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E Clampus Vitus



Dr. Joyce Kinkead on When a Man's a Man
Copyright 1979 by Joyce Kinkead.  Used by Permission.  

<<< Continued from previous page

     Not only did Wright consult with cowboys on the accuracy of his details; he worked on and visited actual counterparts of his fictitious ranches.[1]

     The story begins when a young man, who calls himself Patches, walks (an unusual event in a country where everyone rides horses) into the Baldwin ranch seeking a job as a cowhand.  Modeled after Wright's millionaire friend from Hiram College (Sons, p. 158), the tenderfoot quickly learns the ranch work under the guidance of Baldwin and his foreman, "Wild Horse" Phil Acton, and becomes a good cowhand.  He gains the respect of the cowboys, but some of the neighbors, especially Jim Reid, are suspicious of the stranger because of an increase in cattle stealing and because he associates with Yavapai Joe, a partner of Nick Cambert's, the suspected cattle rustler.

     Kitty Reid, who was reared in the area but who has recently returned from three years' schooling at Cleveland, Ohio, provides the feminine interest in the story.  Education changes her attitude toward life in Arizona.  Before she went to school, she loved Phil Acton, but since her return she wonders about the crudeness of ranch life and cowboys and doubts her love.  She finds a friend in Patches who has had a good education sometime in his mysterious past.  She also develops a worshipful friendship with a visiting professor who comes West to scientifically study the cattleman whom he thinks, "to be but a rude, illiterate, and wholly materialistic creature, but little superior in intellectual and spiritual powers to his own beasts" (When a Man's, p. 209).  Kitty finally realizes the superficiality of the professor, and she rejects him, repulsed by him and by the fakery of eastern culture (When a Man's, p. 286).

     Although Patches reveals to his friend Phil that he has come West to work at being a man, the reason for his goal is not clarified until Kitty's newlywed friends arrive at the ranch.  The wife is Patches' old friend, Helen Wakefield, whom he once proposed to. She laughed at his proposal because he was at the time not a man but a spoiled, rich child (When a Man's, p. 272). The "new" Patches traps the cattle rustlers, clears his name, and helps to unite Kitty and Phil. At last, Kitty becomes aware of the superiority of the West and the western man (When a Man's, p. 288). Patches leaves the ranch to continue his maturing process, taking with him Yavapai Joe, whom he hopes to turn into the Western ideal of a man, training him as Baldwin and Phil trained Patches.

     Wright presents the contrast of West and East with the first meeting of Phil Acton and Patches:

            Without question one was the proud and finished product of our most advanced civilization. It was as evident that the splendid manhood of the other had never been dwarfed by the weakening atmosphere of an over-cultured, too conventional, too complex environment. (When a Man's, p. 24) 

     However, there is a quality about the two men which makes them kindred spirits, and perhaps their situations easily could have been reversed. Patches, unlike Phil, is not a rigid individualist. He classes himself as "a dependent" who relies on other people to take responsibility (When a Man's, p. 170). Patches becomes one of Wright's converts to the western code of ethics and achieves recognition as a true westerner when he releases his hold over Kitty, since he took advantage of her weakness for luxury and culture when he asked her to marry him (When a Man's, p. 327).

     Patches learns the code of the West from the men who exemplify it, men like Phil and Baldwin. The code includes minding one's own business (When a Man's, p. 27), protecting women (When a Man's, p. 117), protecting the employer and his property without consideration for one's own personal safety (When a Man's, p. 164), and seeing and remembering everything that happens (When a Man's, p. 166). The people who do not follow the code are ostracized or killed, as Nick Cambert discovers when he is arrested for cattle theft and for shooting Phil Acton.

     Baldwin, Kitty, and Phil, all natives of the desert, see the superiority of the West from essentially the same point of view, but Kitty requires more time to see the quality of the land as she temporarily backslides toward the artificiality of the eastern culture. Baldwin states that Arizona is a manufacturer of men, for the uninitiated will not survive in the desert (When a Man's, p. 60). He also acknowledges that the hard land makes good marriages, for couples must work together to survive, leaving little time for the leisurely activities available to urban couples who "marry and separate, and separate and marry again" (When a Man's, p. 85).

     Phil, echoing Baldwin's thoughts, recognizes the power of the land and is satisfied with his situation, for "everything that a man has a right to is here" (When a Man's, p. 127). In contrast, Kitty, because of her superficial education, can no longer see the value of the land and longs for the culture of the city. Her education is a set of contrasts:

            In that new world she was to learn that men and women are not to be measured by the standards of manhood and womanhood--that they were to be rated, not for strength, but for culture; not for courage but for intellectual cleverness; not for sincerity, but for manners; not for honesty, but for success; not for usefulness, but for social position, which is most often determined by the degree of uselessness. It was as though the handler of gems were to attach no value whatsoever to the weight of the diamond itself, but to fix the worth of the stone wholly by the cutting and polishing (When a Man's, p. 118). 

     Only after Patches warns her of what she might be losing if she leaves Arizona, does she realize that Phil is a superior man to the eastern man, and she appreciates him for his sincerity and for educating himself for her benefit. But it takes Patches, a convert to the code of the West, to convince her that she has been wrong.

     The stereotypes of the West held by city residents result in several views: the extreme view of disdain is that of the scientific professor, who is representative of the rodeo spectators who look at Phil, "as they might have viewed some rare and little known creature in a menagerie" (When a Man's, p. 37). Phil, uncomfortable with the tourists' stares, retreats to the freedom of the desert. Patches' former love, Helen Wakefield, also expresses the standard image of the West as she is disappointed not to see "cowboys riding about everywhere, with long hair and big hats, and guns" (When a Man's, p. 243). She finds instead ordinary men just as she might find in Cleveland. The westerners assert that the West is becoming as civilized as the East, but they never want for the West the moral and mental corruption which they see in the eastern culture.

     Wright presents two themes in this novel: the West is intrinsically better than the East, and the western man is superior to the eastern man. The westerner is independent, an effect of the West's spiritually superior culture because the West represents purity, sincerity, and honesty. The ability to be an independent man is present in both cultures. Baldwin describes Patches as a "thoroughbred that's been badly mishandled" (When a Man's, p. 74).  With the help of western men, Patches is able to become the independent man he desires to be. Wright hopes to dispel the stereotypes of the West by faithfully presenting a realistic picture of Arizona culture and characters, and he adds his own illustrations of the ranch equipment, brands, and scenes to his text.

Back to When a Man's a Man

    [1]Harold Bell Wright, When a Man's a Man (Chicago:  Book Supply, 1916), p. ii.  Subsequent references to this book will be incorporated into the body of the text as When a Man's and pagination.

Copyright 1979 by Joyce Kinkead.  Used by Permission.  


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