The Western

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The formulaic story of the American West, set in a symbolic landscape or on an imaginary frontier, evolved throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the most basic sense, to be sure, as John Cawelti explains, "A Western that does not take place in the West, near the frontier, at a point in history when social order and anarchy are in tension, and that does not involve some form of pursuit, is simply not a Western" (Six-Gun Mystique, p. 31).


The first wave of western American narrative consisted of books of western exploration and travel, such as The History of the Expedition (1814) of Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) and William Clark (1788–1869) and Washington Irving's A Tour of the Prairies (1835), and the frontier romances of James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851) and Emerson Bennett. From the first, writers of fiction idealized or romanticized the West. Cooper wrote the most "western" of the Leather-stocking Tales, The Prairie (1827), set on the plains of modern-day Nebraska, for example, while living in a Paris hotel. He gleaned details of western topography from the history of the Lewis and Clark expedition and he loosely modeled his prototypical western hero Natty Bumppo on Daniel Boone. In Cooper's West, Bumppo may enjoy anarchic freedom, but he is also unsuited to live in the settlements. The "American Adam" in the New World Garden is simply unassimilable, at home only in the untracked forest or alone on the prairie.

The next wave of western narrative occurred in the late 1860s and 1870s and was spearheaded by such writers as Bret Harte, Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, and Joaquin Miller—writers who actually lived in the West and were the first to exploit its local color. In "The Rise of the 'Short Story'" (1899), Harte (1836–1902) reminisced that the discovery of gold in California in 1848 "had drawn to the Pacific slope of the continent" a "heterogeneous and remarkable population. . . . Add to this Utopian sim plicity of the people" the "magnificent scenery, a unique climate, and a vegetation that was marvellous in its proportions and spontaneity of growth," and the western writer enjoyed "a condition of romantic and dramatic possibilities" that was "unrivalled in history" (Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Writings, pp. 254–255). To be sure, as Harte complained in 1867, California contained "more writers than readers; more contributors than subscribers. Our population contains more than the average proportion of undeniably clever men, but we lack that large middle class of mediocre but appreciative folk who form the vast body of Eastern readers"(Bret Harte's California, p. 40). Harte understood from the first that the success of all western writers in the 1860s and 1870s would depend upon their sale in the East. In fact, by mid-1870, the end of its first year of publication, the Overland Monthly, published in San Francisco and edited by Harte, sold as many copies in the eastern United States—transported via the new transcontinental railroad—as in the states of California, Nevada, and Oregon. In brief, in such comic/pathetic western tales as "The Luck of Roaring Camp" (1868), "Tennessee's Partner" (1869), and "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" (1869) Harte proved the market for the literary West. Kate Chopin recalled how "The Luck" had "reached across the continent and startled the Academists on the Atlantic coast." Harte invented many of the characters now associated with the western: the roguish outlaw, the romantic and charming gambler, the surly stagecoach driver, the "fallen" but virtuous dance-hall girl, and the pretty eastern schoolmarm. He also pioneered the use of western dialect in his fiction, though he was never very skilled at rendering it. In the heyday of the popular western early in the twentieth century, both the Broadway play "Salomy Jane" (1907) and twenty-four movies, including the silent film "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" (1919) directed by John Ford, were based on Harte's stories.

Similarly, Harte's sometime friend and rival Mark Twain (1835–1910) tapped the growing popularity of the literary West in his satirical travelogue Roughing It (1871), which includes tall tales and imaginary episodes told from the point of view of a (at least initially) tenderfoot narrator. Twain's treatment of the West is at best ambivalent—his West, replete with desperados and confidence men, is as terrifying as it is entertaining. So far from presuming to offer a realistic or documentary account of the West, moreover, Twain interrupted his narrative at chapter 52—a technical description of silver mining in the Comstock—to invite the reader to "take this fair warning and skip, if he chooses"(p. 281). The decade of the 1870s was also noteworthy for the rise of western melodramas produced for audiences in New York and Boston, such as Augustin Daly's Horizon (1871), Ned Buntline's The Scouts of the Plains (1872), Harte's Two Men of Sandy Bar (1876), Joaquin Miller's The Danites (1877), and Bartley Campbell's My Partner (1879). These plays were popular spectacles on stage, featuring live horses and frequent gunplay and such exotic (stereo)types as redshirt miners, primitive Indians, inscrutable Chinese laundrymen, and decayed Spanish aristocrats.


The rise of the literary West during the latter third of the nineteenth century was also fueled by the burgeoning popularity of western dime novels such as Deadwood Dick on Deck (1878) and Buffalo Bill, the Buckskin King (1880) by pulp writers such as Edward S. Ellis, E. Z. C. Judson ("Ned Buntline"), Prentiss Ingraham, and Edward L. Wheeler. The earliest dime novels had been devoted to the Revolutionary War, though the focus gradually shifted to the West after the Civil War. "Of course," adds Merle Curti,

it was a highly colored picture of the West which hack writers painted for Easterners through the almost endless succession of stories about Texas rangers and cowboys, Nevada miners, California vigilantes, and Montana badmen. But through this medium the West entered into the consciousness of a large number of Americans and became for the first time a living reality. (P. 769)

Or as Cawelti notes, "During the heyday of the dime novel the western developed primarily as a form of adolescent escapism, complete with the simple moral conflicts and stereotyped characters and situations usually found in such literature" (Adventure, p. 211). These blood-and-thunder tales featured Indian wars, the Pony Express, buffalo hunts, and posses in search of desperados. They also mythologized the lives of two real-life westerners, Kit Carson and Buffalo Bill, the so-called king of the border men. As Henry Nash Smith adds, "the persona of Leatherstocking was endlessly repeated" in them (p. 105). Not until the 1880s, significantly, were dime novels written about "cowboys," originally a pejorative term, and even then dime novels about cowboys rarely contained any cows. These novels often also oversimplified the regional conflict of West and East by associating valiant heroes only with the West and villains (e.g., bankers, railroad agents, and corrupt politicians) with the East.

Several other writers for juveniles, among them Oliver Optic and Horatio Alger, also traveled to the West and penned sensational juvenile tales designed to compete with dime novels. Alger's popular Pacific Series—Joe's Luck (1878), The Young Miner (1879), The Young Explorer (1880), and Ben's Nugget (1882)—romanticized the California gold fields in purple prose, sold thousands of copies, and remained continuously in print until the 1920s. To be sure, the West also inspired some realistic writers during this period. Stephen Crane ridiculed dime novels in his stories "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky" (1898) and "The Blue Hotel" (1898). Such books as Mary Hallock Foote's The Led-Horse Claim: A Romance of a Mining Camp (1883), Hamlin Garland's Main-Travelled Roads (1891), Theodore Roosevelt's Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail (1896), Frank Norris's The Octopus (1901), Mary Austin's Land of Little Rain (1903), and Andy Adams's The Log of a Cowboy (1903) also realistically described various aspects of western experience (e.g., mining, farming, hunting, ranching), but none of these books enjoyed wide and sustained popularity. The West was rarely depicted realistically in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries because the "real West" simply did not sell.


No one was more aware of the limited compass of western fiction at the turn of the twentieth century than the novelist Frank Norris (1870–1902). "I have great faith in the possibilities" of the West as "a field for fiction," he wrote in 1899, but not "the fiction of Bret Harte . . . for the country has long since out-grown the 'red shirt' period" (Letters, p. 23). Norris mercilessly parodied Harte's "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" in "The Hero of Tomato Can" (1897). Only a few months before his death in 1902, Norris complained that instead of a body of respectable writing the West had inspired "the wretched 'Deadwood Dicks' and Buffalo Bills of the yellow backs" and writers "who lied and tricked and strutted in Pathfinder and Leather-Stocking series" (Essays, p. 1179).

Ironically, later in the same year Owen Wister (1860–1938), the so-called sagebrush Kipling, published his best-selling novel The Virginian in which he virtually invented the modern formula western. Rather than a lone pioneer in the tradition of Cooper's Bumppo or a projection of adolescent fantasies like Deadwood Dick, the Virginian was a new type of western hero, a cowboy in chaps and spurs who synthesized various cultural ideals—the southern myth of the cavalier and the western myth of the frontiersman, or western primitivism and eastern civilization. The Virginian incarnated or internalized the conflict between the lawlessness of the West and the order of the East; put another way, he was the avatar of a civilized West equally at home in the effete and sophisticated East. As Cawelti concludes, the classical western represents "a kind of foundation ritual. It presents for our renewed contemplation that epic moment when the frontier passed from the old way of life into social and cultural forms directly connected with the present" (Six-Gun Mystique, p. 73).

The new formula western also featured a recurring cast of characters. In addition to the hero, the ensemble included, on the one hand, savages and outlaws, and on the other, the agents of civilization endangered by them (townsfolk, ranchers, farmers, especially women, more especially eastern schoolmarms). In The Virginian, for example, the hero leads a posse charged with hanging a gang of horse thieves, and he woos and wins the hand of the Vermont schoolteacher Molly Stark Wood, all the while rising from cattle hand to foreman to ranch owner in the classical manner of the self-made American man. (As in the dime novels, however, he never seems to work. He is never portrayed as he shoes a horse, drives a cow, ropes a steer, brands a bull, or fixes a fence.) Many popular westerns included one other recurring character type: the horse. The measure of a westerner may be inferred from the way he treats his horse. A pitiful cowhand in The Virginian actually sells his horse Pedro to a rancher who then abuses him. In the shorthand of the western, both men deserve the reader's scorn. The later purveyors of the western rarely improvised on the formula Wister invented in The Virginian except at one point: their rugged heroes often ride off into the sunset alone. However clichéd it may be, such a conclusion at least shuns the cloying sentimentality of Wister's ending.

In brief, the new western hero epitomized by the Virginian was a type of ageless and "transcendent cowboy," a natural aristocrat of talent and virtue who both observes a code of personal honor and acts in accord with the will of the community. That is, Wister colored or idealized the character of the Virginian. He pictured the West through a soft lens and in muted light, much like Bret Harte in his popular early western tales. The Virginian was civilized and a civilizing agent, though he could also operate outside the law when necessary, as when he leads the posse that lynches the cattle rustlers. Whereas Cooper's The Prairie had depicted the West as an anarchic and uncivilized land, and whereas the dime novels and Beadle yellowbacks in the late 1870s and 1880s had sensationalized the West for purposes of vulgar juvenile entertainment, Wister set his "colonial romance" in a mythological West where the best women and men could rise as in the earliest days of the Republic. Or as Cawelti again observes, "Wister resolved the old ambiguity between nature and civilization by presenting the West not as a set of natural values basically antithetical to civilization, but as a social environment in which the American dream could be born again" (Adventure, p. 225). This theme of moral regeneration, often featuring an eastern dude or tenderfoot, was crucial to popular westerns well into the twentieth century. In this regard, the formula western invented by Wister resembles Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier thesis: Both Wister and Turner averred that the highest social values, particularly democracy, emanate from the frontier. Both considered the West a "safety valve" for alienated labor.

Of course, the formula western was also a popular fantasy of legitimated violence, attracting mostly though not exclusively an eastern male readership. In his essay "The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher" (1895), in fact, Wister had argued that the cowboy was the modern heir of the Anglo-Saxon knights of chivalry—a point echoed in the novel when the Virginian is called an "unrewarded knight" after rescuing Molly's stagecoach at South Fork Crossing—and so the obligatory gunfight was nothing less than a version of the medieval duel. Cawelti fairly contends that the figure of the vigilante gunfighter appealed to readers who were suffering a "sense of decaying masculinity" early in the twentieth century (Six-Gun Mystique, p. 58). For most of Wister's novel, for example, the Virginian observes a code of restraint, though his conflict with the villain Trampas is ultimately resolved by violence. Cawelti also notes a correlation between the popularity of the western and military adventurism. There has "always been an observable similarity between the pattern of justifying rhetoric used to defend American military policy and the Western drama," he states (Six-Gun Mystique, p. 84). With his phallic gun, the gunfighter-hero also mediates between the spontaneous sexuality of the outlaws and the repressed sexuality of the agents of civilization. In reality, as David Brion Davis has noted, there were "few women in the West in the Chisholm Trail days" and they "were of dubious morality." The western cowpoke "had to carry his thirst long distances, like a camel, and in the oases the orgies were hardly on a spiritual plane" (p. 117). On still another level, the formula western often restaged the Civil War, with a Southerner (a Virginian or more often a Texan) defeating a Yankee villain (a Southerner triumphing in the reenacted War) or marrying a Yankee ingénue (thus affecting a reconciliation of South and North disguised as a union of West and East) or perhaps even "saving the ranch" (by analogy, a Southern plantation without chattel slavery). In all, The Virginian was the best-selling American novel in 1902–1903; it was adapted by Wister to the stage, where it remained popular for a decade; it was made into five movies, including a silent film directed by Cecil B. DeMille (1914) and an early "talkie" (1929) starring Gary Cooper (1901–1961), and was broadly adapted in a 1960s television series; and it has remained continuously in print since its first publication. The novel also served to inspire a school of cowboy artists that included Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell.


Rarely were westerns only about the West. From the beginning, western narratives have also been vehicles for social and political commentary. From Fenimore Cooper to Gary Cooper and beyond, westerns have functioned as symbolic melodramas or political allegories. As Philip French has remarked, "The Western is a great grab bag, a hungry cuckoo of a genre, a voracious bastard of a form, open equally to visionaries and opportunists, ready to seize anything that's in the air from juvenile delinquency to ecology" (p. 24). James Fenimore Cooper introduces an environmental ethic in The Prairie: a family of squatters in the novel despoil the land. Joaquin Miller's The Danites and Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) exploit anti-Mormon prejudices by casting the Latter-Day Saints in the roles of villains. Harte's "Three Vagabonds of Trinidad" (1900) criticized imperialism and American empire-building after the Spanish-American War. More than any other pioneer of the genre, however, Wister helped turn the western into a form of topical comment. For example, his story "Em'ly" (1893) was a type of antifeminist parable, and his "The Game and the Nation" (1900) allegorizes the 1894 Pullman strike to condemn the strikers and their leader, Eugene V. Debs. Both stories were later folded into The Virginian. Other western writers depicted the West as an agrarian paradise ruined by the introduction of barbed wire. To be sure, the genre usually described migration or the conquest of the West exclusively from a white point of view with a predictable ethnological and nationalistic focus. Wister's novel, for example, ignores entirely the "buffalo cowboy" and the Mexicano, and Indians appear only offstage.

Over the years the western formula has gradually morphed into other forms of popular narrative, particularly science fiction ("Space—the final frontier"). Even Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan books were written according to the basic western formula save for a change of scenery (Africa instead of the West). The basic cast of characters remained the same: white civilizers or colonizers (the Anglo-Saxons), "savage" indigenous peoples (Africans rather than Indians), and bestial types (apes instead of outlaws). But none of those other stories was as popular as the horse opera during the first half of the twentieth century. Such writers as Grey, Eugene Manlove Rhodes, Emerson Hough, Charlie Siringo, Clarence Mulford, and hundreds of scriptwriters imagined the West along the lines Wister conceived. The actors William S. Hart and Tom Mix became the first Hollywood movie stars by playing western heroes on the silver screen. The formula western even infiltrated highbrow culture. In F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925), for example, little Jimmy Gatz inscribes his program for success on the flyleaf of a copy of Hopalong Cassidy, first published in 1907. Ernest Hemingway rewrote Bret Harte's "The Luck of Roaring Camp" in his tale "Indian Camp" (1924) and he befriended an aging Owen Wister. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, and John Steinbeck—to say nothing of contemporary writers Larry McMurtry, Wallace Stegner, and Cormac McCarthy—are the heirs of Wister's legacy and the western literary tradition in general.

See alsoDime Novels; Farmers and Ranchers; Frontier; Regionalism and Local Color Fiction


Primary Works

Twain, Mark. Roughing It. 1872. New York: Signet, 1962.

Wister, Owen. The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains. New York: Macmillan, 1902.

Secondary Works

Bold, Christine. Selling the Wild West: Popular Western Fiction, 1860–1960. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Cawelti, John G. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

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

Chopin, Kate. "The Development of the Literary West." St. Louis Republic, 9 December 1900, Sunday magazine, p. 1.

Curti, Merle. "Dime Novels and the American Tradition." Yale Review 26 (summer 1937): 761–778.

Davis, David Brion. "Ten-Gallon Hero." American Quarterly 6 (summer 1954): 111–125.

Etulain, Richard W. Telling Western Stories: From Buffalo Bill to Larry McMurtry. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.

Folsom, James K. The American Western Novel. New Haven, Conn.: College & University Press, 1966.

French, Philip. Westerns: Aspects of a Movie Genre. New York: Viking Press, 1973.

Fussell, Edwin. Frontier: American Literature and the American West. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1965.

Harte, Bret. Bret Harte's California: Letters to the Springfield Republican and Christian Register 1866–67. Edited by Gary Scharnhorst. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990.

Harte, Bret. The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Writings. Edited by Gary Scharnhorst. New York: Penguin, 2001.

Mitchell, Lee Clark. Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Norris, Frank. Novels and Essays. New York: Library of America, 1986.

Norris, Frank. Letters. Edited by Franklin Walker. San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1956.

Robinson, Forrest G. Having It Both Ways: Self-Subversion in Western Popular Classics. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993.

Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. New York: Vintage, 1950.

Tompkins, Jane. West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Gary Scharnhorst

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The Western

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