Monday, July 6, 2009

That's as Close to Hell as I Ever Want to Get: An Interview with Dennis Drabelle

Dennis Drabelle, a contributing editor of The Washington Post Book World since 1985, ocassionally leads workshops in book reviewing at The Writer's Center. He has written for The Atlantic Monthly, GQ, Film Comment, Civilization, and Smithsonian as critic, and contributed to such magazines as Wilderness, Backpacker, and Outside. He worked for 6 years as a lawyer at the U.S. Interior Department where his responsibilities included monitoring the effects of the 1872 Mining Law on national parks and wilderness areas. In 1996 he was awarded the National Book Critics Circle's award for excellence in reviewing. Though he lives in D.C. now, he's a native Missourian. Like me, he's a die-hard fan of the world's greatest baseball team--a team that hails from his home state (and is NOT named the Royals).

Today marks the publication of his terrific new book, Mile-High Fever: Silver Mines, Boom Towns, and High Living on the Comstock Lode. He'll be reading/signing from the book soon (July 15) at the Barnes & Noble at 555 12th St. N.W., at 6:30 p.m. Complete book info here.

To give blog readers a foretaste of the book, I asked Dennis a few questions. If you'd like to read a full review of Mile-High Fever, click here. Or, to read a Washington Post review from Sunday, click here.

(Incidentally, the title of this post is a quote taken directly from the book, one uttered by a former president. It seems apt. If you'd like to know which president said these words, you'll have to read the book!)


It would seem that you “began” writing this book in the early 1970s, when you worked as a lawyer on mining issues for the Department of the Interior. What about the Comstock so enthralled you that you returned to it three decades later?

Well, I became familiar with mining and other public-lands issues in the ’70s, but I didn’t start thinking about the Comstock until about nine years ago, when I was rereading Anthony Trollope’s superb novel of the Gilded Age, The Way We Live Now. There is an episode in the novel where American shysters travel to London and peddle wildcat mining stocks to poor, unsuspecting Brits. After finishing it, I read the entry on the novel in The Penguin Companion to Trollope, which said that the episode was probably based on the Emma Mine scandal. I researched that and found that a U.S. senator, William Stewart, was one of the main instigators—and that he’d first made a name for himself as a lawyer on the Comstock Lode. I wrote an article about him and kept reading about the Comstock, and soon I began to think there might be a book in it.

Many readers, I imagine, may not be familiar with the Comstock Lode and what it meant to the development of the United States. Do you see this book as a way to educate Americans about a significant period of the nation’s history that, for whatever reason, is left out of textbooks?

Yes, I think the story of the Comstock Lode crystallizes so much that was going on in America at the time (the late 19th century): robber barons looting the country, while at the same time certain inventions and developments—the cable that will make elevators safe and permit the building of skyscrapers, modular cubes as a construction form that will allow those buildings to really scrape the sky—were being developed in what amounted to a kind of industrial lab. At the Comstock and in San Francisco, where the mining stock market was headquartered, you can see fraud galore as well as the evolution of a new kind of American writing in the newspapers springing up in the mining towns. As I claim in my introduction, New York and Chicago would have denied it, but for about 20 years, from 1860-80, this remote place in Nevada was just about the most exciting place in the United States.

In 245 pages, you explore the myths of frontier America and the Wild West—with its familiar cast of characters (familiar by way of movies and television shows, westerns, etc.). Yet the story’s both highly enjoyable to read and, at times, quite funny. There’s a great deal of material here, and I imagine much more that didn’t make the final cut. How did you go about arranging your source material? How did you determine the arrangement, say, of your 9 chapters?

Most of it just came instinctively. For me, at least, there comes a point when I’ve so steeped myself in my material that it sort of arranges itself. In this case, the material seemed to fall into three big sections, which also followed a rough chronological order: the first four chapters, which get the Comstock ore discovered and the town of Virginia City, Nevada, up and running; the middle chapters centered on the wheeling and dealing of two groups that hogged most of the profits, the Bank of California crowd and the Bonanza Kings; and the last couple of chapters, which focus on Mark Twain and Big Bill Stewart. But I did have some leftover material—some leftover characters, really—and I made a conscious decision to tell the stories of Conrad Wiegand, Sutro, and John Percival Jones in a chapter called “Challengers.” The Comstock was very tribal, but these were individualists who bucked the system in one way or another, and it seemed to make sense to group them.


At one point, you describe how mine owners in the Comstock would “cook” dividends so that stocks were pumped up artificially and then sold to speculators at higher rates. Reading this passage, I was reminded of a recent article by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone. “Class” certainly plays a role in your book. How would you say Mile-High Fever speaks to readers today? To the times we live in?

There were essentially two classes in Comstock transactions: mine owners and stockbrokers, on the one hand, and everyone else. There was an incredible asymmetry of information between the two. The owners and stockbrokers could anticipate the movements of the stock market and influence them by their decisions, and the public simply had to gamble. I include an anecdote about a stockbroker taking a friend for a walk along the San Francisco waterfront circa 1890. The broker keeps pointing to yachts that belong to this or that stockbroker. At one point, his friend asks, “Where are the clients’ yachts?” And, of course, there aren’t any. That sounds a bit like the fiscal machinations of our own times, doesn’t it?

Mark Twain is one of the many interesting characters in your book. As you convincingly argue, it was in Virginia City, Nevada, during the silver mining boom, that Twain really began to develop the talents that would later make him one of America’s great novelists. But without his experiences in Nevada, would he have been able to write Huckleberry Finn? Without his experience in Nevada, would we remember him at all today? (Or would he be another Alf Doten, remembered by only a few?)

Alternate-world speculations are always tricky, but I do wonder what Twain’s career would have been like if he hadn’t moved to Virginia City, begun imitating the kind of tall tale that his fellow journalists were writing to fill the pages of The Territorial Enterprise on slow news days, and immersed himself in the multi-ethnic slang spoken in the streets and saloons. It’s hard to imagine Huck Finn written in the style of Henry James, but something along those lines might have happened if Twain had gone straight to the East Coast instead of living in Nevada for a year and a half.

The shenanigans of the Bank Ring, The Bonanza Kings, and others—including, especially, William Sharon and Senator William Stewart—add a wonderful degree of drama (and, to me, comedy) to the story of the Comstock. You name several books during the course of yours—Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, for example, or Walter van Tilburg Clark’s The Track of the Cat—and that makes me wonder: Where do interested readers go to get their hands on more amazing stories of the Wild West (if their tastes don’t run the way of Zane Grey)?

I would recommend A.B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky, Robert Lewis Taylor’s The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing, and E.L. Doctorow’s Welcome to Hard Times, though I can’t say that any of them is very funny. But I think they give a pretty realistic, non-Zane sense of what the old West was really like. But I can’t think of any fiction that captures the wildness of the old West as well as some of the best nonfiction accounts do. Maybe that’s because the real wildness lay not in gunslinging and epic poker games, as we tend to see in the movies, but in financial fraud and heroic underground tunneling and other maneuvers that don’t lend themselves to readymade drama but can be great fun to read about just the same.


Look for another interview with Dennis Drabelle next week over at Art & Literature.

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