During the summer between my fifth- and sixth-grade years, I had to go to the hospital to have my appendix taken out. While I was there, I read my first traditional western. I was ten going on eleven, and as I recall, the pediatric ward was full, so I was put in another ward to share a room with an old man (old to me, probably no older than I am now) who had stomach ulcers. Not having much in common with my roommate, and being a proficient reader, I turned my attention to the reading fare on hand. It was a novel called West of Abilene. For years after that, I had lingering memories of a few of its salient features.
It was a range-war kind of story, in which the main character, Johnny something, had to go up against a local baron who owned the town and all the surrounding country. Johnny was also stuck on a woman in the town—a beautiful, aloof woman whom all men adored. I would always remember the part in which the bartender told Johnny how he had seen men run a hand along a rail that the woman had touched.
Up until that time, I had read all juvenile material, such as Johnny Tremain, Old Yeller, countless Robin Hood stories, and numerous biographies of people such as Daniel Boone and Big Foot Wallace. But West of Abilene was my first actual grown-up book, and as such, it was a landmark for me. Years later, when I was studying British and American literature and reading Louis L’Amour on the side, I kept an eye out for it, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. When I was in graduate school, working on my doctoral dissertation on the classic western novel, I was able to track down the author’s name (Vingie Roe) and another book by her, but I still could not find the western I had read. Many more years passed, until one day I found an old used copy on an internet bookstore site. It cost me ten dollars for a musty old paperback that I was almost afraid to open for fear that it would fall apart, but within five minutes of unwrapping it, I found the part about the woman. The other features I remembered also checked out, but I focus on this detail about the feminine mystique because it represents a level of maturity in content.
In the course of my literary studies, which I have kept up as I have developed a career as a writer of contemporary and traditional western fiction, I have come across quite a few comments (from academics and literary elites) that relegate the whole genre of the popular western to the level of radio programs such as The Lone Ranger, Saturday matinées such as those with Gene Autry, and television westerns ranging from Roy Rogers to Gunsmoke. The general idea in this line of commentary is that the popular or paperback western is limited (read: immature, adolescent) in its vision. As I have gotten to know more about writers and publishers, I have seen that many people in the industry also consider the western to be less sophisticated than other genres.
Part of this condescension comes from the age-old prejudice against anything from the country, as if people from the city or people from the East have a better fix on life than people from the farms and ranches do. (Of course, country people delight in the reverse prejudice.) Part of the superiority also comes from the assumption that the western is written for a more basic readership than mystery or science fiction, for example. After all, say the detractors, the reading level for westerns begins at twelve to fifteen years old, and the story lines consist mainly of fistfights and gunfights.
Long before I dared to write a traditional western myself, I thought that this was an unfair general line of thought. I had read, and continue to read, westerns of various levels of seriousness in depiction of human character and in view of life. I have read some (not to mention any names) that consist mostly of swagger and violence, and while I don’t care for that kind of fiction, I don’t see where it is intellectually inferior to suspense stories in which characters shoot helicopters or cause massive train wrecks. And many westerns do not limit themselves to the most rudimentary kinds of conflicts.
What the traditional western has to offer, for those who choose to rise to the possibility, is a serious treatment of life. Like other popular genres, the western shows characters who are faced with problems that they must solve. While some writers have their characters deal with problems by knee-jerk reaction and physical force, others do have characters who think about problems and try to solve them with intelligence as well as courage. Granted, some writers do portray problems in a simplistic way, of all good versus all bad, with a predictable solution; but other writers show shades of relative good and bad, and some of them dare to show that life presents problems that are not easy to solve. For a few examples to illustrate classic western fiction that rises to a level of moral seriousness, I cite Conrad Richter’s The Sea of Grass, A.B. Guthrie Jr.’s The Big Sky, and Robert Roripaugh’s Honor Thy Father. There are many others, but these give an idea of the strain in classic fiction that I have in mind—a traditional story line but not a conventional treatment.
How an author creates and manages a conflict will reveal a vision of life. That vision, in turn, will be supported by other features that readers look for in fiction, such as setting and character. In a western setting, be it town or ranch or military post, the reader not only enjoys details from the time and place but also sees characters having to solve problems with the limitations of nineteenth-century technology. Those limitations, thoughtfully handled, show the timelessness of human problems and the need to be able to settle things on basic terms, without a great deal of outside help. Characterization, like setting, can offer the reader a view of life to appreciate. If there is one great lesson in the study of history and literature, it is that human nature does not change. People continue to make the same mistakes as they did a hundred or a thousand years ago. Many of the problems that people face today, and most of the personality traits we see every day, can be set down in an earlier setting and can be put into motion in a timeless conflict.
I myself get tired of braggart gunfighters pretty soon in a story, but if a writer could portray one of those fellows in a way that would universalize the mammoth egotism that one sees in, let us say, present-day professional athletes, then that western could rise to a level above clichés, and I could appreciate the insight. I also get tired of virtuous schoolmarm characters who seem to be taken from other westerns rather than based on a writer’s observation of life; but if a writer could portray one of these characters as a woman capable (or incapable) of passion or as a woman capable of moving men to unconscious acts of adoration, then I could feel as I did many years ago, when there was no room for me in the pediatric ward. I could feel that I was in an adult world. In terms of a grown-up reader, I could feel that I was participating in an author’s vision of life and that I was welcome to measure it against my own.
Although many westerns (like many other forms of popular entertainment) are chock full of mayhem, gratuitous sex, and formulaic plot patterns, the traditional western is open to intelligent treatment of human nature and life’s problems. In 1902, Owen Wister revitalized the western novel by bringing it into the realm of moral seriousness. Writers who have continued in that tradition have written the classics, and I am confident that writers who aspire to portray lifelike characters and to present an original vision of life will continue to fulfill the potential of the classic western.