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Why Americans love Wild West novels

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January 6th, 2017
The Western got its start through dime novels that published highly-embellished tales and illustrations.
The Western got its start through dime novels that published highly-embellished tales and illustrations.

There is something about the Old American West that has, for years, enthralled people around the world. For some, it’s the freedom inherent in the open landscape; to others, it’s the sense of danger and excitement associated with its untamed, even lawless, atmosphere.

Whatever their reasons may be, audiences have been fascinated by Westerns since explorers and settlers first made a push toward the Pacific in the early nineteenth century. 

As a literary genre, Westerns are almost invariably character-driven. They typically follow the adventures of principled, maverick protagonists.

The lion’s share of these characters are unconventional heroes struggling to survive in an uncivilized setting. Sometimes they’re in pursuit of revenge; other times, it’s justice.

All of them have the grit, tenacity, and devil-may-care attitude that so many readers wish they themselves possessed—that vicarious element of fantasy that makes fiction addictive.

Real-life influence

Ironically, Western fiction got its start by borrowing from real, larger-than-life personalities such as Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickok, and Buffalo Bill. In the 1870s and 1880s, when these men were roaming the West, dime novel publishers built fantastic stories around them, often turning cold-blooded murderers into misunderstood crusaders akin to Robin Hood.

In 1881, publisher Frank Tousey created a veritable bonanza with his pulp periodical Wide Awake Library. In August of that year, he devoted an entire issue to a “biographical” narrative entitled “The True Life of Billy the Kid.”

Similar quasi-journalistic depictions focused on outlaws Frank and Jesse James, selling hundreds of thousands of copies to readers hungry for heroics and intrigue. These stories were little more than myths, which is why so many students of the Western novel trace its origins to these sources.

Of course, rarely if ever did anyone consider such publications part of the literary establishment. Not until the turn of the century did the publishing world give audiences what is widely considered to be the first example of serious Wild West literature. 

In 1902, Macmillan released Owen Wister’s The Virginian. The story of a cowboy on a Wyoming ranch, Wister’s novel incorporated all of the features that would go on to typify the genre: portraits of life in the West, romance, action, and bravado.

And with this book’s success, the floodgates opened. 

In the years to come, a parade of Wild West novelists streamed forth, Zane Grey being foremost among them. His Riders of the Purple Sage (1912), in which a Mormon woman seeks help from a gunfighter to escape her community’s polygamist grasp, was instrumental in further solidifying the Western formula.

A number of Grey’s contemporaries also found great success, including Ernest Haycox and Louis L’Amour (who wrote under the penname Tex Burns). By the 1950s, Wild West novels and short story periodicals were staples among avid fiction readers, strengthened in part by movies and, subsequently, the rise of television. 

Up-and-coming authors such as Elmore Leonard made their bones writing Westerns. To this day, his “Three-Ten to Yuma” (1953), originally published in Dime Western Magazine, is a literary gem that Hollywood has twice adapted to the big screen.

This short story follows a deputy tasked with escorting a prison-bound outlaw to the station in time for his train’s 3:10 departure. Once again, it had all of the qualities that readers loved in Westerns: action, suspense, lots of guns, and characters who willingly went against the odds.

Other authors continued to employ these ingredients to maximum effect; especially Alan LeMay, whose novels The Searchers (1954) and The Unforgiven (1957) attracted the attention of Western film luminaries John Ford and John Wayne.

In the early 1960s, Western literature met with competition from newer genres like the spy novel. Even so, the Wild West’s readership remained loyal, and despite what some scholars say, its drop in popularity was negligible.

Indeed, some of the greatest Western novels had yet to appear. 

In 1968, Charles Portis released his classic work True Grit, the chapters of which were serialized in the pages of the Saturday Evening Post. And in 1975, Glendon Swarthout published his magnum opus, The Shootist

Both were made into films starring John Wayne. 

Author Larry McMurtry likewise proved that late twentieth-century readers still craved Westerns with a vast collection of novels consisting of his four-book Lonesome Dove series, as well as fictionalized biographies of Billy the Kid, Calamity Jane, and Cherokee warriors Zeke and Ned. 

The fact is Westerns are here to stay and for a variety of reasons. 

They are part of the American story, throughout which more than a third of this country was settled. More importantly, though, Westerns appeal to our natural appetite for adventure, and that’s not likely to change any time soon.


Selected bibliography of Western novels

The Virginian (1902), Owen Wister

Riders of the Purple Sage (1912), Zane Grey

The Ox-Bow Incident (1940), Walter van Tilburg Clark

The Big Sky (1947), A.B. Guthrie, Jr.

The Way West (1949), A.B. Guthrie, Jr.

Shane (1949), Jack Schaefer

The Searchers (1954), Alan LeMay

The Whip (1956), Luke Short

The Unforgiven (1957), Alan LeMay

Flint (1960), Louis L’Amour (aka Tex Burns)

High Lonesome (1962), Louis L’Amour (aka Tex Burns)

True Grit (1968), Charles Portis

The Shootist (1975), Glendon Swarthout

Lonesome Dove series (1985–1997), Larry McMurtry

Deadwood (1986), Pete Dexter

Dances With Wolves (1988), Michael Blake

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