Introduction (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
The Western genre is rooted in the fertile soil of nineteenth century popular American literature. Among its antecedents are the Leatherstocking Tales of James Fenimore Cooper, a series of five novels of the American frontier featuring a self-sufficient and morally incorruptible backwoods character named Natty Bumppo, who is considered America’s first literary hero. Though Cooper was ultimately ambiguous about the meaning of the frontier in American life, he clearly demonstrated that frontier materials could sustain serious literary consideration and that the frontier’s pristine beauty, the savagery of its conflicts, and its colorful inhabitants could have immense popular appeal.
After Cooper came the House of Beadle and other dime-novel publishers, all ignoring the serious cultural questions that Cooper could at least identify, if not resolve. For the most part, the dime novels were cynically commercial in intention, with scant regard for all but the most lurid themes, episodes, and personalities in frontier history.
In addition, the Western was indebted to the local-color movement of the late nineteenth century, of which the works of Bret Harte are among the most familiar examples. Although the local colorists, by definition, failed to find in their materials matters of general cultural importance, they demonstrated the popular appeal and the literary validity of close attention to local and regional folkways, the distinctive...
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