Friday, 1 April 2011

The History and Development of Western American Literature


The origins of western American literature can be found in the written accounts of the explorers and adventurers who delved into the wilderness beyond the Mississippi River at the turn of the 19th century.  Commissioned with exploring the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase, which had doubled the size of United States territory, and finding a trade route to the Pacific, Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery set forth in the spring of 1804 into a vast unknown. Over the course of nearly two and one-half years, the six men tasked with documenting the expedition produced enough material to fill the nearly five thousand pages of Moulton’s definitive edition of the journals.  In their close observation of both the landscape through which they travelled and of the Native people they encountered, the men not only recorded the events of their explorations but ‘gave reality to the Louisiana Purchase’ (Lyon, 1999:5) itself.

In the introduction to ‘The Written Donnée of Western Literature’, James Maguire refers to the Lewis and Clark journals as the ‘headwaters of western American literature’ (1987:68).  Although the journals were not officially published until 1814, government documents and newspaper reports about the Corps of Discovery, as well as accounts by Alexander McKenzie and other contemporary explorers, ignited the public’s curiosity about the West.  These early documents, combined with visual representations of the interior landscape[i] and the tribespeople living there, fuelled the public imagination and created a demand for frontier literature.  Timothy Flint’s romantic novel Francis Berrian, or The Mexican Patriot (1826) and James Fenmore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans (1826), are the direct antecedents of the western novel and of contemporary western literature.

    While these novels brought the frontier into many affluent homes, their readership was limited by expensive production costs.  As a result of technological advances in the mid-nineteenth century, however, paperbound books could be produced for a fraction of the former price.  Prices fell still further with the innovative marketing and distribution strategies of New York publishers Erastus and Irwin Beadle, making the new ‘dime novels’ affordable to a much wider audience (Brown, 1997). 

In 1860, the Beadles published their first dime novel, Malaeska: the Indian Wife of the White Hunter, by Ann S. Stephens.  The novel was an immediate success and within the first few months of publication sold sixty-five thousand copies, convincing the Beadles of the public’s appetite for inexpensive, mass-produced adventure stories (Stanford University, 1997). 

   Although Malaeska was set in rural New York state and therefore cannot geographically be described as a western novel, it contained many of the physical and cultural challenges embodied by that genre: a wilderness landscape, isolated and industrious white settlers, and ‘a savage Indian tribe’ (Stephens, 1860).  As is the case with the traditional western novel, Malaeska was also located in the past.  Set during the first half of the eighteenth century, the world of Malaeska was vastly different to the world inhabited by its readers. 

Discussing the popularity of the early dime novels in his introduction to The Literary West, Thomas Lyon puts the public’s demand for fictional adventure down to a growing sense of physical security in a largely eastern audience, and by implication, a growing ennui: 'as civilization spread and real-life opportunities for individual heroism and decisive action dwindled and as the Indians and the wilderness presented less and less and, finally, no significant challenge, the Western prospered' (1999:6).  If adventure was not to be found in one’s own life, it could be found, vicariously, in the pages of a novel.


The best known books of the dime novel era are probably those from the Buffalo Bill series, begun by the writer Edward Judson, under the pen name Ned Buntline.  Buffalo Bill, King of the Border Men (1869) was the first in a series of more than one hundred books embellishing the real life exploits of the adventurer and showman William Cody, and helped to create in him a national folk hero (Stanford University, 1997).  After Judson’s death, Colonel Prentiss Ingraham took over the Buffalo Bill series, refining the fictional Bill’s traits and shaping the character of the upright western hero in a mythical version of the West where good always prevails, a theme which persists in popular western fiction to the present day.  By the 1880s, however, public tastes had shifted to detective stories and urban, industrialised landscapes.  The rapid output from many writers also meant that western dime novels were too often simply reformulations of previous work[ii].  The public had new interests and expectations and the popularity of the western dime novel went into decline.

    With the publication of Owen Wister’s The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains in 1902, however, a new kind of western novel began to emerge.  Born in 1860 into a wealthy Philadelphia family, Wister suffered from neuralgia and repeated bouts of severe depression during his youth (Lyon, 1999), and, after agreeing to his father’s demand that he enrol at Harvard Law School, experienced a ‘total nervous collapse’ (Shulman, 1998:xv).  In the summer of 1885, Wister travelled west on medical advice to take a ‘rest cure’ at the ranch of Major Frank Wolcott[iii] in Wyoming Territory.  Thomas Lyon refers to this time in the West as being ‘the transforming event of Wister’s life’ (1999:83), leading not just to the restoration of Wister’s health, but to the restoration of the western novel.

   Over the next fifteen years, Wister continued spending his summers in the West, and ‘developed a theory of real Americanism based on what seemed to him the western essence – rugged individualism, physical beauty and courage, and casual directness, combined with a natural, non-effete refinement’ (ibid) which he synthesised into the figure of the unnamed hero of The Virginian

  The novel’s publication transformed the western from the sensationalism of the dime novel to a more complex study of life in the West with political and social undertones, which in the case of The Virginian explored the meaning of democracy, the rule of law and relationships between the sexes.  Widely regarded as the first western novel, The Virginian bears all the characteristics of the genre: a modest but noble hero challenged by cultural and moral conflicts on the open plains, cowboys, cattle rustlers, self-reliance and frontier justice. 

   Although The Virginian was based on Wister’s own experiences in the West, the novel’s action spans a period from 1874, a decade before his first visit to Wyoming Territory, to 1890, and in his preface he refers nostalgically to the novel’s historical location:

Had you left New York or San Francisco at ten o’clock this morning, by noon the day after to-morrow you could step out at Cheyenne.  There you would stand at the heart of the world that is the subject of my picture, yet you would look around you in vain for the reality.  It is a vanished world.  No journeys, save those which memory can take, will bring you to it now.  (Wister, 7)


Some scholars, though, argue that the West portrayed by Wister never existed at all. In the introduction to the 1998 edition of The Virginian, Schulman describes the way in which Wister rewrote the history of the 1892 Johnson County (Wyoming) War from the perspective of the wealthy cattle barons with whom he stayed during his visits to the West.  Citing Richard M. Brown’s study, No Duty to Retreat (1991) and Lawrence Goodwyn’s The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America (1978), Schulman points out Wister’s contradictions of documented accounts:

In places as diverse as Wilmington, North Carolina, and Johnson County, Wyoming, outsiders – Republicans and Populists in Wilmington, townspeople, small farmers, and ranchers in Johnson County – democratically gained control of local government.  At the extremes, as in Wilmington and Wyoming, the leaders of the old order resorted to violence to expel the upstarts.  In Wister’s version, however, the élitist defenders of privilege are not violently suppressing a democratic protest movement.  Instead, Wister disguises their activity as “ordinary people” taking “justice” into their own hands. (Shulman, 1998:xviii)

   According to Nathaniel Lewis, western American literature strives to achieve what Baudrillard refers to as the ‘production of the Real’, a weaving together of history and mythology to create a newly fabricated reality.  The evidence of this production, he claims, is then so thoroughly erased that the reader comes to believe that what is contrived is in fact true (2003:192).  In the case of The Virginian, the corporate ranchers of Wyoming, who protect their access to open-range grazing by attacking small ranchers and homesteaders, are seen as the defenders of democracy, and it is this version of events which is often viewed as historical ‘truth’ (Shulman, 1998).



[i] Major Stephen Harriman Long’s survey expedition to the Rocky Mountains in 1819-1820 was accompanied by the landscape painter Samuel Seymour and Titian Ramsay Peale, who specialised in natural history.  Theirs were the first images to be made in situ of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains (Hassrick, pp. 20-30).
[ii] Ingraham is said to have written one dime novel of 50-70,000 words per week, and to have produced over one hundred Buffalo Bill stories, as well as many other dime novels (Stanford University, 1997).
[iii] Wolcott was the leader of the Wyoming Stock Growers’ Association who in 1892 led a group of attacks on small ranchers whom they accused of cattle rustling, sparking the Johnson County War.  In The Virginian, Wister rewrote history to show Wolcott and other big ranchers in favourable light (Shulman, 1998). 

1 comment:

Loree said...

Much appreciated. It's nice to know that it's being read by someone other than me!