Whispering Smith

Introduction to the Text
Veronica Guardado

Whispering Smith Book Cover

Frank H. Spearman was an author of railroad fiction; however, he did not start his life’s career as a writer. Spearman was a banker. His life as a writer began in 1886 when he and his brother opened a bank in McCook, Nebraska, a busy town with business revolving around the railroads. Spearman and his brother set up a bank in McCook and he began to write shortly after settling in town.

It was not too long before McCook became an inspiration for Spearman’s railroad fiction novels (White 108). Spearman found the surroundings and the people interesting, which inspired him to write essays. His observations of life in the railroad community became the subject of his writings. The community was very active during this time because rail was the main form of transportation for people moving to the western portion of the United States (White 108).

In addition to his western railroad fictions, Spearman was a recognized writer during the American Catholic Literary Renaissance (1920 to 1960) (Sparr 86). Spearman not only wrote railroad fiction, but he also had an interest in writing on topics of marriage and divorce because he found the protestant religions too lax in these areas of social life. His essays on these themes reflected the moral stand he took after he had converted to Catholicism (White 110) at the age of twenty-five (Sparr 86). Spearman was known for his essays during the American Catholic Literary period; however, his fame as an author came with his western railroad fiction novel Whispering Smith published in 1906 (Sparr 86).

Early Writings of Frank H. Spearman
Before Whispering Smith, Spearman wrote several essays. His first essay “The Great American Desert” was published in Harper’s Magazine in 1888. The essay was about Spearman’s observations on life in the Great Plains. He focused on homesteaders, women on the plains, the Great Plains weather, and the rainfall in Nebraska, themes that would recur in his later writings. Spearman was drawn to the theme of overcoming nature, scoundrels, and the burdens that came with establishing a homestead. These themes affected the people who lived on the plains and what they had to face on a daily basis.

Spearman’s writing increased after he moved his family to Omaha because a drought caused the bank that Spearman had established to fail in 1894. He moved his family to Omaha to work in a distillery, where he began to write using his memories of McCook. He found writing had become a daily habit even when moving to Chicago in the following year, though many of his writings had not been published. It was not until his wife told him she would support the household if he would focus on becoming a writer that he began to market himself as a freelance writer (White 108).

In 1899, Spearman received a message from McClure’s magazine to write short stories for the magazine. This came after he had already begun writing for the Chicago Daily New, the Chicago Evening Post, and Harper’s Round Table (White 108). Spearman was paid sixty dollars for the first story and by the last story published he had been paid one hundred and twenty five dollars. Spearman’s first set of ten short stories was published as a book in 1900 titled The Nerve of Foley: And Other Railroad Stories. In 1901, the second set of stories was published in a book titled Held for Orders: Tales of Railroad Life. These two books made Frank Spearman recognized as a railroad fiction writer (White 108). Yet, he had not yet written the novel, which would be his most famous.

After these short stories, Spearman wrote the novel Doctor Bryson published in 1902. The novel emphasizes the tension between the human attraction of two people and the stand the Catholic faith had towards divorce. Spearman felt that, at the time, the Protestant Church was taking a lax moral stand on divorce. He then wrote an article titled “Why I Became A Catholic” in 1912. The article explains why his stories take a stand for corrective action. Spearman went back to the world of railroad fiction with his next novel published in 1903 titled The Daughter of a Magnate (White 112). The novel was focused on the romance involving the daughter of the president of the railroad line. The following novel, The Close of the Day published in 1904 is about a girl’s rise to stardom in the world of the Opera. This novel takes place in the city of Chicago. These two novels focus on the struggles between two people and the ordeals experienced in relationships (White 113).

Spearman first came across the name Whispering Smith in a previous job. Whispering Smith was the name of a hotel detective the employer had noted on a paper that reached Spearman. For some reason not explained, he would never forget the name of the detective. The story titled “A Night with Whispering Smith” was published in 1902. He then published his next novel in 1904 titled The Strategy of Great Railroads. The novel favored the accomplishments of the railroads, and how the railroad became an integral part of the economy for the nation. In the same year, he then began to write the novel that would be his most famous novel: Whispering Smith (White 113).

The Novel Whispering Smith
Charles Scribner’s Sons published Whispering Smith in September 1906. The novel is a western railroad fiction. The main character in the novel is Gordon ‘Whispering’ Smith a railroad detective. Whispering Smith is sent to investigate occurrences on the railroad tracks. Spearman includes names that surrounded him in his hometown with some changes to be included in the book. The character McCloud is named after the town of McCook, and the Peace River in the novel is named after the South Platte. Spearman would base his characters on people and places that he knew (White 109).

Whispering Smith contains the themes of homesteaders, women on the plains, the Great Plains weather, and the rainfall in Nebraska as identified by Tom White in his article “From McCook to Whispering Smith” (White 108). Women on the plains are especially important and visible in the novel in the character of Dicksie Dunning who grew up on the plains, rides her horse on the plains and lives in her ranch, as well as Marion Sinclair, another female character that has her own business in town. These two women demonstrate the theme of women living on the plains by illustrating the strength women living on the plains would need to possess. The following passage is an example of their strength, “Over the Gridley trail from the Crawling Stone, Marion and Dicksie Dunning rode early in the morning the day after McCloud and his men left the Stone Ranch with their work done. The trail is a good three hours long, and they reached Sinclair’s place at about ten o’clock (Spearman).” The excerpt informs the reader that Dicksie and Marion handles the terrain just as the men that had rode it earlier.

Within the first six months of publication, 38,825 copies of Whispering Smith were sold. The novel made Frank H. Spearman a well-known author. Due to the success of the novel, it remained in print for forty years (White 115). The novel was then transformed into film. The novel is still available for purchase in hard copy or paperback and is available in electronic format on websites such as Project Gutenberg, Hathi Trust, and Google books. In addition to Whispering Smith, many of Spearman’s novels are now available in electronic format.

It would be four years before Spearman would write another novel. Robert Kimberly was published in 1911, and The Marriage Verdict published in 1923 both returning to the theme of marriage. These two novels were his most explicitly religious novels, which discussed the consequences of interfaith marriage and divorce. They cemented his place in the Catholic Literary canon.

Although Whispering Smith is not considered one of Spearman’s religious novels, the conflict of an unacceptable relationship is represented in the unspoken feelings of Whispering Smith towards Marion Sinclair. Since divorce is not allowed in the Catholic faith, this is not an option for Marion in Spearman’s novel, despite her husband’s disreputable behavior. As a model of Catholic propriety, Whispering Smith does not mention his feelings to Marion because she is a married woman. Whispering Smith finally declares his love to Marion only once she has become a widow and is no longer married in the eyes of the Catholic Church. At the first opportunity he tells her, “ That [he] loved [her] so long” (Spearman). She now can also declare her feelings as she replies, “Don’t you know you have said it to me many times without words? I’ve only been waiting for a chance to tell you how happy it makes me to think it is true” (Spearman). This romantic tension is made possible only because of Spearman’s unwavering stand on the topic of divorce (White 110). Thus, the novel Whispering Smith speaks to Spearman’s religious beliefs on the subject of divorce.

After the novel Whispering Smith, the character Whispering Smith would have a short afterlife in writing. The titular hero is mentioned in the novel Nan of Music Mountain published in 1916, however, the character is not a protagonist. Spearman wrote another western novel titled Merrilie Dawes published in 1913. This novel dealt with business and society. He wrote another book titled Spanish Lover published in 1930, which was a departure from his usual western setting; instead it was set in the sixteenth century and told of the historical romance of Don Juan of Austria (White 117).

The following is a selected list of his writings:

Spearman Title List

Spearman, Frank H. Whispering Smith. New York: Grosset & Dunlap Publishers, 1906.

Sparr, Arnold. To Promote, Defend, and Redeem: ‪The Catholic Literary Revival and the Cultural Transformation of American Catholicism, 1920-1960. Westport: Greenwood Press, Inc. 1990.‬

White, Tom. “From McCook to Whispering Smith.” Nebraska History. 87, 2006. 98-119. Web. 22 July 2013.

For a complete bibliography of his work, please see here.


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