This is “How The West was Written,” said Ron Scheer, from violent to free from Eastern social structures, to egalitarian, with a democratic spirit.
Hi Ron Scheer: Thanks for talking to me.
Readers, Ron runs Buddies in the Saddle, or buddiesinthesaddle.blogspot.com, where he reviews Western books and movies, specializing in books published between 1880 and 1915.
He also reviews (mostly) older Western movies.
Ron also publishes lists of words he’s gathered from the books, almost all of which vanished with the frontier.
This year, Ron published How The West Was Written, examining how writers have historically presented the West.
(Readers: full disclosure. I commented on Ron’s book in early draft forms and he was kind enough to mention me, and others, in a forward to the published edition).
Q. Ron, can you tell us about the various ways authors have presented the West?
A. From the beginning, there were many Wests, some actual, some mythical. In the dime novels of the 19th century, it was a wild terrain populated by hostile tribes and outlaws, well suited in fiction for action and adventure.
But as the frontier became a setting for mainstream fiction, it took on other associations.
(Authors) described freedom and independence from the rigid social structures and crowded living conditions of the East.
Freedom from social constraints was especially true for women (they wrote), who could dress more informally, ride astride a horse rather than sidesaddle, and use firearms.
The egalitarian, democratic spirit of frontier settlements also allowed for a degree of social mixing frowned on elsewhere.
The young heroine of Therese Broderick’s The Brand (1909), newly arrived in Montana, is enraptured by the promise of “untrammeled freedom” and will hear nothing of “don’ts and can’ts.”
Women writers often voiced strongly feminist views. Some actively supported the temperance movement, which eventually led to the closing of the saloons and Prohibition.
Several writers were advocates of social reform and even identified as Socialists. In their novels, they decried the corruptive dominance of a robber-baron economy, which flourished in the West.
(Also authors wrote about) a healthful climate, especially for those with pulmonary afflictions, like TB; a land of opportunity, where homesteading made land ownership within the reach of so many; and a place to get rich quick through exploitation of natural resources, monopolies of services like railroads, and mining for gold and silver.
Q. It seems many more women wrote Westerns in the past. Is that’s so, why aren’t women writing westerns like they used to do?
A. Women writers contributed generously to the outpouring of frontier fiction a century ago. But they were far less likely to write cowboy westerns.
B. M. Bower (Chip of the Flying U, 1906) is an exception.
And even her novel is more properly a ranch romance. It doesn’t venture into the male world of saloons, gunfights, outlaws, and the outdoors.
Owen Wister was able to straddle both worlds of action and romance in The Virginian (1902), but the two strands have remained largely separated along a gender divide ever since.
Look at the cover art for most western-themed fiction today. It’s either a fully dressed cowboy firing six-guns or a shirtless one who looks like he spends most of the day at the gym.
Q. Many Westerns have been highly influential in American culture; can you tell us about them?
A. If we’re talking books, it’s been argued that Owen Wister’s The Virginian had the biggest impact on how Americans imagined, understood, and were excited by the West—as much as by Bill Cody’s traveling Wild West show.
The book was the no. 1 bestseller for the year it was published and appeared again on the same top-10 list the following year.
It was made into a hugely successful stage play and adapted to film several times, not to mention providing a cast of characters for one of the longest-running western series on TV.
As for the influence of western movies, I’d name the cowboy actors who portrayed most vividly an ideal of manhood, probably starting with Tom Mix and ending with John Wayne.
Q. If you had to recommend one Western book for readers (published between 1880 and 1915), what would it be and why?
A. It would have to be The Virginian, for the reasons I’ve already mentioned. Plus the fact that it’s enjoyable to read.
Wister was writing from personal experience of the West. He had both a good eye for authentic detail and a sense of humor—neither of which a reader is likely to find in Zane Grey.
The Virginian was the first romantic cowboy hero. He completely changed the stereotype of the cowboy in the popular imagination.
Before him, the cowboy was portrayed as either a comic figure or as a hooligan—especially the Texas drovers who rode into trail towns to get drunk and raise hell.
In the 1880s, there were frequent stories in eastern newspapers about cowboys wanted for robberies and shootings.
In Owen Wister’s hands, the cowboy became someone likable, who with his inborn Southern chivalry was able to win the heart of a young woman.
A man of both wit and grit, the Virginian puzzles over how some good men go bad, mourns the loss of his friend Steve, who gets hanged as a horse thief, and finally defends his own honor, proving he is not a coward, in a gun duel with the novel’s villain.
All of this, so familiar after a century of westerns, established a character type that was brand new in 1902.
(Readers, a personal note here. I didn’t care for The Virginian, but I loved Lin McLean, by the same author)
Q. Have Westerns influenced the way this country feels about tribal peoples?
A. In 1900, tribal peoples were regarded as a “vanishing race,” and this notion was reinforced in fiction, some writers sentimentalizing them as “noble savages.”
Held with particular distaste and scorn were so-called “half-breeds,” who were believed to exhibit the worst traits of both races.
Today, you will find whites who are proud to claim any native ancestry, which I think would have astounded white Americans 100 years ago.
And while we may see a shift in the media, I wouldn’t be willing to say whether you can attribute much of that to the western itself.
Q. You have published lists of Western words in your blog (hundreds) that you’ve garnered from your reading, most of them dating from the late 19th century and early 20th. Can you tell us what some are and what they mean?
A. Here are a few I’ve just added to the list:
scrag = to hang (on a gallows); throttle, choke.
skew-gee =crooked, slanted, cockeyed.
snuffy = wild or spirited.
solemncholy – solemn and melancholy, woe-begone, troubled.
Q. Do you enjoy these words?
A. I enjoy the glimpse they give us into the common culture of the turn of the last century, things like children’s games, songs, dances, fashion, historical figures, myth and biblical references that were common knowledge.
Then there’s the evolution of language itself, with the constant tide of new slang, idioms, and informal expressions.
Q. You have reviewed hundreds of Western books and movies. Could you recommend five great Western movies and tell us why you enjoyed them?
A. I am a Randolph Scott fan. He carries himself and expresses himself with so much class. He can be stoic or wryly amused; you’re always getting a solid performance. Favorite film: SEVEN MEN FROM NOW.
Of John Wayne’s films, I like the later ones when he wasn’t acting and seems to just be himself, with what seems like a relaxed, natural sense of humor.
Best film: EL DORADO. Robert Mitchum, another favorite, also makes that film A+.
MY DARLING CLEMENTINE is terrible as history, but I love Henry Fonda. He’s such a warm-hearted Wyatt Earp. And it’s got to be Walter Brennan’s best role.
THE WILD BUNCH has a wonderful big cast, is well written and is just a handsome and exciting film. Of Peckinpah’s efforts, it stands out as the best for me.
The original 3:10 TO YUMA is a personal favorite. It shows the richness and depth of the western genre, and how you can make a compelling story out of just two men talking in a hotel room, waiting for a train.
The remake proved that you can’t improve on that by adding a mess of senseless and bloody violence.
Q. Are Westerns dying?
A. As long as writers and filmmakers keep reinventing the western, as they have been, I think it will continue to show signs of life.