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March 20, 2003

Guest Posting -- Tim Hulsey on Western Novels

Friedrich --

Once again we're (or at least I'm) being humbled, upstaged and enlightened by one of our visitors, and, as usual, what a pleasure that is. Tim Hulsey -- reluctant commenter, virtuoso Amazon consumer-reviewer, and all-around arts fan -- sent me an email after looking at my recent posting about Western novels. Here's what he had to say:

I used to teach a course on the American West in literature, called "How the West Was Written." I tended to stop the course at WWII, because that's where my sense of literary history sort of falls off -- and also when writing about the West became more a case of nostalgia (or anti-nostalgia, in the case of the revisionist Western) than a contemporaneous event.

At any rate, what constitutes a Western? As classifications go, this one is pretty easy; it's certainly easier to define a Western than it is to define a Novel (although most Westerns in print are Novels, too). I'd tend to define the subgenre of Western primarily by theme and setting -- although in the case of a Western, the two are so closely related as to make their separation more useful for critics than readers.

The setting of the Western is, on some level, the frontier -- and I mean that as the "edge of settlement," in the classic Frederick Jackson Turner mode. The central theme of the Western usually involves a sense of human beings having to carve out their place within the immensity of this setting, a setting where civilization has just begun, however tentatively, to establish itself. It is a situation in which, Western writers usually claim, human nature is revealed in its barest form; it is certainly a situation in which governmental intrusion is minimized (the Law being either absent or ineffective), and individuals must thus resolve conflicts on their own.

Reading a Western can often feel like reading Conrad -- there is the same sense of European Man overwhelmed by the immense void of frontier wilderness, and trying to work out a reasonable coexistence with it. Of course, unlike Conrad, the Western tends to record success rather than failure: Conrad's stories deal with individuals who try to conquer the Heart of Darkness and fail, but Westerns offer at least the promise of success, at least for those willing to make compromises and adapt to their land.

Westerns may not look to Europe very much -- and the West Coast doesn't seem to look so much to Europe now. (If anything, it looks the other way, to China and Japan.) The historical West, however, looked to Europe very closely, so that colonists from the Eastern United States could preserve what remnants of that culture they could. If you ever tour Western homes, you'll be amazed at how many of them have the Complete Works of Charles Dickens lined up on the bookshelves. Not until fairly late in the nineteenth century did Westerners start to value artifacts of their regional culture -- which were closer to home, easier to acquire, and highly prized in the East.

Why Westerns are not often studied in the Eastern academy is an interesting question. It pertains in part to the class expectations that come with "genre fiction" -- too trashy, not tony enough, very lowbrow stuff. Westerns are more frequently studied in the West as fodder for "cultural studies," but still not read as often as I think they should be. (Of course, I'd also say that Henry James isn't read often enough, mostly because he's considered too "European" for American literature and too "American" for Brit lit.) The other problem may be that Westerns are more widely known today as a film genre than a literary genre.

Some of my favorite Westerns:

1. Zane Grey, Riders of the Purple Sage. For my money, much more fun to read than Wister's "The Virginian." But you'll have to read that one as well.
2. Willa Cather, My Antonia.
3. Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian. Very bloody, much nastier than "All the Pretty Horses."
4. Jack Schaeffer, Shane. Before it was a movie, it was a novella--and even then, it had the sense of a bare-bones archetype about it.
5. Angie Debo, Prairie City. This work is prescribed for many history classes; Prairie City is a composite Oklahoma town, and everything in the book happened at one place or another. I still can't shake some of the stories in this novel.
6. Walter van Tilburg Clark, The Ox-Bow Incident. Reading this novel is like watching a play, but it's a ripping good play. The William Wellman version approaches its devastating impact, but completely fudges the third act. I started teaching about the American West in response to this novel.

I also like Larry Watson's Montana 1948 (less for content than style) and some prairie short stories by Robert McAlmon (an unjustly obscure writer who is best known for publishing Hemingway's first book and helping to copyedit Joyce's "Ulysses"). Gretel Ehrlich and Edward Abbey are great Western memoirists -- Abbey's Desert Solitaire in particular is a terrific "up-yours" to the Thoreau / transcendentalist school of nature-writing. Whenever I hear anyone refer to Nature as a "mother," I can't help but think that for Abbey, this word would only tell half the story. Larry McMurtry also recommends We Pointed Them North as the quintessence of cowboy memoirs, but I don't remember who wrote it and I've never seen a copy for sale.

Have fun riding the range ...

I'll enthusiastically second Tim's recommendation of "Desert Solitaire." It's cussed, prickly and blistering -- although, come to think of it, I never considered it a "Western" before. Hmm, now he's got me thinking ...

Many thanks to Tim Hulsey.



posted by Michael at March 20, 2003


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