Sunday, February 3, 2013

Jim Kjelgaard (1910-1959)-Part 1

Outdoorsman, Author
Born December 6, 1910, New York, New York
Died July 12, 1959, Phoenix, Arizona

Jim Kjelgaard was one of the most famous of the non-fantasy writers to contribute to Weird Tales magazine. (1) His book Big Red, from 1945, sold more than 200,000 copies in its first decade in print and was made into a Disney movie in 1962. (2) Sadly, Kjelgaard did not live to see his canine creation on film.

James Arthur Kjelgaard was born on December 6, 1910, in New York City but moved with his family to Tioga County, later to Galeton, Pennsylvania, when he was a child. His father was a doctor, a farmer on about 750 acres, and the head of a large brood of Kjelgaard children. Jim and his siblings lived a vigorous life, farming, raising cattle, trapping, fishing, hunting, and hiking in the fields and woods of the Allegheny Mountains. Kjelgaard came to love dogs, wild animals, and the great outdoors. He would one day write about all of those things in his many books and stories.

Kjelgaard began writing and submitting stories to outdoor magazines while he was still in high school. He sold his first when he was a senior, earning a two-year subscription to the magazine as payment. When his story won a spot on the cover of the magazine, Kjelgaard remembered, "I felt like a combination of Shakespeare, Zane Grey, and Ralph Waldo Emerson." Kjelgaard graduated from Galeton High School in 1928 and at various times worked as a "laborer, teamster, factory worker, plumber's apprentice, [and] surveyor's assistant" (3). He also worked as an outdoor guide and as a forest ranger in Cross Fork, Pennsylvania. Kjelgaard began selling stories to Argosy, Fur-Fish-Game, Collier's, and other magazines in the 1930s. (4) Those stories caught the eye of Eddie Dresen, a member of a writer's group in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who began corresponding with him. "Eddie" turned out to be a she--Edna Dresen. They met in 1939 and were married soon after.

Mr. and Mrs. Kjelgaard lived in Milwaukee and Thiensville, Wisconsin, throughout the 1940s and early '50s as Kjelgaard's writing career took off. His first book was Forest Patrol (1941). His third book, Big Red (1945), was his big seller. More than forty more books followed, some of them published posthumously. They included two sequels to Big Red as well as many other books about dogs and other animals. Kjelgaard authored scores of stories for pulp and slick magazines, and for western, adventure, and outdoor magazines. His stories for Weird Tales were four in number. All date from 1945 and 1946.

Kjelgaard traveled widely in the United States, Canada, and Mexico to do research. He and his wife settled in the Southwest, in Phoenix, in 1955. That may have been in part because he suffered from severe arthritis. His health continued to fail. Late in life he hardly left the house. Still, he managed to write eight books in one year, a heroic feat that reminds me of Ulysses Grant's final days. "For twenty years," his wife wrote, "Jim Kjelgaard suffered agonizing pain and rose above it. He was the grandest, bravest person we ever knew." A brain tumor threatened to strike him down. Instead Jim Kjelgaard took his own life on July 12, 1959, at his home in Phoenix. His body was returned to Wisconsin for burial.

(1) Tennessee Williams is another in that category.
(2) Big Red movie starred Walter Pidgeon, who had by 1962 also starred in a classic science fiction movie, Forbidden Planet (1956).
(3) Kjelgaard's own words, from The Junior Book of Authors.
(4) The first credit I have found is from Fur-Fish-Game for January 1934.

Jim Kjelgaard's Stories in Weird Tales
"The Thing from the Barrens" (Sept. 1945)
"The Fangs of Tsan-Lo" (Nov. 1945)
"Chanu" (Mar. 1946)
"The Man Who Told the Truth" (July 1946)

Further Reading
There are several websites with information on Jim Kjelgaard, but each covers only part of the story, sometimes in a jumbled way, some with inaccurate or incomplete information:
Despite his place of prominence in literature for children, Jim Kjelgaard has never been--as far as I can tell--the subject of a book-length biography. The Internet has hardly been less neglectful of him, perpetuating--as it does so often--inaccurate information. If you would like to read about Jim Kjelgaard in his own words, see the entry on him in The Junior Book of Authors.

Jim Kjelgaard wrote pulp fiction, but he will forever be known as the author of Big Red, published in 1945 and adapted to the silver screen by Walt Disney productions in 1962.
Kjelgaard also wrote adventure stories, stories of the outdoors, stories of hunting, fishing, and the wilderness. Fire-Hunter (1951) is only one of his more than forty books. I have chosen this cover because it could so easily have adorned a pulp magazine of the 1930s or '40s. The illustrator was Ralph Ray. As you can tell, this is a Scholastic edition.
Here are the end pieces for the original hardbound printing. This is an example of why people collect books.

Above: Haunt Fox by Jim Kjelgaard from 1954. The credited interior artist is Glen Rounds, but the cover is clearly signed "Ames."

Below: The title and the scene on the cover of Haunt Fox remind me of this painting by Winslow Homer, "The Fox Hunt," from 1893. Like Kjelgaard, Homer was an Easterner drawn to the outdoors and scenes of action and peril, work and play, and above all, adventure.
Text and captions copyright 2013 Terence E. Hanley

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