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March 19, 2003

Reading the West

Friedrich --

As you know, I'm just back East after a couple of weeks in Arizona and California. Visiting the West always makes me feel freed but ashamed at the same time. Why freed? Because the West is its own culture (or many cultures, really), and because it doesn't look to Europe -- what a relief. Why ashamed? Because I know so little about the West. Given the couple of years I've spent on the west coast and my marriage to a gorgeous, free-associating, horse-loving, rangy blonde 6-foot-tall Californian (they don't grow them like that on the east coast, at least they didn't in our generation), I know a lot more about the West than do most of my fellow northeasterners. But there's so much I don't know. Which is shameful but also wonderful.

I also feel more than a bit of the usual indignation about the pathetic education (or "education") we got at our Lousy Ivy College. How can our lit classes have so completely overlooked the Western, for instance? I'm on semi-firm footing where movie Westerns are concerned, but (despite fancy Eng-lit degrees) I've only read a handful of Westerns, and know little about the form's history. Why do you suppose the poobahs of the East are so content to overlook the Western? Ignorance? Snobbery? It's not as though the Western is historically insignificant. I wonder if the poohbahs have even looked into the form -- its conventions, its influence, etc. Or perhaps they're simply content to sneer at it as trash without ever giving it a whirl. I suspect the latter explanation is the closest to the truth. Ah, the power of received opinion.

I wish I had tons to report where the Western is concerned. Not much, alas. I once tried a couple of Louis L'Amours and couldn't get through them, but I can recommend Evan Connell's Son of the Morning Star (innovative nonfiction about Custer and the Little Big Horn -- Connell's an amazing writer generally, by the way); and Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage, an impressive and enjoyable piece of storytelling. (Here's a link to the Zane Grey Society, and here's Bill Hillman's Zane Grey Tribute site.)

Did I ever pass along to you the amusing remark a book critic friend once made? He and I were talking about how great a book Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run? is. Have you ever read it? Fab and essential, as taut, tense and compact as a good James M. Cain. And amazing in the way it nails once and for all a particular character type -- "Sammy Glick," the unprincipled, asslicking, domineering, will-do-anything-to-succeed Hollywood hustler. (Here's the official "What Makes Sammy Run?" site -- every great book should have its own site.)

Once and for all: Budd Schulberg

We were wondering why the book is seldom if ever taught in college lit classes. I came up with some unsatisfying possible explanations, then my friend came up with one that was much better. It went like this: 1) What's great about the book is its storytelling and the way it gets all the Sammy Glicks of the world. 2) What college profs like and respect are books that are complicated and intellectual, ie., that lend themselves to college-prof-type criticism and analysis (ie., references, puzzles, symbolism, etc). 3) College profs know nothing about storytelling, let alone about the world. 4) Thus, as far as college profs are concerned, the book simply isn't teachable. What would they have to say about it?

Anyway, I thought I'd pass along the titles of some Western novels that I hope to get around to reading. Another friend -- who has done some writing, and much research, about the Old West -- gave me this list.

  • Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove and Streets of Laredo.
  • Susan Dodd's Mamaw, about Jesse James' mother.
  • Scott Momaday's Ancient Child, about Billy the Kid.
  • Thomas Berger's Little Big Man.
  • Pete Dexter's Deadwood.
  • Ron Hansen's Desperados, about the Dalton Gang.
  • Ernest Haycox has a rep as the great Western novelist. Some titles to start with are Canyon Passage, Trouble Shooter, and Bugles in the Afternoon.
  • A.B. Guthrie's The Big Sky.
  • Elmore Leonard's Valdez Is Coming.
  • Charles Portis' True Grit.

Ah, if only I were capable of reading systematically, I'd read straight through that list...

Have you read many Westerns? Got any titles you can recommend?



posted by Michael at March 19, 2003


Hmph. The reason you can't find any "good" westerns, is because they aren't "good". They are not supposed to be. Any more than the plots of most operas are "good"...

As usual, however, I am willing to be convinced otherwise. I shall try something from your proposed list. The jury will return after deliberation.

Posted by: Felicity on March 20, 2003 2:04 AM

Shane by Jack Schaeffer, 1949. Don't judge it by the movie; the book is superior in every respect. By all rights, it ought to be included in any list of Great American Novels.

Also, check out this Jack Schaeffer page.

A lesser book, but well worth reading, is Billy Gashade by Loren D. Estleman. He's a prose stylist, and a good one, but I usually don't get swept along by his stories. This one did that for me.

Posted by: Ian on March 20, 2003 3:17 AM

Props re: Budd Schulberg. I always thought of "Sammy" as a much wittier, and inadvertantly more populist, take on "The Fountainhead," though the relation could be spurious. Though it's clear-cut and incisive, the union politics that swamp the end of Sammy are a bit obnoxious to slog through. It's milk that kills the book's pepper.

Oh, and how about "Day of the Locust?" Pairs well with Schulberg. As violent and engrossingly dull as any story about Los Angeles deserves to be. And West is well on his way to being forgotten. Sad, that.

I hear that Steinbeck is accorded little respect outside of California. Is it true?

As far as western westernity go, well, there is looming sense that out here on the West coast that cowboys are about to replace pirates as the hipster fantasy icon du jour. For a while we all thought it would be vikings, but it turns out that they were much too close to pirates. Cowboys: watch for 'em. Hitting the streets of Oakland in 2004.

Posted by: Tag on March 20, 2003 3:41 AM

Katherine Anne Porter wrote a lot of "western" stories. All great.

Posted by: j.c. on March 20, 2003 8:05 AM

If West and Steinbeck's works can be classified as Westerns, then I retract my earlier statement.

Posted by: Felicity on March 20, 2003 10:33 AM

A bit off-topic, but your mention of Charles Portis' True Grit reminded me of another Portis novel, and probably his best: The Dog of the South, a wonderfully funny and quirky novel which was out of print for many years.

Posted by: Larry Ayers on March 20, 2003 11:39 AM

Like most people today, my encounters with westerns (even of the literary variety) have almost always involved movies. The oddly greater cultural legitimacy of the (derivative) movie western over the (original) literary variety has created a wildly unfair situation to the authors. I remember picking up a Readers Digest condensed version of "The Searchers" and being surprised to find that all the disturbing and borderline psycho behavior of John Wayne in the movie--which all good auteur theorists attributed to the artistic genius of the director John Ford--were present in the book. (And, to my shame, I can't even remember the name of the author.) Likewise, compare the numbers of people who have seen Clint Eastwood's spaghetti westerns to their literary source, the wittily hybrid Western-detective story, "Red Harvest." (I grant you, "Red Harvest" is not exactly unknown, but I'm speaking comparatively here.)

On the purely literary level, I remember reading Zane Grey's "40,000 on the Hoof" as a kid and being made quite uneasy by the book's conclusion, in which the life work of a cattle rancher does not come to a fruitful conclusion--perhaps the first novel I ever read that dealt with success or failure from an adult perspective. And they call this stuff escapist.

P.S.--I am amused to see from your list that Elmore Leonard wrote "Valdez is Coming." The movie version of "Valdez is Coming" with Burt Lancaster became a totem around my house when my brother, who along with me and most of my friends caught the amateur filmmaking bug, made approximately 100 versions of that story. (He eventually devised a wacky but elaborate schema for creating endless variants on the virtuous revenge fantasy.) I wonder if he realizes who wrote the original story?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 20, 2003 12:05 PM

Elmor Leonard wrote my favorite westerns. I've read a few Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour, but nobody does anti-hero like Leonard. "Hombre", which was a terrific movie with Paul Newman, was an even better book. And "Valdez" is great too. "3:10 to Yuma" is another little gem. This is what he was writing before he got popular with the pulp detecitive novels. He is definitely worth checking out.

Posted by: Alexandra on March 20, 2003 8:30 PM

Any list of Westerns must include James Carlos Blake's In the Rogue's Blood, The Wildwood Boys or Blakes's novel about John Wesley Harding

I would also consider cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses a western

Posted by: Robert Birnbaum on March 20, 2003 9:40 PM

Try Ivan Doig's "Dancing at the Rascal Fair" and the others he's written. And the very early "The Virginian" by Owen Wister which practically set up the template for all the following Western novels as opposed to novels about the West.

Posted by: Deb on March 22, 2003 10:35 AM

Arg. All these suggestions are too tasty. Here I thought I had finally rid my want list of some literary genre, and now I need to put Westerns back on.

It seems hardly fair. Now I will never, never be able to read all the books in the world that I want to.

Posted by: Felicity on March 22, 2003 11:36 PM

Tag, Steinbeck IS respected outside California. At least here is Wisconsin, which is not the literary center of the world, I admit. But then, neither is California.

"Read the best books first, else you may not have time to read them at all"
Badly quoted Thoreau

Posted by: Deb on March 23, 2003 9:35 AM

A lot of good authors and books turned up: Connell's "Son" (his strange "Diary of a Rapist" shouldn't be forgotten) and Guthrie's "Sky" is very good ("The Way West" too), and "Little Big Man" is a classic. I'd add Manfred's "Lord Grizzly", Lott's "The Last Hunt", Moore's "Black Robe" and Richter's "The Trees." All literary works of the highest order.
Nathanael West's name was mentioned, definitely not a western writer (unless you consider Hollywood). "The Day of the Locust" is a masterpiece, and "The Cool Million" is a riot of cynicism. Budd Schulberg wrote the introduction to "Locust" for the Time Reading Program -- and would somebody PLEASE HELP me find out more about that excellent series. Time won't respond to my many requests.

Posted by: Phillip Routh on April 20, 2003 12:32 PM

I'm suprised that Cormac McCarthys "Blood Meridian, Or, the Evening Redness in the West" hasn't been mentioned.

It's about one of the best books I've ever read: western or otherwise.

Posted by: Anthony Liberto on July 19, 2004 5:01 AM

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