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Rogers’ peak came in final years

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The Papers of Will Rogers: Vol. 5, the Final Years, August 1928-August 1935. Edited by Steven K. Gragert and M. Jane Johansson, University of Oklahoma Press, hardcover, $49.95.

If Will Rogers means anything to you, and he should, you’ll want to get hold of “The Papers of Will Rogers: Volume 5, The Final Years.”

All of the great Oklahoma humorist’s materials from his peak period are here — his correspondence, his lecture notes, his famous newspaper columns, his magazine travel articles, and his trenchant radio transcripts disguised as cowboy folksiness. No other American had more political influence during this critical epoch, and it’s great fun rummaging among this vast trove of his papers trying to figure out why.

A couple of odd things stand out:

• One is how much of important American discourse once occurred via telegram. Telegrams had their own punchy, funky literary style, and there were masters of that style, including Will Rogers. His papers contain hundreds of them, and it’s sobering here in the time of instant and total connectivity to think how much less substantial the legacies of characters from this era would’ve been if the casual phone call and the quickie e-mail had come along sooner.

• The other is how talented Will Rogers was at editing his own work. His discards and mark-throughs and tireless rephrasings and recastings are shown here entirely by way of special typography, and they show a writer with editing skills that were common enough at the time but that (like telegrams) simply don’t exist anymore. American writing peaked in the ’20s and ’30s, and an unaccountable efflorescence of great editors had at least as much to do with that as the literati, and the skills of those editors rubbed off even on seemingly inattentive practitioners like Rogers. The editing art – quaint now too, distant from us as the 3-cent Will Rogers U.S. postage stamp.

There’s a 1929 letter from the distinguished novelist Hamlin Garland urging Rogers to write an autobiography without delay, lest the opportunity be lost (as of course it was), and sensing that the insuperable obstacle would be Rogers’ notoriously short attention span. Garland told someone else at the time, “If he could follow out a continuous line of thought, he would rank with Mark Twain.”

Unfortunately the Cowboy Philosopher never got where he could work a topic much longer than he could a rope trick. And so he’s remembered as a beloved raconteur and wit, a Vaudevillian rather than as one of our essential artists, which he might have been if it had worked out that way, if the plane hadn’t crashed.

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