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Western: Lee Clark Mitchell

genre novel westerns wister

Few other fictional genres can rival the Western in popularity, for reasons not altogether clear. True, the characters are simple and familiar, plots are rarely complicated, and the setting is so consistently spectacular that it has lent its name to the genre (unlike any other). Yet why should the image of a horseman packing a gun so have fascinated a post-industrial culture? Perhaps an answer lies in the question itself. For just when industrialism had triumphed over rural culture, nostalgia buffed up the allure of a vanishing wilderness and the stalwart virtues associated with it. Readers looked to the wide-open vistas of the American West to imagine alternatives to office and factory life—alternatives in which one acted alone with integrity, resorting to quick violence to resolve the unfair delays of the law.

Owen Wister first combined the ingredients—appealing gunman, sullen villain, pert schoolmarm, high plains setting—into a mix that established the Western as a popular genre with the regulation shoot-out as plot climax. The Virginian (1902) remains among the best of the genre in its celebration of quick-wittedness as well as quick-draws. The novel raises issues pursued in countless subsequent Westerns, including most centrally the question of how to comport oneself as a man. Wister's inability to capitalize on his success with a sequel opened the field to others, led by an Ohio dentist named Zane Grey. Like other prolific authors, Grey was guilty of churning out unimaginative, highly formulaic novels that flooded a new pulp fiction and slick magazine market. But perhaps his most engaging novel was also one of his earliest and most popular, Riders of the Purple Sage (1912). In it, Grey exaggerates a number of features borrowed from Wister, including the idea of open landscape that revivifies those who escape from the East. Grey also embellished two other features that quickly became staples of the genre (though hardly exclusively): sex and violence. The heightened erotic charge between leather-clad men and competent women parallels the quickening emotional tension between heroes and villains, manifested in the frequent gunplay that has since become a signature of the genre. And the morbid conspiracies that regularly drive plot in page-turning suspense are mirrored in the dazzling, labyrinthine terrain through which characters lose their way. The Utah landscape all but becomes a character in the novel, and rarely thereafter does the genre ever forget where it is set.

If neither Grey nor Wister could match their own early successes, nor could many of the others writing for a mass readership in the first three decades of the century. There were notable exceptions, of course, including Eugene Manlove Rhodes's short novel, Pasó por Aquí (1927): a brilliant account of a bank robber escaping from pursuers, who stumbles across a west Texan family suffering from diphtheria, and reveals a quietly steadfast heroism in nursing them back to health. Even earlier, Stephen Crane wrote perhaps the finest Western story ever—'The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky' (1898)—ironically, something of an anti-Western that appeared before Wister had consolidated the genre. Crane evokes the strong sense of nostalgia that permeates Westerns, and of resistance to civilization's clock-time. The story's absence of a final shoot-out nicely reveals the extent to which expectations themselves create the genre more than actual events.

Exceptions like these, however, only define a more common rule among pulp writers like Max Brand and Ernest Haycox. Fast-paced action occurs in frontier towns where black hats are worn by rapacious landowners, weak lawmen, and avaricious businessmen, and where white-hatted heroes appeal to higher laws to right wrongs. Heroines misunderstand these attempts, often actively resist them, before realizing the ennobling efforts that draw them to heroes in the closing pages. The most accomplished of these writers is Haycox, who despite the pressures of churning out fiction at enormous speed, brought a greater degree of verisimilitude to the genre with such novels as Saddle and Ride (1940) and The Wild Bunch (1943).

During this period two authors took a more reflective stance towards the genre, questioning some of its staple elements in revisionist Westerns that are at the same time powerfully engaging novels (made into important films). Walter Van Tilburg Clark's The Ox-Bow Incident (1940) focuses on the premiss of Wister's The Virginian that taking the law into one's own hands is unavoidable in the Far West. The novel describes a vigilante hunt leading to a mistaken lynching, narrated in the unenthusiastic but obliging tones of one of the mob. Southern chivalry, admired by Wister, has become a cover for simple brutality, with innocent men hung and no cowboy hero appearing to right the affair. Clark's narrative triumph is to evoke the actual feeling of mob hysteria, encouraging the reader to want to cut through the novel's talk and get on with extra-legal action, as the formula prescribes. Alan LeMay's The Searchers (1953) succeeds equally as a novel but takes a different tack; instead of simply embracing Wister's conservative view of race and culture, LeMay registers a sceptical vision underlined through the slow transformation of pursuing Texans into the brutes they imagine the Cheyenne captors of Debby to be. Moreover, the novel becomes an exercise as much for the reader in decoding contradictory signs as for the searchers themselves, offering an exhilarating analogy in reading a Western of what it would be like to act in one.

The 1950s were the heyday for Westerns in film, television, and novels. Louis L'Amour, the most widely read author of Westerns, began publishing with the advent of the paperback revolution. Part of his success lay in his devotion to an apparently authentic West, teaching the reader about frontier facts and arcane lore in the process of educating his characters. This trademark surfaces as early as Hondo (1953), which stresses the humanizing bonds of family life and the crucial knowledge fathers must instil in sons. This theme is also dominant in Jack Schaefer's Shane (1948), which offers a classic rendition of the Western from the point of view of a child, infusing renewed urgency into the mysteriousness of villainous gunmen, the heroism of buckskinned Shane, and the grandeur of Wyoming vistas. In this period, Frederick Manfred is one of the few whose Westerns warrant continuing attention thanks to his historical sweep and more complex characters. Conquering Horse (1959) is the first chronologically of five novels that comprise the Buckskin Man Tales, set in the 1830s West, when a Sioux chief's son must go through a series of strenuous trials to achieve manhood and leadership of his tribe. Riders of Judgment (1957) closes the series, set in Wyoming's 1890s Johnson County wars.

The end of the 1950s saw a self-conscious turn from a genre some felt was so repetitious that it could no longer reinvent itself. Yet imaginative writers like E. L. Doctorow exploited that flaw, opening Welcome to Hard Times (1960) with a grotesque version of the ‘good man cleaning up the town’ that then leads to a vicious cycle of deadly regeneration and destruction, the novel ending with the same scene it began with. Larry McMurtry is the Western's most successful modern practitioner. His tour de force, the 1985 novel Lonesome Dove, is an engagingly rambling narrative of a cattle drive from Texas to Montana, encompassing Indian torture, ranger pursuits, and frontier escapades along the way. An equally stunning achievement is McMurtry's early Horseman, Pass By (1961), which strips away conventional romantic pretensions. The narrator comes of age in a rural Texas that cherishes older frontier values but finds them ineffectual against the bitter economic realities of modern ranch life.

Among contemporary authors, Douglas C. Jones has the finest lyrical sense of the West. Season of Yellow Leaf (1980) offers a moving narrative of a woman taken by the Cheyenne in the 1840s, who gives birth to their future leader. Gone the Dreams and Dancing (1984) is a sequel set in the 1870s, with the Cheyenne leader now searching for his mother, long ago recaptured by Texas Rangers. Roman (1986) recounts the experiences of a young man making his way in post-Civil War Kansas, eager to see buffalo and Cheyenne before they disappear and able through quick wits and masculine strength to build a fortune. One of the few contemporary authors equal to Jones in celebrating the old West is Frank Bergon. Shoshone Mike (1987) narrates the eerie revival of just that older West in 1911, in the conflict between an itinerant band of Indians and their white pursuers, all of whom realize their own belatedness.

Critics have long chided the Western for its historical inaccuracy, or its narrative improbabilities, or its predictable stockpile of characters. Yet the most striking feature of the Western is that imaginative authors continue to be drawn to the genre. Perhaps the old West persists in fascinating us because it embodies the last period when individuals seemed to control their own destinies—when social problems had a local face and a voice, and one might aspire without a trace of embarrassment to such recognizable virtues as integrity, honour, steadfastness, loyalty. Westerns define a landscape imbued with the potential for self-transformation. That combined attention to both past and future continues to capture our imaginations, as Westerns play out our own more intractable problems in vistas far removed from the present, resolving conflicts in a rhythm of restraint and careful violence that is at once familiar and infinitely varied.

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