a chip on his shoulder daring the other to knock it off. That was a pretty undignified attitude for the Devil to say nothing of the great Master of the Universe, and also to say nothing of the outrage on Job.” Another favorite passage: “Whatever made man made a botched job. When we consider our limitations, our pains and aches, our blunders, our inherent nonsense, when we see the millions dragging out a few years of sordid and sodden existences, we are forced to admit that. Glory in that? He could just as easily have made man a perfect thing; He might, in a mild sense, have derived satisfaction from so doing, but ‘glory’ never.”|
|WHAT OF THE AGES? (1914) An odd Malthusian essay on the need for war to keep the world’s population down. Originally written in March, 1914, Oates adds a postscript in December that bemoans the destruction of war and nightmare of combat. Between the time of writing the article and the postscript his wife died and WWI began.|
|BRYANISM (1908) Oates disliked William Jennings Bryan before he made a third run for the White House in 1908, but here he denounces Bryan as a demagogue and radical determined to destroy what’s left of the Democratic Party. Along the way Oates howls about the demise of states’ rights and the horror that is organized labor. (In short, it reads like most of the commentary found on the Internet today.) What’s interesting is that we can trace Oates’ opinions of Bryan over his entire career. Oates wrote a letter that appeared in the Oct. 23, 1900 San Francisco Call stating he wouldn’t be voting for Bryan because he was too academic and had a wimpy foreign policy. Yet before that, in 1896 Oates was an enthusiastic leader of the “Bryan Free Silver Club” in Santa Rosa. Quite the pendulum swing.|
|BURKE, THE COLOR-BEARER (1914) Short story about a good-for-nothing who found redemption in the Civil War.|
|THE NEGRO AS HE IS (1915) Regrettably, Oates’ last work is a racist essay, complete with plantation dialect. If he had written it around the time of the Civil War it wouldn’t have raised eyebrows, but to author such a thing in 1915 is just deplorable. Given the other uncharacteristic acts that Oates did in the last months of his life (see biography linked above), one wonders if he might have been suffering mental problems.|