Still in the Saddle
Where the Western came from, and where it’s going
To hear some folks talk, you’d think the Western novel had already been consigned to Boot Hill. Heaven knows, they’ve had the hearse waiting out on the street almost as long as it’s been there for “the Novel” itself, and scarcely a month goes by without some highbrow critic or PC commissar taking turns to kick the body. By now we’re all supposed to see it as a genre approaching extinction, a racist, sexist, violent and stereotyped sub-literature with nothing whatever to be said in its defence.
The fact that the Western’s attackers claim it’s so lifeless makes one wonder sometimes why they feel compelled to keep hitting it over the head as hard as they do.
Then again, maybe they know what they’re not prepared to admit to the rest of us; that, far from having passed on to that great round-up in the sky, the Western novel is very much alive, and has far more going for it than the knockers would have us believe. Far from shrinking in on itself, it continues to develop and to explore fresh horizons. And while often portrayed as a parade of stereotypes and cliches, it is itself the victim of some extremely stereotypical thinking.
So what exactly is the Western novel? I write Western adventure stories that are shortish, action-packed, and hopefully exciting to the reader, and which are intended as enjoyable entertainment. While I and other authors like me try to instil a little factual background, and perhaps a more than surface study of characters and plot, these books are stories rather than histories; they do not pretend to be factual accounts, or major literature. This does not make them worthless, any more than the average detective or science fiction novel, which is often aimed at a not dissimilar readership. While it isn’t War and Peace, it’s a genre that includes a number of talented writers, and as such is a valid means of expression.
The “shoot-’em-up”, I feel, is an honourable calling, and an important segment of the Western novel as a whole — but it isn’t all of it! This truth appears to be lost on the “let’s bury the Western” brigade, who seem intent on cramming the entire field into a “shoot-’em-up” straitjacket.
In fact, the Western novel is a far broader and more flexible form than its critics appear to comprehend, and judging it by formulary adventure stories is about as bright as judging Science Fiction by Flash Gordon, or Charles Dickens by Victorian melodrama. It’s all part of the double standard that has the detractors throwing up their hands in horror at the “mindless violence” of the Western while turning a blind eye to the litter of corpses in Taggart or James Bond. Certainly, the writings of J.T.Edson and Louis L’Amour are Western novels; so is Shane, Tom Lea’s The Wonderful Country, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, Legends of the Fall and The Little House on the Prairie!
The outer edge of the Western extends to take in the Navajo detective novels of Tony Hillerman, Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, and the cross-genre satire of Joe Lansdale’s Razored Saddles. The phoney image of the Western as formula writing for old men in cloth caps is itself long overdue for the hearse in the street. While the genre is read by a minority audience, that readership cuts across the lines of age, race and gender, and the same is true of its writers.
The origins of the Western are as varied as its present. The form may be traced in embryo in the wilderness novels of Fenimore Cooper, whose characters faced elemental situations with heroism or philosophical resignation at the cutting edge of the frontier. Another strand may be found in the goldrush tales of Bret Harte and Mark Twain, based in large measure on their personal experience. The Luck of Roaring Camp and Roughing it introduced figures soon to become stereotypes (the whore with the heart of gold, for instance) together with a lively, deadpan humour that was to prove an integral part of later Western narratives.
A third and obvious ancestor was the spate of “dime novels” that began to appear in the cities back East during the 1850s. Produced by publishers like Beadle and Adams, these sensational, melodramatic tales of frontier derring-do described the adventures of fictional heroes and heroines, or presented the exploits of real-life Westerners in an incredibly exaggerated form. Their famous advertising campaign “Who is Seth Jones?” forestalled “Who Shot J.R.?” by a hundred and twenty years! The “dime novels” may be seen as a direct forerunner of the later “pulp” Western magazine stories, and the “shoot-’em-up” of our own day.
One important thread in the fabric, too often overlooked, is the female pioneer memoir, the earliest of which were being written while Fenimore Cooper was busy with The Last of the Mohicans. Writers like Mary Hallock Foote, with The Led-Horse Claim (1883) provided impressive examples of the West as seen from a feminine perspective, and Laura Ingalls Wilder became world-famous as the narrator of real-life frontier experiences in novels such as The Little House on the Prairie. The early 20th century saw a growing body of women, notably Willa Catha — a major novelist by any standard — who brought her own individual vision of Western life in Pioneers! and My Antonia. Further significant contributions came from Mary Austin (One-Smoke Stories), Bess Streeter Aldrich (A Lantern in Her Hand), and such early Western feminists as Meridel Le Sueur. Theirs is a tradition that continues into the present, and must be seen as a vital aspect of the Western novel.
The “Western” most readers think of nowadays is the type of novel codified by Owen Wister in The Virginian of 1902. An Eastern university graduate, Wister introduced the idea of “the Code of the West” (largely his own invention) and climaxed his novel with the first formal showdown gunfight between hero and villain on the main street of town. The image has influenced hundreds of modern Westerns, and has become a potent vision on film and TV screens.
The first Western film, The Great Train Robbery, also dates from the same period, and novel and cinema versions of Western narratives have transferred influences, since adding their own viewpoints and bringing the gospel to a wider audience. The Riders of the Purple Sage became a bestseller, while the Western magazine “Lariat” reacted to the Eastern influence with action tales by former cowhands like W.C.Tuttle, whose writings blended dime novel excitement with his own laconic brand of humour. By this time the Western was an international literature and a fully-fledged American myth. Long before the 19th century ended, the German Karl May had achieved fame in Europe with his Cooper-influenced Shatterhand novels, later to be the spiritual ancestors of the “Western” films.
In England, Oliver Strange began a thriving tradition with his Sudden series of the 1930s. There was no shortage of “shoot-’em-ups” as the Western galloped on into the 1950s and ’60s, but the flood of action tales was matched by a crop of gifted writers whose perceptions ran strong and deep. Jack Schaefer’s Shane etched the stark conflict of good and evil in a Western context, contrasting the violence with a memorable picture of the life of a pioneer farming community. Les Savage, Jr., in Treasure of the Brasada and Beyond Wind River used the Western to express a tragic vision with keen psychological insights, and British author John Prebble brought an individual slant to the form in Spanish Stirrup, The Buffalo Soldiers and My Great Aunt Appearing Day. Tom Lea’s poignant fable, The Wonderful Country, set amid the arid landscapes of the South-West, again has tragedy at its core, and lives in the mind. Dorothy Johnson, in stories like The Hanging Tree and A Man Called Horse brought a female eye to the traditional Western adventure, while elsewhere the pioneer line continued through Loula Grace Erdman, Edna Ferber, Dorothy Gardiner, and into modern times with Gwen Bristow, Jeanne Williams and the Western-located romantic novels of Janet Dailey.
The ’60s and ’70s saw the idealism of the Western challenged by a cynical generation weaned on the slaughter in Vietnam. Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man was a bitter, satirical attack on the U.S.Army’s massacres of Native American populations, while True Grit by Charles Portis poked gentler fun at the heroic lawman in pursuit of wrongdoers. Icons can always stand a certain amount of debunking, especially if they have feet of clay in the first place, but far from revealing the weakness of the Western novel, “spoofs” of this kind were — and are — an indication of its strength, as a target worth aiming at. And the best of the spoofs, like the aforementioned, came over as strong, well crafted Western narratives in their own right.
Cynicism hit rock bottom with the “Adult Western” series of the ’70s and early ’80s, ably written but depressing tales of sadistic violence and gratuitous sex, produced on both sides of the Atlantic. Edge, Apache, Crow and the rest provided the Clint Eastwood of the “Dollar” movies with some literary soul-mates, and shared the same amoral outlook. The best thing by far to emerge from this period were the Blade and McAllister novels of Peter Watts, writing as “Matt Chisholm”; probably the most accomplished of British Western writers, he brought humour, humanity and skill to an emotional wasteland.
Omens of a new kind of Western had appeared much earlier in the United States. In The Brave Cowboy Edward Abbey pits his cowboy anti-hero against modern society, and has him pursued across the desert landscape by cars and helicopters. His death, when he and his horse are mown down by a truck on the highway, is symbolic of the passing of an outmoded age. Larry McMurtry, in Horseman, Pass By (filmed as “Hud”, with Paul Newman) presents a similarly bleak picture of modern Western life, showing the ruthlessly efficient Hud triumph over the decent but ageing rancher Homer, the embodiment of an earlier West whose day is over. More of McMurtry later.
Contrary to received opinion, the West was a multicultural society, and in more recent years the lack of ethnic perspectives has begun to be addressed. The Native Americans, who suffered so badly at the hands of the invaders, had for many years to rely on well-meaning white writers to present their case. This, though, has changed for the better. Black Elk Speaks, John Neihardt’s translation of the recollections of an Ogalala shaman, published in1932, paved the way for several later accounts — both factual and imagined of the West as seen by Native American eyes. Forrest Carter, a Cherokee, brought his own approach to the action Western with The Rebel Outlaw Josey Wales, and presented a favourable portrait of Geronimo in Watch for Me On the Mountain. Robert Conley, a writer sharing the same Cherokee heritage, uses familiar Western storylines to explore relationships between the races in such novels as “Quitting Time”, and has often included a “detective” element in his work. Away from the “actioners”, other Native American authors have made striking individual contributions. Leslie M.Silko, in Ceremony, describes the collision of tribal Laguna ways with the industrial United States from the viewpoint of a mentally ill ex-serviceman, and follows him in his journey to renewal through the Laguna curing ceremonies. Her collection Storyteller blends poetry and photographs into a single vision, ancient stories and traditions mingling with European images on the page.
Scott N.Momaday won the Pulitzer Prize with House Made of Dawn, in which another Pueblo war veteran struggles to adjust to the conflicting cultures of his people and the outside. His Ancient Child reworks tribal myth and legend into the frame of a mainstream novel. Louise Erdrich, in Love Medicine, draws on her mixed white and Chippewa ancestry to depict the lives of families caught between the reservation and the adjoining cities. These writers are a world away from the Western action novels of Carter and Conley, but in a real sense they are part of a wider Native American tradition, and share more than a mere Western location in their novels.
The last twenty years have seen the emergence of a different kind of Western novel, and with it a new breed of writer. Novels, often of epic length and scope, have focused on America’s frontier history, and cast a more revealing light on the relations between the incomers and the original inhabitants. Dee Brown, who created a classic with Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, its Native American view of Western history taken from firsthand accounts of the dispossessed, and who in The Gentle Tamers examined the vital role of the Western woman, combines both perspectives in his fictional saga Creek Mary’s Blood. An epic work spanning five generations of a family of mixed white and Native American ancestry, it is presented through the eyes of Creek Mary, the family head, who comes to embody her people’s struggles and their endurance in a hostile world. A powerfully written novel whose exploration of the continuing merging of cultures makes nonsense of racist attitudes, it is matched by the same author’s Killdeer Mountain, where Brown finds a new angle on the Cavalry vs Indians scenario. By judicious use of multiple viewpoints, he presents differing accounts of two military actions — an apparent failure where a cavalry unit allows hostiles to escape, and a seeming success where an enemy chief is kidnapped by the soldiers — and leaves the reader questioning as to what really occurred, and whether the heroism and incompetence were all they appeared to be. History is written by humans, Brown seems to be never trust reported “facts” that are always capable of re-interpretation. For those of us who did not live through the events, there can be no room for absolute certainty.
Ivan Doig, in his magnificent McCaskill trilogy, depicts the first hundred years of his native Montana through the experiences of the Scottish immigrant McCaskill family. From the arrival of the first McCaskill to the centennial of 1989, Doig brings his epic landscape to life not merely through the wonderfully achieved individual characters, but also through the daily routines and seasonal celebrations of the farmers and herders and their loved ones. His is not the drama of the main street showdown — Doig dislikes action Westerns — but a striking portrait of his state and its people, viewed through their everyday social life. As such, English Creek, Dancing at the Rascal Fair and Ride With Me, Mariah Montana are outstanding works of fiction, and deserve to be much better known this side of the Atlantic.
It is unlikely that Doig would enjoy Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which contains scenes of shocking violence that probably even Sergio Leone would find hard to stomach. McCarthy, an accomplished, poetic stylist outside the Western field, here follows a group of scalphunters in their murderous journey across the South-West, describing their adventures in a powerful, intense and often disturbing prose. Action is harsh and relentless; no heroes versus villains, rather the exercise of brutal power and greed, and a total lack of feeling for the victim. The riders’ journey is chillingly recounted as they move through a smoking desert wasteland, dealing out death to all in their path.
Stark and extreme, Blood Meridian far surpasses the average “Adult Western” for violence, but leaves one strangely distant from the action; in the end, McCarthy’s characters are so repellent, it’s impossible to identify with any of them. All the Pretty Horses, a more recent novel, shows the same mastery of narrative while at the same time presenting characters more recognisable as human beings. Set in Texas and Old Mexico in the early part of the century (Shirley Temple comes in for a mention),it focuses on another young wanderer and his friend in their quest to an unknown country, and their return as veterans scarred by the knowledge they have gained. McCarthy explores the themes of love and betrayal, honour and disillusion with memorable skill, the momentum of his storytelling spinning itself across the page in long, continuous sentences. Violence is always present, but never usurps the depth and force of his psychological perceptions. All the Pretty Horses is an excellent piece of writing, and probably McCarthy’s best to date.
Larry McMurtry, a far better-known writer over here than either Doig or McCarthy, has been producing novels for the past thirty years, many of which have found their way to the cinema screen. His early work, typified by Horseman, Pass By and The Last Picture Show, viewed his native South-West as a limiting, restrictive environment fixed in the past, and unable to confront the modern urban way of life. Later novels such as Terms of Endearment and Desert Rose saw him move further away from the West to urban settings, but he has since returned with a series of epic novels which present the happenings and characters of the 19th century West with a more sympathetic, if unsentimental eye. Lonesome Dove, Streets of Laredo and their prequel Dead Man’s Walk follow the adventures of two Texas Rangers, Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call, from early youth to the onset of age and death. Both leading characters are shown as flawed, human figures rather than supermen, and many of their experiences end in defeat and humiliation. McMurtry displays a stark, unromantic vision of the West, leavened by humour and occasional pathos. He brings a past age to vibrant life, showing the rigours of a cattle drive, the grim nature of Indian warfare and the hardships of frontier existence while introducing his large and mobile cast.
Nor are Call and McCrae his only voices. Action is described from several female viewpoints, each recognisably individual. Frontier women like Clara Forsythe, Lorena and Maria Garza are presented as having their own importance to the narrative, while real-life Westerns such as gunman John Wesley Hardin and cattle rancher Charles Goodnight are integrated into the story not as “cameos” but as major contributors with definite voices and attitudes of their own.
The Lonesome Dove trilogy is without doubt an outstanding addition to the Western novel. McMurtry’s latest book, Zeke and Ned, again shows him at his best in a sympathetic account of the life and death of Cherokee outlaw Ned Christie, as recounted by his friend Zeke Proctor. McMurtry follows the tragic story from the accidental shooting that sets the inexorable wheel of fate in motion, to the final climactic battle as Ned defends his home-made fort against the forces of white man’s law. Co-written with screenplay writer Diana Ossana, Zeke and Ned is a striking picture of the Cherokee people and their efforts to adjust to the ways of the invading whites. McMurtry has carved his own inimitable niche in Western fiction, and appears to have much more to say. Jim Harrison, in a sequence of novels and novellas, most notably his Legends of the Fall and the later Dalva, investigates the Western past through modern characters with their roots in the frontier experience. The brothers of Legends of the Fall ride from their native Montana to enlist in the carnage of the Great War, taking with them their pioneer origins and ancestral guilts. Dalva, a woman of mixed white and Sioux blood, searches for her son as the genocide of the 19th century finds modern echoes in Korea and Vietnam. Using a strong, incredibly concentrated prose, Harrison studies aspects of individual love and loss while uncovering the dark underside of pioneer settlement — the robbery and eventual murder of the native inhabitants. His is a bleak, unforgiving vision of great individuality and strength, and merits serious attention.
Perhaps most unusual of all is the novella A River Runs Through It, which with a handful of short stories comprises the entire fictional oeuvre of the late Norman Maclean. A strongly autobiographical work, it is debatable how much of it is fiction and how much reminiscence, but there can be no doubting its evocative power as a picture of Montana and its people in the early decades of this century. The title story provides a poignant memoir of the narrator, his brother and their absent father, realised during the course of their fishing expeditions beside the river. A moving, perceptive study of Maclean and his family, it is at the same time an atmospheric recreation of a vanished world, where echoes of the frontier may still be discerned in the thoughts and visions of its main protagonists.
Another significant development of the past twenty years has been the rediscovery of the “private writings” of female Westerners as a literary resource. Letters, diaries and journals of pioneer women have brought a whole new dimension to the Western experience, revealing their major contribution to pioneer settlement, and providing an alternative account of past events. One of the best examples is Elinore Pruitt Stewart’s Letters of a Woman Homesteader, first published in 1914 and more recently filmed as Heartland, which gives a first-hand description of a frontier woman’s life in turn-of-the-century Wyoming. Private writing offers fresh insights into the nature of the West and its men and women, and further discoveries are doubtless yet to be made.
All of the aforementioned are gifted writers, each with a definite individual voice. They do not always subscribe to the same literary creed, and some would probably not recognise themselves as alike in any way. In a sense, all pigeonholing of this kind is convenient rather than accurate, and putting any writer into a set category is bound to be a simplification. This said, all the authors referred to are describing a particularly Western experience, and this is reflected in their outlook and the speech and thoughts of their creations. Most of their fiction could be fairly described as a historical novel, while Dee Brown and Ivan Doig might possibly be classed as writers of family sagas, but all of them may be regarded as Western novels. Some argument might be expended on whether or not Jim Harrison and Norman Maclean should be included — I think they should — but few can doubt that Lonesome Dove, All the Pretty Horses, Creek Mary’s Blood and the McCaskill trilogy belong there. They’re set in the West, describe incidents and characters from the Western past, and address classic Western themes. If they aren’t Western novels, then nothing is.
So, far from shrivelling, the Western novel continues to grow and to explore new territory. To do so, it has undergone considerable change, and often examines its origins from new and unexpected angles. Recent years have seen the development of the epic novel spanning several pioneer generations, the emphasis on social rather than military or political history, and the acknowledgement of ethnic and female perspectives on frontier life. In so doing, the Western novel has acquired some of the style and method of the historical novel and family saga, while retaining its own clear identity. No doubt it will change again, as every literary form has done when the need arises, but change is not the same thing as Extinction. As fact, and as myth, the American West continues to fascinate us, and that fascination is unlikely to pall in the future. It has nothing to do with racism, sexism or even violence; rather, it is the lure of the far horizon, the quest, the voyage of discovery, and the illusory hope of starting afresh in a new world. It’s what drew the pioneers over a century ago, and it draws us today. The West, as America’s own contribution to myth, now ranks beside the tales of King Arthur and Robin Hood, and in space-age clothing has long since gone into orbit as “the final frontier” of Star Trek.
Somehow, I don’t think it’s about to die just yet.
Now, if Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen would be good enough to get that hearse off the street, we can give the so-called patient a little air. He (or she) has plenty of riding to do before sundown.
Geoff Sadler lives in Shirebrook, Derbyshire, and works in the Local Studies Department of Chesterfield Library. As “Jeff Sadler” and “Wes Calhoun” he is the author of 23 Westerns published by Robert Hale, and in 1990-91 was editor of the 2nd edition of Twentieth Century Western Writers, published by St.James Press. A member of the Shirebrook Local History Group, he is compiler of three photographic texts on Shirebrook history, and is currently working on a history and “Who’s Who” of Shirebrook Football Club. His latest Western, Yaqui Justice, was published in August by Robert Hale (price £9-75).
(c) Geoff Sadler, 1997
First published in Solander: The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society, Issue 2, Autumn 1997.
Posted by Sarah Johnson