Capps, Benjamin (Franklin) 1922-
CAPPS, Benjamin (Franklin) 1922-
PERSONAL: Born June 11, 1922, in Dundee, TX; son of Benjamin Franklin (a cowboy) and Ruth Kathleen (a teacher; maiden name, Rice) Capps; married Millie Marie Thompson (a nurse), December 12, 1942; children: Benjamin F., Jr., Kathleen Marie, Mark Victor. Education: Attended Texas Technological College (now Texas Tech University), 1938-39; University of Texas, B.A., 1948, M.A., 1949. Politics: Independent. Hobbies and other interests: Folk music, country music, bluegrass music, "pick the mandolin and guitar with amateur musician friends."
ADDRESSES: Home—366 Forrest Hill Lane, Grand Prairie, TX 75051. Agent—A. L. Hart, The Fox Chase Agency, Inc., 419 East 57th St., New York, NY 10022.
CAREER: Surveyor, Civilian Conservation Corps., 1940-41, and Corps. of Engineers, 1941-42; Northeastern State College, Tahlequah, OK, began as instructor, became assistant professor of English and journalism, 1949-51; tool and die maker for various companies, 1951-61; freelance writer, 1961—. Writer-in-residence, University of Texas, Arlington, 1976. Military service: U.S. Army Air Forces, 1942-45; became first lieutenant; participated in Pacific campaigns; received three battle stars.
MEMBER: Western Writers of America, Western Literature Association (honorary lifetime member), Texas Folklore Society, Phi Beta Kappa.
AWARDS, HONORS: Spur Award of Western Writers of America, for best western novel of 1964, Levi Strauss Golden Saddleman Award, for best western writing of 1964, selection by National Association of Independent Schools as one of ten best books of 1964 for pre-college readers, and selection by American Booksellers Association for White House library, all for The Trail to Ogallala; Spur Award of Western Writers of America, for best western novel of 1965, for Sam Chance, and for best historical novel of 1969, for The White Man's Road; Wrangler Award of Western Heritage Center, 1969, for The White Man's Road, and 1974, for The Warren Wagontrain Raid; American Book Award nomination, 1980, for Woman Chief; also received Wrangler Award of Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Hanging at Comanche Wells, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1962.
The Trail to Ogallala, Duell, Sloan, & Pearce (New York, NY), 1964, published with a new introduction by Capps and afterword by Don Graham, Texas Christian University Press (Fort Worth, TX), 1985.
Sam Chance, Duell, Sloan, & Pearce (New York, NY), 1965, published with a new introduction by Capps and an afterword by Elmer Kelton, Southern Methodist University Press (Dallas, TX), 1987.
A Woman of the People, Duell, Sloan, & Pearce (New York, NY), 1966.
The Brothers of Uterica, Meredith (New York, NY), 1967.
The White Man's Road, Harper (New York, NY), 1969.
The True Memoirs of Charley Blankenship, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1972.
Woman Chief, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1978.
The Heirs of Franklin Woodstock, Texas Christian Press (Fort Worth, TX), 1989.
Tales of the Southwest (short stories), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1991.
(With the editors of Time-Life) The Indians, Time-Life (New York, NY), 1973.
The Warren Wagontrain Raid, Dial (New York, NY), 1974, revised edition, Southern Methodist University Press (Dallas, TX), 1989.
(With the editors of Time-Life) The Great Chiefs, Time-Life (New York, NY), 1975.
(Coeditor) Duncan Robinson: Texas Teacher and Humanist, University of Texas at Arlington (Arlington, TX), 1976.
A collection of Capps' manuscripts is housed at the University of Texas at Arlington Library.
SIDELIGHTS: Benjamin Capps's novels about the American West in the late nineteenth century are far from the realm of pulp westerns. Instead, they are "serious depictions of the real life on the frontier, which explore serious themes of cultures in confrontation, and recreate the people—both whites and Indians—who lived on the plains a hundred years ago," according to James W. Lee in Twentieth-Century Western Writers. Capps chronicled many interesting historical episodes in the saga of the American West, ranging from the days before European intrusion on into the early twentieth century.
Capps was steeped in the culture of the West from the time of his birth in northern Texas, in 1922. His grandfather was a cowboy who caught and broke wild mustangs. His father was born in a dugout house and also made his living as a cowboy and horseman. When Capps was a child, the older people around him could clearly remember the days of settlement and conflict with the Native Americans. He was a voracious reader as a child, and enjoyed making up stories to entertain his brothers. After high school, he entered college as an agricultural student, but he dropped out after a year to serve in the Civilian Conservation Corps and, after, to serve in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. Capps resumed his studies after the war and graduated from the University of Texas in Austin with degrees in English and journalism.
He was determined early on to make his living as a writer, and published some fiction and nonfiction during his college years. He began teaching at Northeastern State College in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, but quit after two years, feeling that the academic life did not allow him to pursue his creative writing. A long stint as a tool-and-die maker also failed to yield any publishable work. In 1961, he quit his job to attempt to make his living writing full-time.
In 1962, Capps published his first novel, Hanging at Comanche Wells, a fictionalized version of true-life events surrounding Tom Horn, a turn-of-the-century deputy sheriff and Pinkerton detective who became a hired killer. According to Lawrence Carlton in Dictionary of Literary Biography, "The novel concentrates on that transitional moment when frontier life has outlived itself, and law and order must be painfully brought to Comanche Wells. The central issue, then, is whether the forces of law and order can keep Ivey, who has been duly convicted of his crime, in jail and execute him according to the judge's schedule." Of all Capps's books, Hanging at Comanche Wells comes closest to being standard western fiction.
In The Trail to Ogallala Capps writes of one of the last great cattle drives, before the spread of fenced-in ranches and the railroads ended that era of Western history. The novel tells of Billy Scott, who brings a herd of three thousand cattle nearly two thousand miles to market. Capps modeled Billy on the character of Achilles, the Greek warrior. According to G. E. Grauel in Best Sellers, the novel is "stylistically adequate without achieving brilliance, [but] is significant as history, sociology, and regional literature."
Capps' novel Sam Chance follows the title character from his move to Texas at the end of the Civil War to his death in 1922. Along the way he lives as a buffalo hunter, cowboy, trail driver, railroad advocate, water conservator, and more. At the end of his life, he has become a wealthy cattleman, but like James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumpo, this once-heroic figure has lived "long enough to see his philosophy and tactics become unacceptable," as Carlton observed. Grauel described Chance as "a striking figure set in a far-above-average story" and praised Capps as "one of our leading portrayers of the West that really was." Carlton felt that Sam Chance "may well be [Capps's] best novel."
A Woman of the People is another of Capps's most widely-read novels. In it, the author presents a look at the lifestyle of the Comanches, in a story based on the captivity tale of Cynthia Ann Parker, a young Texas girl. When two girls are kidnapped by Comanches, the elder of the two resists indoctrination into their way of life. For years she dreams of escape, but when her opportunity to rejoin white society finally comes, she realizes, "suddenly and startlingly—that she too has become an Indian," Lee wrote. This epiphany comes just as the tribe is being forced onto a reservation where their lives will be forever different. Carlton stated that A Woman of the People is "certainly one of Capps's best…. He presents the Indians as thinking, caring people who willingly give their lives to maintain their traditions, until it becomes evident that annihilation is all that awaits them if they persist in their efforts to live their traditional nomadic life." Lee concluded that "A Woman of the People is an American classic."
Reservation life again appears in The White Man's Road, a novel about a young Comanche boy, Joe Cowbone, living on a reservation in the days after traditional life has vanished forever. Yearning to taste the life his ancestors enjoyed, Joe and some friends set out on a traditional horse-stealing raid. Their tale "depicts the agony of young Indians coming of age but denied the tribal rituals of becoming warriors and forced, instead, to travel the White Man's Road, not the Indian Way," mused Carlton. "The various routes open to him range from the pointless path of the older Indians, the equally useless life of young Indians, and right-wing Christianity. Cowbone follows the road that incorporates both Indian and Anglo traditions in a way that best helps him cope with life. The White Man's Road represents Capps at his best. Not a traditional Western, the book deals, rather, with the way this once-proud people must cope with a world dominated by the white man."
Woman Chief draws on another real historical figure for its plot. In this story, set before the appearance of the white men, Sweet Thunder Woman is captured from a neighboring tribe by the Crow Indians. As she grows older, she proves her skills in horsemanship and eventually rises to become the tribe's warrior chief. Even though she is renowned for her military skills, Sweet Thunder Woman is also known for her kindness and affection for children, and her honor in being chief was tempered by the loss she felt over having no children of her own. Capps' account of her life, according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer, "is told with simple grace" and is "both poignant and informative." A Booklist critic called Woman Chief "accurate and moving; it contains the elements both of good storytelling and of verifiable fact."
Lee explained what makes Capps' novels of Indian life so effective: "The author is sympathetic to the Indians but does not sentimentalize and patronize them. By treating the Indians as humans whose culture is different but not inferior to that of the whites, Capps gives an authentic picture of life among the Plains Indians." Carlton added, "He not only developed a series of significant characterizations but also explored the problems that settlement patterns in the West raised for both the Indians and the Europeans. Taking the broader view, Capps saw the conflicts in these books as archetypal of conflicts throughout world history, and he realized that conquest had long dominated human activity, whether it was Indian versus Indian, Anglo versus Indian, or Anglo versus Anglo. While he sympathized with the plight of people caught up in these wars, he was unsparing in his realistic and authentic depiction of events."
Capps once told CA: "My ideal in literature is that writing which has deep roots in a particular time and place and way of life, and has at the same time universal value and meaning. I love the land of New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Clayton, Lawrence, Benjamin Capps and the South Plains: A Literary Relationship, University of North Texas Press (Denton, TX), 1990.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 256: Twentieth-Century American Western Writers, Third Series, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 2002, pp. 19-30.
Speck, Ernest B., Benjamin Capps, Boise State University Press (Boise, ID), 1981.
Twentieth-Century Western Writers, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1991.
Best Sellers, May 15, 1964, p. 71; March 15, 1965, p. 24; October 15, 1969.
Booklist, January 15, 1970, pp. 598-599; October 15, 1979, p. 30.
Heritage of Kansas, Volume 11, 1978, Lou Rodenberger, "The 'Gen-u-wine Stuff': Character Makes the Difference in Trail-Drivin' Novel," pp. 3-12.
Library Journal, October 1, 2002, Michael Rogers, "Cow-Country," p. 134.
Publishers Weekly, July 21, 1969, p. 52; July 16, 1979, p. 57; August 28, 1995, review of The Physician of London, p. 102.
Saturday Review, March 27, 1965, p. 48.
South Dakota Review, Volume 4, 1966, C. L. Sonnichsen, "The New Style Western," pp. 22-28.
Southwestern American Literature, Volume 1, 1971, William T. Pilkington, "The Recent Southwestern Novel," pp. 12-15; Volume 2, 1972, Carlton Stowers, "The Old West of Benjamin Capps," pp. 150-152; Volume 4, 1974, Richard C. Poulson, "The Trail Drive Novel: A Matter of Balance," pp. 53-61.
Southwest Review, Volume 65, 1980, Don Graham, "Old and New Cowboy Classics," pp. 293-303.
Sunday Dallas Times Herald Magazine, March 2, 1980, C. W. Smith, "A Novelist of the Frontier," pp. 4-9.
Western American Literature, Volume 3, 1969, Martin Bucco, "The Brothers Uterica," pp. 308-310.*