Modern readers also will find it difficult to gauge how bad a paper the Post really was. There are times in the book when it seems like the worst newspaper on earth. As one contemporary of Fowler’s put it, the paper was “loaded with silliness posing as wisdom, broad inconsistencies that wouldn’t fool a prairie dog, and bold statements that a certified idiot wouldn’t believe.” But Fowler occasionally defends the Post. No matter why the paper’s crusades were launched, he notes, the people being targeted were generally guilty of the crimes of which they were accused.
In Timber Line it is often hard to tell what is real, what is embellished, and what is invented. The book is neither footnoted nor heavily sourced, and there are lots of quotes that seem improbable. Though I suspect that one could plumb the Post’s archives and confirm most of what Fowler cites as fact, many of the Tammen stories seem drawn from memory rather than transcripts. In Voice of Empire, William Hornby reports Fowler’s admission that he “did not let history get too much in the way of a good story.”
It doesn’t matter. The book is very funny, at times very moving, and for today’s purposes it’s probably accurate enough. Fowler writes romantically and sentimentally about the West and the news business, both of which attracted overgrown boys fond of pranks and stunts and seeing what one could get away with; he writes of newspapering as the last, best profession for those who wouldn’t, or couldn’t, flourish elsewhere. He makes the Post seem more delightful than any paper devoted to hoopla and brigandry has a right to seem.
Timber Line is not, however, particularly focused. (This is clear from the first chapter, a tenuously thematic seven-page anecdote about a mischievous burro Fowler owned as a child.) As the Post was not a particularly focused newspaper, these digressions seem fitting. But they also can be confusing, and at times it seems that Fowler let his wild, wooly subject get away from him. He devotes three long chapters to individuals who lived in Colorado but were wholly unaffiliated with the Post: Margaret “Molly” Brown, a wealthy miner’s wife who was famously dubbed “unsinkable” after surviving the Titanic; Tom Horn, an Indian fighter and hired killer; and Alferd Packer, a trail guide and cannibal who survived a vicious mountain winter by killing and eating his traveling companions. The stories are entertaining—particularly the Tom Horn chapter, which might be the best thing in the book—but they have little to do with the Post, besides a vague “look at these things that also happened in the West.”
But subsequent reads suggest the digressions are there for a reason. Timber Line is nominally about the Post, but it’s mostly about the Post as a product and reflection of its time and place, about how it embodied and reflected the flaws and virtues of the frontier. The American West of popular myth is a land of the defiant. Its great figures share a reckless, near-delusional intransigence that seemed to lead them in equal measure to glory or the gallows. Back East, men like Horn would have been ostracized, or declared insane. In the West, insanity was a survival tactic.
The Post’s near-lunatic defiance of accepted norms and standards is what made it great, Fowler argues. He presents Bonfils and Tammen as Western antiheroes in the same legendary vein as Horn, Packer, and the rest. The Post and its owners were cut from the same material, Fowler is saying, and ought to be remembered right alongside the other entities whose antics defined the West; the Post deserves to be mythologized as a newspaper that, for better or for worse, defined its time.
But times change, and legends fade. In Voice of Empire, William Hornby suggests the Post succeeded by appealing to the “populist tastes of a growing mass reading public that was then unentertained by any broadcast sirens.” As movies and radio emerged, the ordinary people found other means of titillation. Today, Timber Line is out of print, Fowler is forgotten, and The Denver Post survives as a competent, professional daily newspaper with a coherent typographical scheme, carrying no trace of its lurid past.