The American West so fascinated award-winning author Will James that he forever denied his Canadian upbringing in Montreal and real name, Joseph-Ernest Dufault. Instead, he changed his name to William Roderick James and fabricated a story that he was born and orphaned in the American West, and then raised there by a Canadian trapper.
The University of Nevada, Reno is featuring James’ famous sketches and stories of cowboys and their horses this spring in Will James: Life and Art of a “Lone Cowboy,” open now at the University’s Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center in the third-floor Special Collections Exhibit Hall. Visitors can view James’ original sketches, personal correspondence, typed manuscripts with handwritten edits, and other work weekdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through May 29, and Saturdays 1 to 5 p.m. through May 9.
To highlight the James story, local film producer Gwen Clancy will be screening two showings of the original 16-millimeter version of her documentary film, The Man They Call Will James, in the Knowledge Center’s Wells Fargo Auditorium at noon April 29 and at 3 p.m. May 3. Admission to the exhibit and documentary screenings is free. For details, see the Knowledge Center or call (775) 682-5665.
James, who escaped from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police into the American West at age 15, had quite a knack for spinning a tale, writing and illustrating more than 20 books and numerous magazine articles from 1920 to 1942. That is, after doing time in the Nevada State Prison in Carson City for rustling cattle in Ely in 1914. James received the American Library Association’s Newbery Medal for his book, Smoky, The Cowhorse, in 1927. The annual award goes “to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children,” and is one of the highest literary honors.
From his days as a cowhand, James picked up a reputation for sketching, even on bunkhouse walls. His appreciation for horses is apparent in his sketches that finely detail the animals’ muscles and structure, including “The Nevada Mustang,” featured in the University’s collection.
James is also renowned for his campfire stories, which he put down on paper at the encouragement of his wife, Alice (Conradt) of Reno. His writing style was that of a true cowboy. As he once put it, “What I’ve wrote in this book is without the help of the dictionary or any course in story writing. I didn’t want to dilude (sic) what I had to say with a lot of imported words that I couldn’t of handled. Good English is all right, but when I say something I believe in hitting straight to the point without fishing for decorated language.”
One of the James letters on display at the exhibit is the one he wrote to the state parole board in 1915, stating, “I have a natural talent for drawing and during my imprisonment have done considerable of this work. It is my ambition to go East and study Art and I feel that if given an opportunity to develop this talent my future will be assured.” With his letter, James included a sketch, The Turning Point, which is also on display. It depicts James as a rustler in the past, a prisoner in the present, and an artist in the future.
James’ art and writing paired perfectly in his books of the West. Hollywood producers adapted several into motion pictures, including Smoky, the Cowhorse, starring Fess Parker. Although the story is fiction, James based Smoky on a real horse – a large blue roan that would accept no rider other than James.
Once James was enjoying success as an author and illustrator, he and Alice made their home in Washoe Valley, and later in Billings, Mont. Unfortunately, fame and James’ contrived stories of his past began to take a toll on him. He began to abuse alcohol, and died alone in Los Angeles in 1942.
Anthony Amaral and James’ ex-wife, Alice James Ross, donated the Will James Collection to the University in 1967. Amaral published Will James, The Gilt Edged Cowboy, the true story of James’ life with the help of Alice after the cowboy’s death. Although Alice often had suspicions about James’ past, she never knew the truth until a dispute arose over his estate, forcing James’s brother, Auguste, to prove that Ernest Dufault and Will James were indeed the same person.