Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Smoky the Cow Horse (Scribner's Illustrated Classics Edition) - Will James

Smoky the Cow Horse (1929)
Will James intended Smokey the Cow Horse to be a book for adults, so imagine the man's pleasant surprise when the book won the 1927 Newbery Medal as the year's best addition to American literature for children.

James, whose real name was Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault, was born in Quebec in 1892 to French-speaking parents but he left home as a fourteen-year-old to move west and turn himself into a cowboy. By all accounts, he became a top hand who was particularly adept at turning wild horses into dependable cow horses. James, however, also had a couple of hidden talents not so common in the cowboy population: he was good at drawing animals and he could write. Those talents would not be enough to keep him from spending time in the Nevada State Prison in 1916 for cattle rustling, but the prison sentence seems to have been a wake-up call for James because it was while incarcerated that he vowed to turn his artistic talents into a profession. 

Front End Papers (not sure of the term)
James wrote and illustrated Smoky the Cow Horse, his most famous and most successful book, in 1926, and it was immediately so popular that it was reprinted ten more times between its September release and Christmas. The cowboy-author had twenty-seven of his self-illustrated books published during the Great Depression and almost all of them became bestsellers. Will James died in 1942. (1)

Smoky the Cow Horse is the only one of his books that I've read, and I still remember how intrigued I was that the story is told largely from the horse's point of view. The copy I purchased last Sunday for ten dollars is the Illustrated Classics Edition published by Scribner's in October, 1929, and all the photos attached here are from that book (explaining why they are so poorly cropped). I find it interesting that Smoky was published in the very month of the greatest Stock Market crash in American history, the crash said to have signaled the twelve-year-long Great Depression. Despite the economic hardships of the times, James enjoyed his greatest sales during the 1930s. 

Will James illustration between pages 100 and 101
Will James illustration between pages 16 and 17

Will James illustration between pages 72 and 73

(1) source: onlinenevada.org 


  1. I didn't know all that about the author's history. I did know he had been a cowhand and thus his stories felt very authentic. Love seeing the illustrations. It would be nice to have a vintage edition like yours!

    1. I was fascinated to read about the man's life. It was a much more colorful one than I would have expected, for sure. I consider myself fortunate to have stumbled upon this copy (especially for just ten bucks), and I'm putting it in my TBR stack for a re-read (which is always somewhat of a risky thing to do).

  2. Replies
    1. Will James was most definitely a talented man. He started drawing animals as a five-year-old, so he seems to have been a natural.