American Literature Westerns
by
Nicolas S. Witschi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0077

Introduction

Descriptions of the western usually begin by calling it a form of cheap entertainment that is mostly about cowboys and gunfighters. From this follow observations that mention its reliance on predictable plot formulas, hackneyed characters, and sentimental appeals to overly simplistic ideas of honor and of right versus wrong. And then there’s the fact that the settings for these tales are usually the apparently untrammeled, natural scenery of the 19th-century frontier American West: deserts, buttes, snowy peaks, and vast expanses of lush prairie. Eventually, such pejorative descriptions arrive at one version or another of the phrase that Montana writer William Kittredge uses in Owning It All (Graywolf Press, 1987) to describe the traditional narrative of the American West: it is a “racist, sexist, imperialist mythology of conquest” (p. 63). To some extent, all of these assertions are accurate, but only up to a point. Like any other popular genre form, the western proves, upon more careful scrutiny, to be a multivalent and deeply ambivalent form of mass culture, one that both reflects and meditates upon the questions most urgently felt by a society. The stories that westerns try to tell have everything to do with coming to terms with racial injustice, gender inequities, the power of the state, and the economic realities of an itinerant agricultural labor class. And of course they provide fertile ground for investigating the precise meaning of national identity. As for questions about “literary” quality and complexity, recent critical methodologies have not only expanded the criteria for assessing such things to include artifacts of mass market or popular appeal; they have also brought to light, with the purpose of working against it, the very means by which discursive power functions to identify and separate. As a result, the western, a genre once consigned to the margins of serious and sophisticated academic inquiry, has emerged as a vital and inescapable mode through which to understand American culture in its broadest sense.

General Overviews

Historians of western American literature, by virtue of the mythologies and iconographies that predominate in their field, will usually incorporate some component of formula or genre westerns in their work. Milner 1996, for example, includes chapters on literature and the visual arts in its accessible, richly documented, and well-researched history of the West as a whole. More focused on the dominant narratives of the frontier West, Slotkin 1993 and Murdoch 2001 foster an understanding of the ways in which assumptions familiar to formula westerns have their genesis in historical and political exigencies. Most impressively, the massive literary histories published by the Western Literature Association, Taylor and Lyon 1987 and Lyon 1997, provide an overview of the field that cannot be matched in both breadth and critical complexity (studies that offer more specific histories of just the genre are cited under Genre History and Canonical Context). Handley 2009 and the essays in Aquila 1996, Crow 2003, and Witschi 2011 nicely update our understanding of how all the pieces of cultural and literary history might fit together, reminding us of how exactly it can be that westerns still function and persist.

  • Aquila, Richard, ed. Wanted Dead or Alive: The American West in Popular Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996.

    E-mail Citation »

    Ten essays and an introduction explore the popular representation of the West across several media, including film, live performance, music, commercial art, and, in the two essays most relevant to this bibliography, the history of western American dime novels and formula fiction.

  • Crow, Charles L., ed. A Companion to the Regional Literatures of America. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003.

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    A wide-ranging and theoretically informed study of the complexities that tie region to literary production. Most pertinent to the West are the essays on the Great Plains, The Old Northwest, California, the Southwest, the Sagebrush School of Nevada journalists, Texas, the Pacific Northwest, and the entries on Bret Harte and Mark Twain.

  • Handley, William R. “The Popular Western.” In A Companion to the Modern American Novel 1900–1950. Edited by John T. Matthews, 437–453. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444310726E-mail Citation »

    A nuanced discussion that describes contradiction and paradox as the qualities that define the western over the course of its evolution, and that contribute to its continuing popularity.

  • Lyon, Thomas J., ed. Updating the Literary West. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1997.

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    A collection of critical and historical essays from the Western Literature Association. Includes biocritical essays on numerous authors of both formulaic and regional literature, as well as an entire section of fourteen essays on popular westerns as they relate, variously, to African Americans, women writers, Native Americans, and critical theory.

  • Milner, Clyde A., II, Carol A. O‘Connor, and Martha A. Sandweiss, eds. The Oxford History of the American West. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

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    Provides an excellent survey of the contexts and histories for most literary production in the American West, popular or otherwise. Includes a chapter on the literary West.

  • Murdoch, David Hamilton. The American West: The Invention of a Myth. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2001.

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    With its emphasis on how mid- to late-19th-century popular narratives helped to solidify the now familiar mythic elements of the region, this book expertly suggests that conformity and interdependence, rather than individualism and self-reliance, lie at the heart of what the myths seek to accomplish.

  • Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993.

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    A significant and exhaustive history that traces the presence of mythic elements associated with the American West, with particular attention paid to the legacies of western-style individualism and violence from Theodore Roosevelt and Buffalo Bill Cody through the literature, film, and historiography contemporaneous with the nation’s 20th-century wars.

  • Taylor, J. Golden, and Thomas J. Lyon, eds. A Literary History of the American West. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1987.

    E-mail Citation »

    An immense volume produced by the Western Literature Association. Presents a thorough and engaging portrait of western American literature and its many subregions and genres. Includes essays on such individual authors as Guthrie, Clark, Schaefer, and McMurtry, as well as a single essay that discusses the connections between T. Roosevelt, Wister, Turner, and Remington.

  • Witschi, Nicolas S., ed. A Companion to the Literature and Culture of the American West. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444396591E-mail Citation »

    Presents thirty-three critical essays on topics ranging from 19th-century literary history to 20th-century film and urban growth. Most include some discussion of how the myths of the West persist throughout the region and its cultural histories. Particularly useful are the essays on film, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, and western art.

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