The Rise and Fall of Popular Western Fiction
“No hoof in Sir Thomas Mallory shakes the crumbling plains with quadruped sound more valiant than the galloping that has echoed from the Rio Grande to the Big Horn Mountains” (Owen Wister, “The Evolution of the Cowpuncher” Harper’s Magazine, September 1895).
The western fiction genre has been around since the mid-1800s. It has enjoyed popularity in the United States as well as around the world, and though its heyday had come and gone by the end of the 1960s, it is still a staple of American popular culture. The western shares similarities with other genres such as American hard-boiled detective fiction, science fiction, and fantasy, but according to Owen Wister, author of The Virginian, the hero of western fiction is a direct descendant of the knights of Arthurian legend. Wister’s view of the West and the western hero is echoed throughout the history of the genre and picked up over and again in the legion of western writers who emulated Wister, as well as in the American popular culture that embraced this romantic view of the American West.
It was American writer James Fenimore Cooper who is generally credited as the predecessor of western fiction with his series of novels known as the Leatherstocking Tales—often referred to as historical romances. Although these tales took place in and around Cooperstown, New York, the hero of these tales, Natty Bumppo, or Leatherstocking, as he was sometimes called in the novels, shares similarities with the later western heroes. He lives off the land, he is skilled with his rifle, and he avoids “civilized” society as much as possible (The James Fenimore Cooper Society). The five novels that constitute the Leatherstocking Tales are The Pioneers (1823), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840), and The Deerslayer (1841). Bumppo is the rugged hero in each of the novels, and together the novels provide a glimpse of the early days of European settlement in the New World. A number of films have been made based on The Last of the Mohicans, most recently in 1992, starring Daniel Day Lewis (a Brit) as Natty Bumppo. The Last of the Mohicans has also appeared on the stage, in radio drama, and in Marvel Comics.
Fenimore Cooper’s novels were forerunners of the western genre, as we know it, which is typically set in the American West in the late eighteenth to late nineteenth century. The western heroes that came after Natty Bumppo were very like Fenimore Cooper’s character in that they lived off the land, were skilled at weaponry, and preferred the frontier to the front parlor.
After Fenimore Cooper paved the way with his Leatherstocking Tales, the emergence of the dime novels in the United States perpetuated the mythology of the American West. Dime novels were the American counterpart of the Penny Dreadfuls, which had already made their appearance in Britain. Penny Dreadfuls were a type of sensationalist fiction popular with the lower classes in nineteenth century Britain. Part of the appeal of the Penny Dreadfuls was the cost—which was only a penny. Although they cost only a penny, the young boys they were intended for often could not afford them, so several boys would share the expense, and then pass the booklets from reader to reader (“Western Fiction,” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia). The “Dreadful” portion of the name referred to the content, which included serialized stories that featured the exploits of highwaymen or sensational crimes and criminal masterminds. The dime novels published in the United States took their cue from the Dreadfuls, keeping prices low and providing adventure stories about the Wild West and real-life heroes of the western frontier, such as Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill. The Western stories in the dime novels also appealed to readers of Penny Dreadfuls, so the American dime novels were subsequently edited and rewritten for the British market (“Western Fiction,” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia).
According to Edward T. LeBlanc in “A Brief History of Dime Novels: Formats and Contents, 1860–1933,” the dime novel can be defined as inexpensive paper-covered books that contain “lurid literature of the American west, detectives, bandits, etc.” (29). The publisher who created and distributed these dime novels was Irwin P. Beadle. Beadle was not the first to publish paper-covered novels. Similar publications had appeared in the 1830s, but they sold for 25 cents, which was too expensive for most people. However, it was Beadle who recognized that there was a market for these paper-covered novels if they were less expensive. In 1860, he launched a series called Beadle’s Dime Novels, which sold, of course, for only ten cents. These dime novels were a success, capturing the imagination and coins of the reading public.
The early dime novels published stories that were based on American history, such as stories of the civil war and the Revolutionary war, and included some historical fiction. These early dime novels were aimed at an adult audience. It wasn’t until 1877 that the western hero—a recurring character—was featured in dime novels. This western hero series was aimed at a younger audience, and the price was reduced to five cents. These five-cent novels also fictionalized real western heroes, such as Buffalo Bill. The popularity of the dime novels lasted into the 1930s, eventually giving way to the pulp magazines. The final blow to the dime novels was the advent of film. As LeBlanc says, “when the decision had to be made between spending a nickel for a dime novel or attending a movie house, the movies won.”
The pulp magazine was a direct descendant of the dime novels, with many of the writers who contributed to the dime novels moving to the pulps (along with their readers). The pulps got their name, of course, because of the cheap paper they were printed on. The paper was made from wood pulp, which creates a very poor quality paper that turns yellow and becomes brittle quickly. Similar to the dime novels, the content was aimed at a mass market, and was priced accordingly, generally from five to ten cents, with some selling for as much as twenty-five cents. The pulps contained mostly fiction. As the popularity of the pulps grew, they began to specialize. In 1906, for example, The Railroad Man’s Magazine appeared, providing adventure stories that were linked to the railroad (Belk). This type of fiction, as shown in Whispering Smith by Frank Spearman, combines the railroad with the western genre. Sometimes railroad fiction is described as a subgenre of the western. Other popular varieties of the pulp magazines included Detective Story Magazine (October 1915) and Western Story Magazine (September 1919). Eventually, the three main fields that dominated the pulp market were westerns, detective stories, and romances (Belk).
Pulps as we know them (racy, formulaic) continued strong through the sixties and never really left. Quasi-pornographic ones, and worse, were still popular in the 1970s, but not as western titles. The paperback industry and pulp were always sort of companions, although more serious books had better designed covers and cost a bit more. Dell, the paperback juggernaut, produced pulp (aka, genre) titles and their Laurel editions for more serious readers. Dell and Fawcett published westerns through the 1960s, although much less than in the genre heyday of the 1950s. Lots of titles were simply repackaged—that is, the wrappers (paper covers) were refreshed with new artwork.
Although western pulps have mostly vanished, giving way to the rise of paperback novels, comic books, and ultimately television, crime pulp is making a comeback, complete with lurid covers (http://www.hardcasecrime.com/index.shtml), and the sub-genre, lesbian pulp, is also making a comeback, driven by recent academic interest.
The dime novels and the pulps transformed the publishing industry by reaching a large mass market. They also impacted American culture, providing heroes and landscapes that were particularly American and giving readers a sense of national identity.
Early Western Novels
Two early writers of westerns, Owen Wister and Zane Grey, helped define and perpetuate the myth of the western frontier and the western hero.
In his novel The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (1902), Owen Wister set the standard for the western hero of the American frontier. His cowboy hero is a rugged individualist who survives the frontier by his wit and skill. He is a white man of few words, but relentless in his quest, deliberately reminiscent of the knight errant in chivalric romances. He lives by a macho code of honor, his primary traveling companion is his horse, and he shuns the confines of “polite” society. Wister called this hero a natural nobleman with racial and cultural ties to the Anglo-Saxon. In his essay “The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher” (Harper’s Monthly, 1895), Owen Wister described the western hero in this way: “In personal daring and in skill as to the horse, the knight and the cowboy are nothing but the same Saxon of different environments.”
The theme of conquest—of the land and its inhabitants—is an integral theme of western fiction. The cowboy’s prowess is pitted against an unforgiving landscape and involves his ability to bend nature and the indigenous people of the west to his will. The setting with sweeping mountain and desert vistas makes this a particularly American version of the chivalric romance. The terrain and its inhabitants are hostile, and violence runs through both like a river. Just as the knights-errant in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur display their prowess in bloody battles, the cowboy hero of the American West establishes his superior strength and skill in shootouts and vigilante justice.
The Virginian was twice adapted as a film (the first one made Gary Cooper famous) and also aired as a television show. The novel lent a famous line to the national vocabulary: “Smile when you call me that” (though in the novel, the sentence is “when you call me that, smile”). Westerns have been a staple of film production since the very beginning of film.
Although Wister loved the idea of the romance of the western frontier, he ultimately became disillusioned with the “real” west. As Castle Freeman Jr. says in his article “Owen Wister: Brief Life of a Western Mythmaker: 1860–1938,” Wister had believed “a new kind of American would be produced by the simplicity and rigor of life [in the west]: an honorable, chivalrous, high-minded natural aristocrat not unlike the Virginian. Instead he found his beloved Wyoming increasingly overrun with what he disdainfully regarded as the rabble of an excessive democracy: populist politicians, traveling salesmen, rebellious workers, unassimilated immigrants, and tourists.” This encroachment of progress and civilization on the frontier became a theme in many subsequent works of western fiction.
A prolific western writer, Zane Grey wrote over ninety books and became one of the first millionaire writers in the United States. Along with Wister, Grey shaped the mythology of the American West and the western hero. He took Wister’s cowboy hero and turned him into a gunslinger. Lassiter, the hero in Grey’s best-selling novel, Riders of the Purple Sage (published in 1912), is an expert gunman, feared by the criminal element and spoken of in awed tones by the general citizenry. Like Wister’s hero, the gunslinger is relentless in his quest—a man of few words who survives the frontier on his own terms.
Grey made the western landscape such a dominating element in his work, that it was as much a character as a setting. Unlike Wister, Grey did not become disillusioned with the western frontier. His nostalgic idealization of the western landscape endured, and he continued to write about it into the twentieth century.
In Riders of the Purple Sage, Grey tells the story of a Mormon woman and her battle against the church elders who want her land, her wealth, and her submission. It’s interesting to note that in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Study in Scarlet (published in 1887), the plot also revolves around the American West and the powerful Mormon Church, lending the mystique of the Wild West to the already popular Sherlock Holmes novels in England.
Zane Grey went on to publish many more western novels, and his works were made into over one hundred films as well as a television series. Riders of the Purple Sage was made into five films:
• Riders of the Purple Sage (1918), starring William Farnum and Mary Mersch (silent film)
• Riders of the Purple Sage (1925), starring Tom Mix and Mabel Ballin (silent film)
• Riders of the Purple Sage (1931), starring George O’Brien and Marguerite Churchill (first sound version)
• Riders of the Purple Sage (1941), starring George Montgomery and Mary Howard
• Riders of the Purple Sage (1996), starring Ed Harris and Amy Madigan
Continuing the Tradition
In Whispering Smith, Frank Spearman continues the tradition of the western hero in his title character Gordon “Whispering” Smith. Like Grey and Wister’s hero, Smith is a man of few words; there is an aura of superhuman ability about him, and he is a legend in his own time. His name and the rumors of his exploits serve to intimidate the criminal element, and the law-abiding citizens are in awe of his prowess. Spearman also uses the backdrop of the western landscape as the setting for his novel, but adds a new element, the building of the railroad and the hardships it entailed. There is an elegiac quality about Spearman’s novel. Both Whispering Smith and his adversary, Sinclair, must deal with the changing face of the western frontier. Though they both work for the railroad and have furthered its progress in the West, the railroad itself signals the end of a frontier. The sweeping vistas grow ever smaller due to the inevitable progress of the railroad. The elegiac quality echoes Owen Wister’s lament of the loss of the frontier. In “The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher,” Wister says, “Since Hawthorne, Longfellow, and Cooper were taken from us, our flippant and impoverished imagination has ceased to be national, and the rider among Indians and cattle, the frontiersman, the American who replaces Miles Standish and the Pathfinder, is now beneath the notice of polite writers.”
The “Literary” Western
First published in 1940, Walter van Tilburg Clark’s The Oxbow Incident is an example of a literary western novel—that is, not a mass-market work. Clark’s novel presented the American West and the western hero in a very different light. The novel focuses on the violence inherent in the history and mythology of the West. Clark tells the story of a lynching and the subsequent guilt and regret exhibited by Art Croft who participated in it. Croft, the narrator of the novel, and the reader both undergo the same epiphany, which involves ultimately coming to terms with the violence and vigilante nature of the lynching, seeing it not as heroic but as something to be overcome. Daniel Davis Wood sums it up in his review of this book, saying that only “when the human being inside the narrator overpowers the animal whose instincts led him to join the pack” can one begin to understand how violence dehumanizes us. Only with this understanding, can the narrator (and the reader) begin the “journey toward apology and feeble restitution.” This novel provides an alternate view of the violence that permeated the settlement of the West, one that forces the reader to reconsider what constitutes a hero and social values.
Western comics were popular from the 1940s through the 1960s. Marvel Comics flourished, producing such works as Kid Colt Outlaw (1949–1979), Rawhide Kid (1955–1957), and Marvel Wild Western (1948–1957). DC Comics followed Marvel’s lead, producing All-Star Western (1951–1961) and Western Comics (1948–1961). A syndicated comic strip was also popular from 1938–1964. The strip was called Red Ryder; it first appeared in Dell Comics, and then was syndicated, appearing in hundreds of newspapers throughout the United States. The heroes of the comic books carried on the tradition of Wister and Zane Grey’s western heroes, although the hero of Red Ryder offered a character twist in that he did not aim to kill the bad guys, but merely to disarm them and bring them to justice (“Western Fiction,” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia).
Contemporary Western Novels
Louis L’Amour is probably one of the best-known writers of western novels. Although he was a popular success, both in the States and internationally, his fiction is generally formulaic, showing the traditional western hero taking on a brutal landscape as well as brutal foes, but ultimately winning the day and the heroine—truly examples of a Romantic tradition with marriage and harmony at the end. By the time of his death in 1988, he had published over a hundred works that included novels, short stories, and nonfiction.
Other Western authors of note include Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove), Cormac McCarthy (All the Pretty Horses), and Elmore Leonard (The Bounty Hunters). Leonard started out writing western novels but switched early on to the detective novel because they were more profitable, and the western market was fading. However, Elmore Leonard’s short story “Fire in the Hole” has currently been adapted for television. The show, titled “Justified,” takes place in a modern-Old West setting and features a shoot-fast, cowboy-hat-wearing U.S. Marshall (http://www.fxnetworks.com/justified).
Decline and Fall of the Western
The popularity of western novels began to decline in the late 1980s, and by the 1990s, bookstores carried only a few of the better-known writers. Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, there have been spurts of resurgence, particularly in films such as Dances with Wolves (Kevin Costner) and the more recent Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino), but the western genre has fallen far from the popularity of its early days. Will it be revived again? It’s hard to say. The picture of the American West that lingers in the popular culture is the one introduced by Owen Wister. It’s a romanticized version of American history, one that is particularly American in flavor due to the vastness of the western landscape, the challenges it presented, and the sense of freedom it offered.
The Wister image of the West is the one we would like to embrace as a culture. It provides us with our own national identity and our own self-sufficient, rugged, bigger-than-life hero, the quintessential American individualist. However, as a nation, our age of innocence is over, and as we stumble around in the vastness of the American landscape via western fiction, we cannot help but note that our society was built on violence and the marginalization of minorities and indigenous people. Like the hero in The Oxbow Incident, we are no longer able to see such violence as heroic but as something to be overcome. Wister’s elegiac sense of loss is of a dream not a reality.
Note: All media files are in the Public Domain of the United States.
The Railroad Man’s Magazine: http://www.pulpmags.org/PDFs/RRM_1909_10.pdf
Western Story Magazine: http://www.pulpmags.org/PDFs/WSM_1922_11_25.pdf
Owen Wister, The Virginian: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1298
Zane Grey, Riders of the Purple Sage: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1300
Western Fiction April 9, 2013: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_fiction
Complete List of L’Amour titles: http://www.louislamourcollection.com/features/complete_list.pdf
Bibliography and Works Cited:
Belk, Patrick. The Pulp Magazines Project. University of West Florida. July 2011. Web. .
Freeman, Castle , Jr. “Owen Wister: Brief Life of a Western Mythmaker: 1860–1938.” Harvard Magazine. (July–August 2013). Web. .
The James Fenimore Cooper Society. “About Cooper’s Writings.” Updated February 2012. .
LeBlanc, Edward T. “A Brief History of Dime Novels: Formats and Contents, 1860–1933.” Pioneers, Passionate Ladies, and Private Eyes: Dime Novels, Series Books. Philadelphia: The Haworth Press. 1996. 13–21. Print. Google Books. Web. 18 July 2013.
“Western Fiction.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Web. 9 April 2013. .
Wister, Owen. “The Evolution of the Cowpuncher.” Harper’s Magazine, September 1895. Web. .
Wood, Daniel Davis. “Clark’s Quiet Masterpiece.” December 29, 2012. Web. .