"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Telling Western Stories

Telling it like it isn't

Telling Western Stories: from Buffalo Bill to Larry McMurtry by Richard W Etulain (University of New Mexico Press, 1999) is an interesting and enjoyable survey of how the story has been told since the West was wild. I bought my copy at the Colorado History Museum in Denver, I see from the flyleaf, on August 14, 2005. Just thought you’d like to know. But I’ve recently re-read it.
Worth reading
Richard W Etulain
Natty Bumppo and Dan’l Boone

We oater fans all love the Western story, whether it be as a novel, short story, comic, TV show or movie – or even, dread thought, in a history book. But of course it has gone through many different incarnations. We can perhaps trace its origins to James Fenimore Cooper and Daniel Boone.

I bracket those two names advisedly: Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales are set largely in the 1750s, when Boone was barely out of his cradle, but the most famous of the stories, The Last of the Mohicans, was published in 1826, six years after Boone’s death, and Natty Bumppo’s and Daniel Boone’s considerable fame were pretty well contemporaneous. And the two characters had, it seemed from the stories, much in common. John Filson’s book The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke (1784) contained a hugely popular appendix on the doings of Daniel Boone, The Adventures of Col. Daniel Boon (sic). Byron, among others, was entranced and Fenimore Cooper must have read it.

Boone’s influence was huge. He was the iconic hunter, pioneer and Indian fighter. Think how many trails, forests and counties are named for him. Timothy Flint’s Biographical Memoir of Daniel Boone, the First Settler of Kentucky (1833) was one of the best sellers of the century. Theodore Roosevelt founded The Boone and Crockett Club as a conservationist organization and The Sons of Daniel Boone were the precursor of the Boy Scouts of America. More recently, the Daniel Boone television series ran from 1964 to 1970. Of course, most of what was written or shown was pure nonsense but in a way that was the point. There is much of Boone in Natty Bumppo and together they were the prototypical ‘Western’ heroes.
Natty (looking a bit like Crusoe)
Personally, I don’t really ‘do’ Leatherstocking and Dan’l. They are too early and too Eastern. And Cooper is, to me, almost unreadable. Those books are so long! And turgid. The great Franz Schubert asked for Mohicans to be read to him on his death bed. If it had been me it would have finished me off. But perhaps it gained something in translation.

Davy Crockett too

Still, there’s no denying the power and seminal influence of the Cooper, Boone (and later Davy Crockett) stories in the Western myth. So much of the Western as we addicts understand it is about battling fearsome foes in a wild terrain to bring ‘civilization’ and settlement to the untamed frontier. That’s what Bumppo (fictionally), Boone and Crockett (semi-factually) did.

Buffalo Bill

Mr. Etulain passes on to the twin and overlapping influences of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and the dime novels.  He says that “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West did more than any other medium in the nineteenth century to synthesize pre-existing ideas about the frontier and to present them in an entertaining, extraordinary way.”
Telling it like they wished it was
And Cody’s influence started so early in the history of the West: if we define the mythic West as roughly the three decades following the Civil War (i.e. approximately 1865 to 95), already the Russian Grand Duke Alexis was being received on a hunting trip by a fancily-dressed role-playing Cody in 1872. Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok starred in the hugely popular Scouts of the Plains, in many Eastern cities, in 1873 – 74. The invented West was being gobbled up by Eastern audiences while the real one was going on. People were watching those absurd ‘Wild West’ shows while Jesse James was robbing his first train (July ’73) and well before Billy the Kid was even heard of (he was 14). Wyatt Earp hadn’t arrived in Dodge yet. Wild Bill hadn’t gone to Deadwood. The legend was taking root before the fact.

Well through the 1880s and 90s and into the the next century, less cynical and informed audiences than modern ones drank up the Wild West show’s attack on the settlers’ cabin, the assault by Indians on the Deadwood stage and Cody’s ridiculous - to us - reenactment of Custer’s last stand (Cody and his riders arrive, just too late to save the hero) and Cody’s scalping of Yellow Hand (“The first scalp for Custer!”) as unquestioned historical truth.

Dime novels

Some of the first dime novels were about Buffalo Bill. From 1860 on, the Beadle & Adams series sold in astonishing quantities and 75% of their output was devoted to frontier tales. Ned Buntline’s Buffalo Bill, the King of the Border Men was serialized from 1869 to 70 in the New York Weekly. Etulain tells us that more than 550 Buffalo Bill novels were published in the United States with about a fifth of them written by Prentiss Ingraham. Cody even wrote a few of them himself.
Edward L Wheeler’s character of the highwayman Deadwood Dick in the 1870s and 80s resuscitated the old idea of a hero forced outside the law because the courts and law-enforcement system are in the hands (and pockets) of the bad guys. Many other heroes or, in the case of Calamity Jane, heroine, were featured in these lurid tales.
Even derring-doer
From the late 1870s on, the cow-boy, as he was called, was becoming the hero. His life as a resourceful horseman on the Plains was ideal material. Horses, ranches, range clothes and accoutrements, including of course the inevitable sombrero and six-gun, became major ingredients. Probably the most influential dime novel hero, and here we have another overlap with Buffalo Bill, was Buck Taylor, who first appeared in Beadle’s Half-Dime Library in 1887 with the gripping Buck Taylor, King of the Cowboys. Taylor was, of course, one of the star riders and marksmen of Cody’s Wild West show. In the novels, he got into and, by his reckless daring, out of any number of scrapes, nearly always rescuing a pure maiden on the way.

“By the mid-1890s,” writes Etulain, “at the same time that Buffalo Bill’s depiction of the frontier in his Wild West show had worked its way into the minds and hearts of Americans, dime novelists had created and deified a series of attractive protagonists in their widely circulated stories.”

Western dime novels aren't that easy to find now, to read and see what they were like, but a few are available online. You can read a Deadwood Dick tale, Deadwood Dick's Doom; or, Calamity Jane's Last Adventure by Edward L Wheeler here and The Adventures of Buffalo Bill from Boyhood to Manhood by Colonel Prentiss Ingraham here. I found them entertaining and interesting for the way they treated 'the West' at such early dates.

From the 1870s on, Bret Harte (1836 – 1902) wrote Western ‘local color’ stories that were an improvement in quality on the pulp dime novels but still very popular. You can find a complete bibliography here.

The Virginian

All of these elements fused in the first great classic Western novel, Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902). In his Chapter 3, Traditional Stories, Etulain deals extensively and interestingly with this book, Wister’s only Western novel (though he wrote some fine Western short stories and the Lin McLean ones could be thought of as a novel).

Wister did little with Indians and he himself admitted that his heroine Molly Stark Wood was “a failure”. Etulain tells how Wister’s mother was scathing about the novel, criticizing in particular the lynching scene and the superfluous, sugary last chapter. I think she was right on both counts; however, Wister defended himself manfully.
A wonderful book
But it is a wonderful book and was, of course, hugely popular, selling more than 100,000 copies within three months of publication and going on to become one of the greatest-selling Western novels ever, rivaling Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour in book sales. It had an enormous influence on the nascent motion picture industry (what many regard to be the first narrative Western movie, The Great Train Robbery, came out only a year after The Virginian, in 1903) and on other writers. The tall, taciturn cowpoke who faces a showdown with his gunslinging enemy and wins the girl became a standard trope in the whole Western myth.

But to Wister it was already the end of the West. The Virginian as myth was reinforced by the paintings of Charles Russell and by those (and the writings) of Wister’s friend Frederic Remington. These both specialized in an elegiac, often very beautiful treatments of the passing West. One of Wister’s greatest works was the short story At the Sign of the Last Chance (1928), a wonderfully moving and sympathetic treatment of old Westerners remembering the past.
The Fall of the Cowboy by Frederic Remington
In fact, already by the 1890s the idea was rife that the frontier was closing or closed and the old ways were no more. The vanishing cowboy was becoming a sad figure of the past. This aspect is strong in Wister. In 1895, at the request of Remington, Wister wrote The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher in which he said that the cowboy, “now departed, never to return”, had been driven out by progress. We are left, as Wister said of Remington’s painting ‘The Last Cavalier’, which illustrated the essay, “to withdraw and mourn” for a past that will haunt us forever.

This regretful ‘end-of-the-West’ notion has been an integral part of the Western myth almost since its beginning. There has always been a nostalgic thread of melancholy running through it. While the 1920s and 30s Westerns played it down, in their self-conscious brashness, it was always there and it re-emerged in force after the Second World War. So many Western tales and movies describe the passing of the glory days and feature gunfighters or cowboys as hangovers, dinosaurs or relics. The Magnificent Seven, Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch, Monte Walsh, The Shootist, many more: again and again the notion is that the West has gone, the frontier closed, the wild days over. Now it's all fences, church socials and temperance movements. A man can't even carry a gun on his hip. Of course, in reality, if the wild and woolly days existed at all, they lasted for the blink of an eye.

Where are the women? What about the Indians?

Etulain makes the point that the early narratives of the West had little place for women. Wister’s Molly was a rather typical example; she was a maidenly Easterner (from Vermont) only there to be wooed and won and hardly a character in her own right at all. Indians were ‘the other’, the nameless and fearsome foe to be defeated and either exterminated or removed as soon as possible out of harm’s way to reservations. Buffalo Bill and the dime novelists had no thought of telling the story from the woman’s or the Indian’s point of view. Theirs was a narrative of white male heroes.

However, there were exceptions: artist and writer Mary Hallock Foote portrayed miners, farmers and families rather than gunfighters or cowboys, and often from the woman’s standpoint. Her first novel was The Led-Horse Claim of 1883. But it was a struggle for her to get published at all and her novels are flawed, suffering from much editing and many alterations before they arrived in print. They were hardly best-sellers.
A Mary Hallock Foote illustration for one of her novels
Similarly, Geronimo’s life story, giving much of his side of the Army/Apache encounters, appeared early in the twentieth century, Geronimo’s Story of His Life, Taken down and edited by SM Barrett (Duffield & Co, New York, 1906). But it was much mediated: the old man Geronimo talked, his second cousin Asa Daklugie translated and school administrator Barrett wrote. How much of the result was the true voice of Geronimo is open to question. Furthermore, the book pretty well sank without trace on publication. Still, it was an attempt to put the other side of the case.
Left to right, SM Barrett, Geronimo, Asa Daklugie
Etulain does not devote a great deal of space to Willa Cather (1873 - 1947) but her books, often set among the European immigrants who scratched a living from the earth in Nebraska, were in many ways anti-Wister in tendency and portrayed the hardscrabble lives of simple homesteaders. Her writing emphasized the role of women on the frontier. The novels O Pioneers! in 1913 and My Antonia in 1918, as well as her fine short stories, did have an impact on telling Western stories. I think she is one of the great Western writers.

Willa Cather, daughter of Nebraska

The Western booms in the 1920s and 30s

The 1920s were the boom years of the silent movie and the Western was by far the most popular genre of silent. First, well-liked (but wooden) GM ‘Broncho Billy’ Anderson, then earnest William S Hart, followed by the flashier Tom Mix and all his imitators, made the cowboy hero (good badman, as was usually the case with Hart, or just plain goody in the case of Mix and the Mixites) in his slouch hat and chaps, with his (often named) horse the idols of the silver screen. These films fixed the mythic, and rather tinsel West firmly in the popular imagination.

At the same time, Western novels, especially those of Zane Grey, were selling in large numbers.  Grey’s most famous work, Riders of the Purple Sage, dated from 1912 but probably his heyday was the decade of the 1920s. One thinks of Man of the Forest (1920), The Thundering Herd and The Vanishing American (1925), Under the Tonto Rim (1926) and Fighting Caravans (1929) – all of which were made into movies.

It should be said that there were, even in these early days, attempts to show the plight of the American Indian. Critic Jane Tompkins has said that there are "no Indian characters, no individuals with a personal history and a point of view" in the Westerns; she believes that Indians function as "props, bits of local color, textural effects...a particularly dangerous form of local wildlife." That is probably largely justifiable as a claim but it is a bit harsh. For example, DW Griffith may be held in contempt by many today for his racist The Birth of a Nation but some of his films, such as The Indian Runner’s Romance (1909) or The Redman’s View (also 1909) did put the other side of the case and show ‘redmen’ in a slightly more sympathetic light. In stories like Ramona, The Half-Breed, The Squaw Man or indeed The Vanishing American, the Indians were not just "bits of local color".

The journalist-historians

Parallel to the Hollywood Western, there was an interesting trend of ‘journalist-historians’ (usually rather more the left hand side of the hyphen than the right, it must be said) who got interested in some of the ‘real’ legends of the west, researched them (more or less thoroughly) and produced sensational biographies and accounts which were best-sellers.

Prince of these writers was Chicago newspaperman Walter Noble Burns (1872 – 1932), who had covered Pershing’s failed pursuit of Pancho Villa, written about Wild Bill Hickok and who published The Saga of Billy the Kid in 1926. He went on to write about the Earps in Tombstone: an Iliad of the Southwest (1927), and later he published The Robin Hood of El Dorado: The Saga of Joaquin Murrieta, Famous Outlaw of California’s Age of Gold (1932). These books were partial, inaccurate, sensational and hugely popular.
Sensational 'history'
Stuart N Lake produced his famous but now considered dubious account of Wyatt Earp in Frontier Marshal in 1929, which was again a monster hit and set the legend of the gunfighting lawman almost in stone. Other popular writers rushed to join in the fun. Together, they reinforced the myth of the frontier lawman and outlaw, and their beliefs and fallacies fed into the movie and TV Westerns of the time and after. Lake was a consultant on the set of the Hugh O’Brian TV series The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, for example.

The talkies

The advent of sound motion pictures at the end of the 1920s brought more changes to the telling of the Western story. Plots could become more complex and characterization more subtle. Backstories could be hinted at and motivations explored. The downside was that westerns risked becoming too talky and sacrificing Western action to unWestern discussion. Western stories revolved around nation-building/Manifest Destiny plots about wagon trains of settlers, land rushes, the construction of transcontinental railroads, telegraph, Pony Express or stage routes, or standard tales of big ranchers versus small homesteaders, or lawmen/outlaw tales, or revenge/pursuit dramas, or a combination of any of the above. Unfortunately, sound also permitted the advent of the singing cowboy. Oh well.

From the filmic The Virginian of 1929 onwards, sound movie Westerns began to become adult entertainment with some artistic or cultural pretensions. The late 1930s saw a flowering of quality big-budget Western films. 1939 in particular was an extraordinary year for the Western story: Cecil B DeMille’s Union Pacific with Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck; Destry Rides Again with James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich;  Fox’s Jesse James with Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda; Errol Flynn in Dodge City and Randolph Scott in Frontier Marshal – both Earp-myth lawmen; and two John Ford pictures, Drums Along the Mohawk (Fonda again) and, especially, Stagecoach with the re-emergence of John Wayne as A-Western star; all these were Westerns as they had never been seen before - serious pictures that had eager adults waiting in line round the block outside theaters.

Brand, Short, Haycox

Max Brand
What are sometimes pejoratively referred to as pulp Westerns were immensely popular in the 1940s and 50s. Max Brand, nom de plume of the quite splendidly named Frederick Schiller Faust, had published Western tales all through the 1920s and 30s, until his death in 1944 and, posthumously, beyond. His stories gained a huge circulation. Frederick Glidden, who took the pen name Luke Short, wrote a whole series of tight, gripping down-to-earth Westerns from The Feud at Single Shot in 1935 to Trouble Country in 1976, reaching his peak in the 1940s with fine stories like Ramrod, Coroner Creek and Vengeance Valley.
Luke Short
The novels of Ernest Haycox from Free Grass in 1928 to The Adventurers in 1954, and even more perhaps his short stories from The Trap Lifters in 1922 to The Inscrutable Man in 1951 (the year of Haycox’s death), established him as one of the greatest Western writers.
Ernest Haycox
Louis L’Amour

Etulain devotes several pages to Louis L’Amour. Quite rightly, really, given his enormous success and influence on the Western story. From Hondo (1953) onwards, L’Amour became the doyen of Western writers. He was there at the peak of Hollywood Westerns, the early and mid-1950s, when interest had never been greater. Although the traditional Western began to fall on hard times as the 1960s dawned, L’Amour seemed immune. His conservative, traditional tales continued to sell in their millions.

Occasionally Mr. Etulain descends into psychobabble:

In fact, the plot of Hondo suggests that a successful Western often parallels the scenario of a deeply flawed marriage. Persisting tension leads to alienation, to conflict, and then to a series of sometimes violent confrontations.

But mostly the author is straightforward and unpretentious.

L’Amour’s later works were longer, more like substantial historical novels than pulp paperbacks. I actually prefer the 1960s ones but in some ways works like Bendigo Shafter (1979) are impressive. There’s quite a lot of “authorial intrusion”, though, as L’Amour can’t resist commenting or laying out his views.

Etulain points out that L’Amour sees good and bad in Indians and, especially in later books, provides a more detailed and nuanced portrait of them. A woman plays the leading role in The Cherokee Trail (1988). Still, L’Amour plowed on with traditional, unrevisionist tales throughout the 1960s and 70s and seemed unmoved by the New Western history movement when it appeared towards the end of his life. His readers didn’t seem to mind; he remains the best-selling Western storyteller of all time.

And many writers continued to publish Western tales in the L’Amour vein and trace their descent directly to him. Elmore Leonard’s Western stories, for example, are very good and stylistically more modern but they still follow many of the L’Amour (and Wister) conventions, with their brave white male heroes thwarting evil and getting the girl. His books and those of many other Western writers still sell in large numbers today. Luckily.

New stories

However, there had always been ‘different’ approaches to telling the Western story. One thinks of Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s wonderful The Ox-Bow Incident (1940), made into an equally fine film with Henry Fonda in 1943. HL Davis’s Honey in the Horn (1035) and of course Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1940) gave us a more literary, subtler and more thoughtful West. Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth of 1950 and Don Russell’s biography The Lives and Legends of Buffalo Bill of 1960 also gave us food for alternative ways of thinking. Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose (1971) – which I personally find a bit heavy going but doubtless that is me – won the Pulitzer Prize and gave us a complex-plotted Western very far from the formulaic Short/L’Amour stories with their white male heroes battling the elements or the bad guys.

Patricia Nelson Limerick and Richard White

But it was really the publication in 1987 of Patricia Nelson Limerick’s The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West that set the New Western history movement going in earnest. She and her colleagues pointed out, with much justification, that the Western story as traditionally told largely ignored the mistreatment of minority groups and women, the exploitative and unbridled capitalism and the lack of respect for the environment. American Indians should be thought of as more than the ‘other’ to be fought and conquered. Women were actors in their own right. Other minority groups played a vital part and should have their say: the Spanish speakers, for example, or the Chinese immigrants and others all contributed to the story of the West but have been overlooked or ignored. Environmental issues were also essential to the story but forgotten. We should not always treat the story as one of westward movement and conquest but think of the West as a region, not as a process.
Patricia Nelson Limerick
And it was not a frontier that closed and an epoch that closed with it, in the Frederick Jackson Turner way that many of us had been brought up on. Professor Limerick stressed the continuity. The region’s dependence on federal money, instability in business cycles and inconsistent enforcement of laws all played their part in the historical West just as they do today.

A few years ago I asked a friend of mine, who was Assistant Professor of American History at Harvard, to recommend the best one-volume history of the American West; he advised me to get Richard White’s “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A New History of the American West (1991) and I am very glad I followed his advice. This wonderful book takes the ideas of Limerick and others and develops them in a fascinating way. It gives a new insight into the whole story of the West and I heartily recommend it to you, dear reader.
Fine book
Richard White
I should make clear, though, that in common with the earlier ‘Frontier Thesis’ historian Frederick Jackson Turner (1861 – 1932), who argued that the moving Western frontier shaped American democracy and the American character from the colonial era until 1890, but whom the New Western historians rather dismiss for his Eastern perspective and Manifest Destiny ideas, the new writers do rather play down the blood and thunder. They are sober scholars who aren’t, ahem, too interested in Wyatt Earp’s showdowns in Main Street. Poor things. Still, if you can put up with a bit of dryness, it’s worth the effort. White’s book especially does make you rethink.

Since then we have had a host of books which tell the more complete story. Certain elements are beginning to creep into mainstream movies: as early as 1985 Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider had the bad guys raping the land with high-pressure hydraulic mining for ever more profit and in 1992 his Unforgiven had empowered women paying men to avenge one of their number. Broken Trail (2006) with Robert Duvall told the story of young Chinese women sold into sex slavery. Even anodyne TV movies on bland channels are beginning to give a bigger role to women and ethnic minorities.
Larry McMurtry
Meanwhile, the more straightforward Western story has flourished in the hands of fine writers like Larry McMurtry, whose great, sweeping novel of the West, Lonesome Dove, added subtlety, variety and thoughtfulness to the formula, as well as featuring strong women prominently. Cormac McCarthy has given us the literary Western. Recently Philipp Meyer wrote a fine cross-generational novel, The Son. Authors like Ron Hansen, James Carlos Blake and others write excellent Western novels. Authoritative, well-researched, definitive (and non-sensational) biographies of Western figures are written by TJ Stiles (Jesse James), Robert Utley (Billy the Kid, Custer, Sitting Bull), Casey Tefertiller (Wyatt Earp) and more. The Western story is alive and well.



  1. Thank you so much for this excellent review. I HAVE to get this book!

  2. Glad you liked it.
    I am sure you will enjoy the Etulain book.
    It' a huge subject but he manages to 'encapsulate' it well.