LaSelle Gilman

Radio essay: 

Gilman critiques Plains weather and Lincoln curfews in a1930 column of The Daily Nebraskan.

The man who would go on to write adventure novels set in far-flung places had made up his mind to travel even during his college days at the University of Nebraska. LaSelle Gilman started out his writing career at the Daily Nebraskan, where he penned a ditty titled “Four of the reasons why the author is going to leave the Middle West after graduation.”[1] The reasons correspond to the four seasons. Spring features “eternal drizzling rain,” Summer “blaring, blinding heat” and Winter “icy winds that blow/without redeeming snow.” Autumn repeats the Spring verse.
 

Whatever his poem may suggest, Gilman’s reasons for wanting to travel lay deeper than unsavory Midwest weather. Former Nebraska Federal Writing Project head Rudolph Umland remembers Gilman as “an eager young student with freckled arms” who was “wildly enthusiastic” about the literary adventure novels of Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling.[2] Umland said that talking to his friend LaSelle made him “want to get on a freighter bound for Hong Kong, Singapore, or Bombay.”

Soon after Gilman’s graduation in 1930 the Daily Nebraskan ran an article titled “Gilman Departs for New Zealand” in which the author is quoted as planning to “write an adventure story of his travels, of the same type as Richard Halliburton’s travel tale, The [Royal] Road to Romance.”[3] Clearly this Minnesota-born, Nebraska raised journalism student was deeply influenced by stories of enterprising (Western) young men making their way in exotic locales.

It would take Gilman longer than he expected to write his first adventure novel. “Newspaper work was to be my shorthand to fiction writing,” he said later, “although it took me twenty years to get there.”[4]

Gilman spent decades as a foreign correspondent, first in New Zealand and then in China, where he worked for Reuters, the Shanghai Post-Mercury and the China Press, a publication geared to English and American expats. When Gilman described his work to a reporter back in Nebraska the latter remarked that Gilman’s “beat” of local fires, hospital construction and “even the Rotary club” sounded just like a Lincoln reporter’s.[5]

By 1941 Gilman was at the epicenter of action on the world stage, working for the Honolulu Advertiser when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Gilman had a firsthand view of the conflicts that erupted in the Pacific Islands during those crucial years, even once observing a battle from the masthead of a US ship.[6] At the end of the war, Gilman returned to the United States to work for Hearst newspapers in San Francisco. By this time married with two children and looking forward to a quieter life, Gilman began to turn his focus exclusively to writing fiction. Gilman didn’t lack material for his novels. Dodge had already published his first in 1936: Shanghai Deadline, in which American press correspondent Tony Colin stumbles on a story of corruption far above his pay grade. Reviewers found his portrayal of contemporary China authentic; a Prairie Schooner writer said that his scenes “could come only from one who had won his journalistic spurs after years of service on the oriental scene.”

Gilman traveled the world, living in--and writing about--dozens of exotic locales.

With his five additional novels Gilman would continue to strive for authenticity of place. After exploring Mongolia in 1942’s The Golden Horde, Gilman returned to China in 1952’s The Red Gate and 1954’s The Dragon’s Mouth, which the New York Times called “well-written and exceedingly topical.” 1955’s Sow the Wind took him to the Sumatran jungles, while Gilman’s final novel, 1957’s Pesquera Bay, brought him closer to home with a story of conflict over fishing rights on the US Pacific coast. Gilman was apparently revising two more novels when he died of cancer in 1964.[7]

Though the scenarios in Gilman’s novels vary, from jungle terrorism to Communist counterintelligence, certain character tropes recur: the old Oriental sage who helps the narrator find peace with himself, the effete tropical royal, the cold-blooded Soviet killer. Gilman can safely be called an Orientalist—a term which, when the New York Times applied it to him in 1955, was meant simply as shorthand to describe the settings of Gilman’s novels. Today the term is not so value-neutral, connoting instead a writer who uses recurring motifs from the Far East to induce readerly pleasure in the strangeness of the exotic Other, a preoccupation that veers perilously close to racism.[8]

Gilman came of age when Charlie Chan movies were popular, pulp comics warned of the “Yellow Peril” and literary adventure novels were full of Fu Manchu-type villains.[9] Some scholars see the 1930s American cultural obsession with conquering the Orient as a compensation for economic weakness in the face of the Depression.[10] Gilman’s novels capitalized both on this fear of the loss of American economic power and the national anxiety about the spread of Communism in the 1950s.

Gilman’s years of immersion in the cultures he depicts spares his stories from outright objectification, however. All Gilman’s heroes, like one sympathetic American soldier in The Red Gate, believe that “life [is] a brotherhood,” and that “one’s social duty [is] to love one’s neighbor and to live selflessly” (90). They pride themselves on being cultural insiders and knowing the customs and the language.

Gilman’s liberal values towards colonialism are evident even in his early Prairie Schooner stories, written prior to his foreign reporting while he was still an undergraduate. In “Yarns in Color” (1928) a white doctor comes to a Navajo reservation in New Mexico to try to cure the consumption plaguing the community. Though he is warned that the Native Americans “don’t trust white doctors” he perseveres, saying, “‘I’ve read up and listened. This is where I’m of the most use.’” Though the doctor’s eventual acceptance by the community might seem expected, Gilman’s tale rises above the cliché in its insistence on the necessity of listening in bridging cultural divides.

Though the source of Gilman’s sympathy for foreign peoples remains unknown, the Lincoln community in which he earned his literary chops was much less provincial than an outsider might assume. The university boasted a vibrant Cosmopolitan Club in the 1920s, of which Chen-Shih Yuan, a Chinese poet featured in the same Summer 1928 Prairie Schooner issue as Gilman, was an active member. Yuan spent time in the same literary circles as Gilman; they had a mutual friend in Rudolph Umland, who took Yuan’s janitorial job at the Miller and Paine Department store when the poet went back to China.[11]

Kwei Chen, another Chinese poet featured in late 1920s Prairie Schooner issues, was also an important member of the contemporary Lincoln literary community and could count as a Lost Writer in his own right. Chen published widely in prestigious American journals including Poetry magazine and The Dial before returning to China to teach literature at the University of Peking. Despite harrowing life circumstances—Chen’s cousin committed suicide in Chen’s presence and Chen’s sister, brother-in-law and nephew were killed by Chinese bandits shortly after his graduation from Nebraska—the young poet claimed to “prefer an idealistic representation of life.”[12] Chen’s poem in the Winter 1927 issue of Prairie Schooner, “To the Son Going Abroad,” testifies to the pressures he must have faced as an immigrant: “remember, the sole way to love thy parents,” Chen writes in the voice of the son’s father, “Is to let them not receive blame / In the name of their son.”

      
       Gilman's work appeared in nu-
       merous pulp fiction magazines.

Though LaSelle Gilman’s association with this milieu likely made him a more sympathetic Orientalist, the vision of cultural exchange he presents in his novels remains reductive. Such a vision was unlikely to survive the onset of the Vietnam War, which complicated the United States’ relationship with the Orient and made simplistic tales of American moral triumph less attractive for readers.
 

Today, Gilman’s fiction is valuable as historically documenting a particular period of American cultural fascination with the Orient. They’re also good yarns—full of gripping action, sympathetic characters and vivid depictions of the settings Gilman spent his life getting to know.
               

    


References


[1] LaSelle Gilman,  “Between the Lines,” The Daily Nebraskan 16 May 1930: 2.

[2] Rudolph Umland, “Recollections of a Beerdrinker,” Prairie Schooner 51.1 (Spring 1977): 16-50.

[3] In The Royal Road to Romance (1925), Halliburton recounts his choice to travel the world instead of pursuing a traditional career.

[4] “Former Staff Columnist Visits Nebraska Office,” The Daily Nebraskan 20 October 1953: 4.  

[5] “LaSelle Gilman, Now Shanghai Reporter, Gets Unique Interview with Rudolf Friml,” Lincoln Journal Star 29 January 1933.

[7] Umland, “Recollections of a Beerdrinker.”

[8] "Romantic Orientalism," Norton Anthology of English Literature, 2015.

[9] Sheng-mei Ma, The Deathly Embrace: Orientalism and Asian American Identity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000).

[10] Christina Klein, Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945-1961, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

[11] Stephen Cloyd, "The Nebraska Federal Writers' Project: Remembering Writers of the 1930s," 2007. A third Chinese poet Chou Han, was also a student at Nebraska and published a poem in the Winter 1928 Issue of Prairie Schooner. Han's poem is the most stridently cynical of the three writers' works about the American promise.

[12] Kwei Chen, “Humiliation,” The Nation 124.3214, (February 1927): 140-1; “Kwei Chen’s Sister and Brother-in-Law Killed by Chinese Marauders,” The Daily Nebraskan 17 February 1927: 1; Kwei Chen,  “Kwei Chen’s Impressions,” The Daily Nebraskan 16 May 1926.