Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Western, contrary to the mainstream novel of the American West by authors like A. B. Guthrie Jr., Ole Rölvaag, Willa Cather, and Edna Ferber, is a mass-produced subgenre of popular literature rigidly defined by a formulaic plot, conventional characters, and its setting in the Old West, a semimythical place and time in American history. Rather than describing the settlers' psychological and spiritual relationship to the land or giving a realistic picture of a particular region of western America, the Western is a nostalgic adventure novel, drawing on the dialectic struggle between savagery and civilization, law and lawlessness, and East and West at an imaginary, epic moment when the two opposing poles were believed to be in a precarious balance. Thus the Western is set predominantly in the Great Plains and in the mountains and deserts of the Southwest during the second half of the nineteenth century. According to John Cawelti, the Great Plains is a particularly appropriate setting for the Western because of the region's openness, its inhospitableness to human settlement, its extremes of light and climate, as well as its grandeur and beauty.

The Western traces its roots to the romantic novels of James Fenimore Cooper, notably, his Leatherstocking series, which deplores the relentless eradication of the "savage but noble" Native Americans through the onslaught of European American civilization. This romantic sympathy for the Native Americans soon gave way to the crude juxtaposition of settler and savage in the dime novels of the 1860s and 1870s such as Edward Ellis's Seth Jones; or, The Captives of the Frontier (1860). In Edward L. Wheeler's Deadwood Dick on Deck (1878), set in the Black Hills, Indians no longer exist even as an opposing force.

The basic formula for the contemporary Western derives from two sources: semifactual accounts of the life of cowboys such as Andy Adams's The Log of a Cowboy (1903), a fictional diary of a cattle drive from Texas through the Great Plains to Montana, and Owen Wister's The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (1902). Set in Wyoming in the 1870s, The Virginian introduced to the genre the cowboy hero, the tenderfoot narrator, the Code of the West, the climactic shootout, and the young schoolteacher from the East who tries to civilize the hero but ends up being converted to his Western values in the end. The Virginian was written at a time when the frontier was declared closed, when it became clear that American society in the twentieth century would be inescapably secular, urban, and industrial, when gender roles were becoming increasingly blurred, and when waves of immigration from Europe began to change the ethnic composition of the country. Wister's nostalgic glance back at a time and place when these trends might still have been reversed as well as his admonition that the basic values of the Old West must be preserved to guide the country in the right direction struck a responsive chord in a large segment of the population.

The result was countless formulaic imitations of the basic ingredients of The Virginian, notably by Zane Grey, Max Brand (pen name of Frederick Faust), Ernest Haycox, and Louis L'Amour. Directing their novels initially at the readers of pulp magazines, these writers reduced the plot of The Virginian to a heroic adventure formula with a limited number of variations: the conflict between ranchers and settlers or between cattlemen and sheep men, the story of the cowboy turned gunfighter, the conflict between cavalry and Indians, adventures accompanying the construction of the transcontinental railroad, and the former outlaw-turned-marshal haunted by his past, all revolving around a love story. These "romantic" Westerns reaffirm the dominance of male-dominated western values such as monogamous love, instinctive rather than institutional Christianity, a patriarchal family structure, and the justified use of violence in defense of these values. Females are civilizers and therefore initially hostile to this code of behavior, but they are always converted to accepting the male view in the end. Thus Wister's attempt to represent the allegorical forces vying for dominance in a future American society was reduced to a formulaic erotic struggle between a western male and an eastern female.

This nostalgic fantasy of the victory of male western values became more and more unsustainable as the vision of the Old West was blurred by the counterimage of contemporary urban, industrial society. In the 1950s the tone of the Western became darker and more cynical, the young cowboy heroes giving way to jaded older men, mainly sheriffs and marshals, confronted with an apathetic population, increasingly organized villains, and more ambiguously virtuous women. The optimistic "myth of foundation" of the romantic Western gave way to the "myth of transition," the need to save what could be saved of traditional western values in a modern world that has lost its way. This view is mainly expressed in the classic Western films of the period, notably High Noon (1952), Shane (1953, based on the novel by Jack Schaefer), John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and Cheyenne Autumn (1964, based on the novel by Mari Sandoz).

In the second half of the twentieth century the classic formula of the Western came under pressure from the counterculture of the 1960s and the revisionist New Western historians. Minority groups and women began to claim their rightful place in western popular fiction, and former heroes of the West were now cast in the role of villains, as can be seen in Thomas Berger's Little Big Man (1964) and the 1990 film Dances with Wolves.

Although the traditional popular Western has been in decline in print, in film, and on television after its heyday in the 1950s, it is too early to pronounce it moribund, as some commentators have done recently. If anything, the Western is moving away from its formulaic, ultraconservative past to become a part of the more sensitive, diverse mainstream of literature about the American West, as evidenced by the novels of Larry McMurtry (Leaving Cheyenne, 1962; Lonesome Dove, 1985) and Elmer Kelton (The Day the Cowboys Quit, 1971; The Man Who Rode Midnight, 1987). But for aficionados of the more formulaic Westerns, there are the excellent, historically well-researched Plains Western series of Terry C. Johnston (some thirty novels in his Plainsman series), Richard S. Wheeler (his Barnaby Sky series, which focuses on Plains Indian cultures), Tabor Evans (the prolific author of the Longarm series), and Harry Combs to ensure the continued viability of the most American of literary genres.

See also FILM: Dances with Wolves ; Westerns.

Franz G. Blaha University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Cawelti, John G. The Six-Gun Mystique. Bowling Green OH: Popular Press, 1971.

Durham, Philip, and Everett L. Jones. The Western Story: Fact, Fiction, and Myth. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1975.

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