Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Way West was A. B. Guthrie’s second major novel, following The Big Sky (1947), which had firmly established him as a writer of realistic Western novels having a thematic and psychological depth rarely found in the genre. Although many critics preferred The Big Sky because it re-creates the era of the mountain men rather than the familiar period of the wagon trains, it was The Way West that won for Guthrie the Pulitzer Prize in 1950. The later novels in his Western series have been less praised than the first two works, perhaps because as the American West gradually lost its epic scope, the novels themselves necessarily have become smaller in vision.

In his treatment of the conflict between civilization and the wilderness, Guthrie can be compared to Joseph Conrad, with whom he shares an ambivalence toward the primitive, recognizing its appeal but admitting its dangers, both physical and moral. Among American writers, Guthrie is often compared to James Fenimore Cooper, who shared Guthrie’s fascination with the wilderness, his love of untamed nature, and his tragic awareness that those who love the wilderness are the same people who join in taming and destroying it.

The incidents in Guthrie’s novels can be found in dozens of other Western novels. Many other Western novels, however, are merely adventure stories in which the good defeat the bad. Guthrie, who wrote the screenplay for the classic film Shane (1953), in his novels creates complex characters who make choices which are not easy and who, like Shane, must pay a price for every moral triumph. For that reason, A. B. Guthrie, Jr., is one of the most important Western novelists.