Over the course of researching and writing my forthcoming book, I encountered a number of sources that I couldn’t quite discard, though they did not make it into the final text. One such source, the short story “The Gringo’s Romance,” intrigued me from the first day I saw it. Let’s be up-front about the story. In terms of literature, it’s dreadful.
But that does not mean it is useless as a historical source. Quite the contrary. Despite its flaws in literary style, the story—like other bad literature from bygone eras—can provide evidence from the past in three ways: bad literature seldom conceals the author’s vested interests well, such that one can easily identify who represents what among the characters and themes; it tells us something of the author’s mind and about her or his expected readership; and it can reveal assumptions of an era that are otherwise difficult to prove. These historical benefits of trashy texts make up for the pain of reading them so that, paradoxically, an unpublished short story in manuscript form, read by nobody a hundred years ago, can inform a readership today.
That’s the case with “The Gringo’s Romance,” written between 1915-1917 by Benjamin Johannes Viljoen, a Boer exile after the South African War who landed with a colony of compatriots in Chihuahua, Mexico. Viljoen was a colorful, deeply flawed celebrity of sorts: a general who fought the British Empire, and who later made some fame as a soldier of fortune advising Francisco Madero during the Mexican Revolution. He was also, thankfully for historians, a would-be novelist and memoirist, who had published a couple of books related to the South African War.
My interest with Viljoen centered on his status as co-founder of the Boer colony, and I had hoped undisclosed archives held by his descendants would reveal much about that social experiment. I would be disappointed about this; for it was his fellow countryman’s correspondence that would explain, in the end, daily life in the colony. Viljoen’s papers, rather, made clear for me the transnational connections between frontier southern Africa and the American West, and the links between performing the frontier and living it during the Gilded Age. For example, Viljoen famously led a Wild West troupe that reenacted the South African War at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904.
While performing in St. Louis, Viljoen also happened to be hawking romantic fiction. One novel of his, Under the Vierkleur (or four-colored flag of the South African Republic), reads as a Western set in southern Africa. I did find historical value in this novel, discussed in my Chapter 4, and it, too, has little redeeming literary value, yet it was useful to understand how Viljoen perceived himself in his turbulent time.
In “The Gringo’s Romance,” written more than a decade after Under the Vierkleur, Viljoen tells the fictitious tale of romance centered on Señorita Mercedes Amanda, daughter of the governor of the “State of Pueblo” (not Puebla, mind you), and her suitor, Mr. George Gilbert, a “handsome young gringo” affiliated with an American mine in the state. Theirs is an extended courtship, one that travels between California and “Pueblo” and unfolds during revolutionary activity. At its core are the dynamics of nationalism and revolution. In the case of the former, how could Gilbert expect to woo Amanda? He, as a gringo, a much-loathed American exploiting Mexican resources, should have no claim to her heart. In the case of the latter, the Mexican Revolution threatens the Gilbert-Amanda courtship as it does all of Mexican society. Tensions arise between peasant miners and farmers and the ruling class, symbolized by Amanda’s father, the governor with ties to the old order of President Porfirio Díaz.
Spoiler alert: the revolution succeeds, and the gringo gets the girl. Beyond the plot, though, this story is a kind of archive into Viljoen’s state of mind, because he wrote it during the last three years of his life, which happened to be a curious and historically important time. After advising Madero, the revolutionary leader, Viljoen lived in southern California and worked for Harry Chandler, whose (wealthy) family owned the Los Angeles Times among other enterprises. One might wonder how a former Boer general of modest means appealed as an employee to the son of a publishing empire. The short answer relates to Viljoen’s ability to negotiate revolutionary politics; Chandler famously owned many cross-border properties, was nervous about retaining title to them, and was losing vast sums of money to changing revolutionary factions, each happily collecting taxes from an absentee American landowner. After 1914, Viljoen, Chandler, and others would be charged by the U.S. government with breaking the neutrality laws, of attempting to overthrow the political order in Baja California.
The specifics of this court case get complicated and are beyond our concern for the moment, but the manuscript—and here it acquires some historical value—shows the author as obsequious to Chandler. He gives a cameo to “the Chandler girls,” who had known Amanda, the heroine, from their days at Berkeley, and who held a dinner for all: “The dinner was a most delightful affair. No more hospitable family than the Chandler’s could be imagined in or out of California. All were solicitous, in fact anxious to make things agreeable to their guests, and especially was no effort spared to make the soft-voiced, timid Spanish girl feel at home with her hosts.” Never one to miss an opportunity to flatter his friends, Viljoen saw himself as the writer-as-immortalizer, ingratiating himself into a rich man’s world. (Note: Viljoen’s brother, Chris, also managed Chandler’s Tejon Ranch at the time.)
The story furthermore reveals something of Viljoen’s view of recent Mexican history. He comments on the “balmy” glory days of Porfirio Díaz, which had led to a generalization felt my many American miners before the revolution: “hatred of the gringoes was a popular sentiment,” he writes, and “it was always considered extremely patriotic to speak deprecatingly of Americans…” Viljoen’s characters, like their beliefs, were bland and predictable, and while such writing might not have won an award for character development, it does give us access into Viljoen’s reading of the Porfiriato and the coming revolution.
Finally, the short story also gives its author the opportunity to opine on the Mexican Revolution itself, its causes, and its leaders. Viljoen, who had served Madero up to the new president’s assassination in 1913, was sympathetic to the first uprising and the inequalities that it sought to address. Gilbert, his protagonist, learns “to his surprise” that “Francisco Madero had actually inaugurated a revolution; but like ninety-nine percent of the Americans in Mexico, he thought it would all be quashed in a short time by the iron hand of Porfirio Díaz, with whom ninety-nine percent of the Americans in Mexico sympathized; not because they thought the Díaz regime right, or fair, but because Díaz had ruled successfully over thirty years, and because any foreigner who had the price could secure almost any concession, he, or they desired; and while the foreigner was willing to divide up with the Díaz vultures, who hovered in droves over the flesh pots of Egypt so long, the foreigner was given ample protection, in fact preference over the natives of the country.” To understand this preceding passage, things get complicated. Viljoen did have sympathies for Madero, but even more than this, he would have had the South African War fresh in his mind. Viljoen often read Mexican politics through his own experiences as a displaced member of the vanquished Boer Republics. This explains his loyalty to Madero, and readers of this short story can easily swap British in for the Americans and Boer farmers in for the oppressed Mexicans under Díaz’s rule.
These brief examples show how such an untraditional source—a text written by an aspiring author lost in romancing the past and appeasing contemporary contacts—can function as a piece of cultural history. Far from more standard pieces of evidence, the characters and their representations uncover a multidimensional world and uniquely move us, as much as possible, into the author’s mind: to see his view of the immediate past and his motives in the present.