Talk about your mute inglorious Miltons: There was in the Old West a newspaperman by the name of James E. W. Townsend, known wherever he traveled as "Lying Jim" for the wondrous stretchers he told. Sometimes working as a compositor, sometimes as an editor, and sometimes both, he could compose stories in his head and set them in metal type on a composing stick (which is to say, backwards) without resorting to the intermediate medium of pen and paper.

Of his work another editor marveled: "To read his paper you would think it was published in a city of ten thousand inhabitants. He had a mayor and city council, whose proceedings he reported once a week, although they never existed, and enlivened his columns with killings, law suits, murder trials and railroad accidents, and a thousand incidents of daily life in a humming, growing town every one of which he coined out of his own active brain." Not exactly a Milton, perhaps, and technically not mute, since obviously his creations were published. But inglorious? Who today knows of this ingenious fellow? Almost no one, but in his day he was known and admired by the likes of Bret Harte and Mark Twain. Lying Jim was the original of Harte's "Truthful James," and from him Twain may have gotten the inspiration for "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." David Dary's Red Blood & Black Ink: Journalism in the Old West is built of such delightful anecdotes and characters. This can be a pitfall for a reviewer, who may be tempted to give the anecdotes and characters their head at the expense of discussing the book as the serious history that it is.

Well, the hell with it. Let's get the serious stuff out of the way: Dary, author of several other books on the West, has produced a well-thought out and well-documented history of newspapering west of the Mississippi from the early 1800s to the turn of the next century. He has organized it into topical chapters ("Pistol-Packin' Editors," "Death and Religion," "Women and Printer's Ink," "Tramp Printers"). And he, or his publisher, has had the good sense to dot the photos and other illustrations throughout the text rather than clump them together in the middle.

Now on to some anecdotes, which, fortunately for the reviewer, also demonstrate the book's solid scholarship.

There were, for example, not a few feuding editors, who were not ready to concede that the pen was necessarily mightier than the sword. Sometimes they wrangled with the citizenry, but more often with other editors. One of the best known was Col. Dan Anthony of Kansas, brother of Susan B., who engaged in many a shoot-out, was hit once and nearly killed.

Another editor, with the unusual handle of James King of William, was not so lucky. A journalistic contretemps with a rival San Francisco editor left him dead. His death was swiftly avenged by a lynch mob.

Dary traces the changes in journalistic style, starting with the formal, rambling, and opinionated writing flowing out of colonial and ultimately British journalism. Late in the century the writing grew slightly less opinionated and considerably more vivid and pointed, such as this from a New Mexico newspaper in 1875: "We learn that on Friday, Jose Garcia, who lives at the Chino copper mines, caught his wife in flagarante delicto we leave the reader to guess the crime Jose, then and there, gave her the quietus with an axe. She's dead deadest sort of dead, and it is said that Jose did not run away and intends to face the music." Not only the writing was different, so were the people, like the Texas newspaperman who ran for the state legislature on the platform, "Don't waste a good man by sending him to Austin. The country needs good men too much. Send me; I'm already ruined." He won and went to Austin but resigned before the session ended.

Much of Dary's portrait is of a time when newspapermen pursued what was widely considered a raffish trade and took rather a perverse pride in it. Ambrose Bierce said in the San Francisco Argonaut in 1878: "There is no recorded instance of punishment for shooting a newspaper man. The restrictions of the game law do not apply to this class of game. The newspaper man is a bird that is always in season."

For good or ill, that season ended, and that bird died, decades ago.

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