The Western Novel Analysis

Owen Wister and Zane Grey

Owen Wister (1860-1938), creator of the first genuine Western, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (1902), is not the kind of person one would ordinarily think of as the author of cowboy novels. Born into a wealthy Philadelphia family, Wister received the best education his day could offer, culminating in a degree from Harvard. Culturally sophisticated, Wister enjoyed close friendships with Henry James, William Dean Howells, and Theodore Roosevelt, and his abilities as a pianist impressed even Franz Liszt, for whom he played at Bayreuth. Talent and family connections did not bring happiness: Unable to find a satisfying career in either the arts or the tawdry business world recommended by his father, Wister suffered a nervous breakdown in 1885, for which his doctor prescribed a recuperative trip to Wyoming. During this vacation on the cattle ranch of a family friend, he became impressed with the fictional potential of the American cowboy and began the literary experimentation that would lead to creation of the Western novel.

The Virginian was not the first appearance of the cowboy in American literature. The local colorist Alfred Henry Lewis, several dime novelists, Wister himself as early as 1891, and others had featured cowboy heroes in novels and stories. However, it was Wister’s nameless Virginian who first provided just the right combination of colorful dress and speech, violent environment, and romantic potential to set the pattern for a new literary genre’s success.

The critical novelist James expressed admiration for The Virginian, and many readers with more simplistic preconceptions regarding Westerns are surprised at the sophistication of the novel. Although the novel is somewhat episodic because it grew in part from short stories, The Virginian’s two main plots—the corruption of Trampas from an honest cowhand to a rustler, which results in the lynching of the Virginian’s friend, Steve, and Trampas’s death at the Virginian’s hands in the famous walkdown; and the Virginian’s courtship of the eastern schoolmarm, Molly Wood—are complex and skillfully narrated. Critics have observed that, although a cowboy novel, The Virginian contains not a single scene in which cowboys actually work with “cows,” but such facile judgments do scant justice to the social and historical realism of the novel. The cowboy’s dress, language, customs, ethics, and humor, and the environmental imperatives within which he operates, are carefully depicted and assessed.

Wister’s literary output was not great, for he was not a prolific writer, and the West was only one of his concerns. Moreover, The Virginian is marred by much of the same confusion over the meaning of the West that had haunted Cooper: How can one relate the morally innocent—yet savage and violent—tenor of Western life to the culturally sophisticated, yet corrupt, East? The marriage of the Virginian and Molly indicates some sort of cultural accommodation, but in his final collection of Western stories, When West Was West (1928), Wister concludes that no such accommodation is possible.

As important as The Virginian was in the creation of the Western, no single work can create a genre, and it remained for Wister’s innumerable successors and imitators to develop, out of the materials provided by The Virginian, the Western formula. By far the most prominent of Wister’s early successors was Zane Grey (1872-1939). Grey’s family had figured with some significance in the history of the Ohio River frontier, and he was reared on tales of...

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Ernest Haycox and Louis L’Amour

Ernest Haycox (1899-1950), whom many critics consider the finest literary craftsman to emerge from the popular Western tradition, was one of a younger generation of writers who became popular during the heyday of Western fiction, 1930 to 1950. Like many of the older writers, he completed his apprenticeship in the pulp magazines, writing fast-moving Western romances with shallow characters and plenty of action. Like Faust, Haycox had serious literary aspirations, but unlike Faust, he wished to realize those aspirations through the use of Western materials. In several mature novels toward the end of his career, beginning with Bugles in the Afternoon (1944) and culminating in his posthumously published masterpiece The Earthbreakers (1952), Haycox demonstrated the resilience of the Western formula.

Bugles in the Afternoon, a fictional account of General George Custer’s Seventh Cavalry and the events leading up to its annihilation at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, is marred for many contemporary readers by its unabashed love for the military life. In spite of that, its main theme, how much the individual owes to the group, is extensively explored, and the depth of its realism, as seen in Haycox’s poignant descriptions of bleak North Dakota towns and of the Seventh Cavalry soldiers and their equipment, is memorable.

Haycox was born, reared, and educated in Oregon, and it was of Oregon, with its moldy, misty forests, succulent soils, and salty, windy estuary towns that he wrote most effectively. The three great novels of Haycox’s maturity, Long Storm (1946), The Adventurers (1954), and The Earthbreakers, are all set in Oregon’s lower Willamette Valley. The main theme of each of the novels is the endurance and gradual victory of idealism over forces of savagery and cynicism. The great peril of such a theme is sentimentalism, and one must acknowledge that Haycox is occasionally ensnared by it, particularly in the two earlier novels. Haycox, like Grey, never learned to make sin attractive enough to make victories over it appear genuine; his villains, such as the Southern sympathizer Floyd Ringrose in Long Storm, who clumsily tries to subvert Oregon’s strong Union commitment during the Civil War, are too often melodramatic caricatures. Ringrose abuses women and children, drinks too much, brags ridiculously, conspires ineptly, and fights poorly.

At his best, though, Haycox escapes the perils of sentimentalism. In The Earthbreakers, he places his hero, a former mountain man named Rice Burnett who has chosen to guide a wagon train to the Willamette Valley where he will stay and settle, in the midst of several characters representing various degrees of commitment to civilization and forces him to make genuine, often painful, choices concerning with whom and to what degree he will ally himself. Burnett has a yearning for civilization, though his love for the wild, free life of a trapper will not die easily or completely; still, defining what that civilization is, among the various choices available, is no easy matter. Burnett is an appealing hero, but he is a far cry from the superhuman gunslingers of much popular Western fiction and even from the overly idealistic characters of Haycox’s earlier books.

Haycox’s craftsmanship had a profound influence on popular Western literature. In 1952, a group of novelists, many of them Haycox disciples, founded the Western Writers of America (WWA). The WWA, which has grown steadily in size and sophistication, began publishing The Roundup, a monthly magazine with news, reviews, and articles on writing and the publishing business. The association also began making awards at each annual meeting for the best writing of the previous year in several...

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Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy

To some extent the Western novel has come into its own with its acceptance in the realm of real literature. Perhaps no contemporary writer of importance is more directly associated with the Western novel than Larry McMurtry. Born in 1936 in Wichita Falls, Texas, McMurtry earned degrees from North Texas State University and Rice University and did graduate work at Stanford as a Wallace Stegner Fellow. He entered the teaching profession as a creative-writing teacher at Rice but eventually turned to writing full-time, residing in Virginia, California, and Arizona before returning to his native Texas and settling in rural Archer City in 1986.

Although his earlier works, including Horseman, Pass By (1961; better...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Brown, Bill. Reading the West: An Anthology of Dime Novels. New York: Bedford, 1997. This anthology’s extensive introduction to the dime novel is most important to any student. The works themselves put everything into perspective.

Etulain, Richard W. Telling Western Stories: From Buffalo Bill to Larry McMurtry. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999. Cultural historian addresses how fiction has influenced the public’s images of the American West. Places Larry McMurtry’s work, for example, within a period of fiction about the West that exhibits increasing complexity and ambiguity.


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