A thread to discuss "literary westerns"


Luddite Curmudgeon
Jul 26, 2012
Auckland, NZ
This is a sister-thread to one I just started on the General Literature forum, asking why SFF fans don’t like westerns more. Here, I would invite chrons to comment on particular literary western novels. The western is, I believe, a rather maligned genre, but which contains some classic works. James Fennimore Cooper of course leads the charge here, but I’ve not read him, so I will limit my initial comments to just two authors who I think have stood out, but which overlap very little. These are A.B. Guthrie Jr, and Larry McMurtry. Hopefully by name checking these two at least, we may get some discussion going.

A.B. Guthrie Jr (1901 - 1991)
In 1950, Guthrie won the Pulitzer Prize for The Way West, back when a Western novel about settlers in the 19th century could win such a big prize. This was the second of the Big Sky novels, and I have read all four main novels of this sequence. These are:

The Big Sky (1947) – A marvellous book, and honestly, one of the finest and most enjoyable novels I have ever read. This book shows us the lives of the mountain men who left Kentucky to live off the land in the new west. Set from the 1830’s onwards, it’s fascinating, detailed, humane and realistic. Guthrie really knew the land he describes. The characterisation of Boone Caudill, Jim Deakins and Dick Summers is complex, full and memorable. A great book, this was made into a film, which I’ve not seen.
The Way West (1950) – This books follows Dick Summers now, as he helps a wagon train of settlers cross “Indian country” on their way to settle Oregon. It’s the archetypal settler story, which has not been done better elsewhere.
Fair Land, Fair Land (1982) – Third in the sequence but not written until 1982, this book is still very good. It now follows Summers trying to live off the land, with his “Indian” wife, Teal Eye. He watches the way of life of the original mountain men degenerating, and toward the end he meets once again the frighteningly intense Boone Caudill.
These Thousand Hills (1956) – Set a little apart from the genuine trilogy above (it doesn't concern the same characters and is set in the 1880’s), this book nonetheless carries on the story arc of the settling of the west, and concerns cattle ranchers in Montana. It was very favourably reviewed however, and I really enjoyed it.

Together, these novels describe the destruction of the pristine west by the whites who settle it. Clearly Guthrie mourns for the loss of the wilderness Caudill, Deakins and Summers first encounter on their journey from Kentucky and it’s a compelling and affecting theme that runs throughout the series. Guthrie wrote other books, including two other (lesser) Big Sky novels which I’ve not read.

Larry McMurty (1936 - )
Also a Pulitzer Prize winner, for Lonesome Dove (1985) I think McMurtry is a great writer. I have an abiding love for Lonesome Dove (which I have read twice and enjoyed the TV mini-series) and also enjoyed the sequel Streets of Laredo (1993). I won’t go into detailed discussion of McMurty here as he deserves his own posts I think. He doesn't only write westerns of course, but he does write very good ones.

What "Westerns" have you read that might also qualify as literary fiction? Any of the above? I'd love to learn about more I'm not aware of.
Walter van Tilburg Clark's The Ox-Bow Incident

Frederick Manfred's Lord Grizzly
Many thanks Extollager - the Clark looks particularly of interest. Any particular thoughts about them? What makes them great/literary?
It's a while since I read either; they were perhaps the only Westerns I have read; they were both good -- the Clark worth two readings so far, and I could just about settle down to read it right now. I seem to remember a skilful orchestration of a tragic plot and impressive evocation of weather.
Sounds good, thanks. The other obvious inclusion in a list of "literary westerns", is Cormac McCarthy of course. Blood Meridian and All the Pretty Horses (and its sequels) come to mind. I know there are McCarthy fans out there...
Interesting question why a fan of pulp Space Opera would be averse to a little pulp Horse Opera. I, personally, never feared to dip into a little Louis L'amour; but I guess that would hardly qualify as "literary."

I also still have a copy of an Andre Norton tale of an Old West Cavalry Troop called "Stand To Horse." A light, but exciting YA tale; mostly interesting because it is Andre Norton. Somehow it never occurred to me to wonder how many other westerns she wrote.

It's been a couple dozen years since I read "Lonesome Dove" but I remember enjoying it. The Television mini-series has been re-running lately on one of the premium channels. It fails to catch my interest.

Similarly, I read "The Last of the Mohicans" about a hundred years ago and remember being quite enthralled. The Movie version has been running on TV this month and fails to capture the mood.

But the first thing to come to my mind, immediately, on the mention of James Fenimore Cooper, is the Mark Twain Rant on Cooper's "Literary Offenses."

Apparently Ol' Sam didn't think highly of "Literary Westerns" either.

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Nice. I'd love to get my hands on that volume. Especially wondering which Steinbeck that might be.

I grew up in Steinbeck Country; well, actually the northerly End of the Monterey Bay area ... actually took an *all Steinbeck* High School literature class. (because I'd already read the normal syllabus of bonehead, high school Literature classes)

(In a truly bizarre coincidental aside, I note that I have just been discussing Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comics with the instructor of that course, on Facebook, 40 years after the facts.)
I've not read any Westerns (unless you would count Dances with Wolves, Of Mice and Men and such like.) I have however worked in libraries when I was a student in the early eighties, and was interested in your OP comments and the question it leads to:
The western is, I believe, a rather maligned genre, but which contains some classic works.
Interesting question why a fan of pulp Space Opera would be averse to a little pulp Horse Opera.
I can't really speak for libraries at present, but 35 years ago the Western shelves were very busy places in libraries. However, the vast numbers of books being borrowed didn't seem very literary to me. Much of it looked like the same kind of pulp fiction as the pulp SFF that was around, and the Mills and Boon romance. If the genre is maligned then I think that would be the reason, much as it was with SFF at the same time. The main thing I noticed was that almost all of the people reading it were elderly men; men who will no longer be still around to read it today. So if you are looking as to why the genre has become unpopular you need to look much further back to the 1950's and 1960's, and ask why young people back then stopped reading it. And it is certainly true that the genre as a whole has become less popular. Western films have still been made, but there was clearly a spike in the 1940's and 1950's when all those John Wayne films were made, and a gradual fall off through the Spaghetti Westerns to the present day.

Now that clearly wasn't the same with SFF. I can't tell you why but young people were still borrowing that pulp SFF. I was reading it myself. I was also borrowing all the PK Dick anthologies I could find, long before Hollywood discovered him. And there were new young SFF writers too, producing fresh books. I think the whole Star Wars thing in 1977 might be partly responsible, because on the back of that success, SFF films were being produced on a scale they never had done. Then you had things like cyberpunk come along.

It is strange - I have read The Road - but I didn't think of Cormac McCarthy as a western writer. No Country For Old Men must be one of the most read books of the noughties, and the same for All the Pretty Horses in the nineties.

I don't think the Western is dead yet, it is just waiting for a revival.
The discussion of Steinbeck reminds me of my surprise as a kid when first reading Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op short stories (I think the collection The Big Knockover) some of which included horseback riding in the arroyos around (as I recall) San Francisco, or maybe somewhere between San Fran and L.A. It's hard to believe now, but 100 years ago Southern California was still largely open plain or desert, that L.A. was really desert area -- the water rights issues in the film Chinatown were really issues there.

Anyway, it momentarily took me out of the story when the chubby, gruff Op mounted a horse to investigate a crime. And I think you see some of that Western feel again in Hammett's first novel, Red Harvest. Craig Johnson's recent Walt Longmire mysteries sort of complete the cycle.

A few years ago I came across an article (book? can't really recall now) that the modern American detective story in large part transfigures the Western into more contemporary terms: The cowboy becomes the detective, the range becomes the city, and cowboy adversaries become gangsters, crooked politicians and corrupt police. Another reader pointed out to me that the Western had morphed from previous forms, like those stories featuring knights and warfare. (I think it's a bit more complex than that since noir feels to me like a reconfiguring of Gothic.)

As for s.f., I believe even Gene Roddenberry saw Star Trek as Wagon Train in space.

Randy M.
It was perhaps inevitable, given my age and nationality, that I watched a great many TV Westerns in my youth. Saturday morning children's programming like "My Friend Flicka," episodes of "Rin Tin Tin" in the afternoon, "The Rifleman" and "Have Gun, Will Travel" in the early evening, and shows like "Gunsmoke," "Maverick" and "Wyatt Earp" in the evening. And then a goodly number of movies, some at the theater and some old ones on television. Not only that, but I lived not far away from where Hollywood did many of the scenes on location, so the very landscapes were familiar to me. Even some of the children's books I read had western settings. I was simply steeped in the stuff.

So maybe that explains why I didn't take a shine to Westerns as reading material as I grew up. Perhaps they just seemed ... too ordinary.

But my mother had loved reading Westerns when she was young. She even tried her hand at writing some. One of her favorite authors was Zane Grey. So when she came to live with me and my family near the end of her life, I'd go to the library and bring home three or four of his books at a time for her to read. I read a few of them, since they were on hand, and I have to say they were pulp at its most pulpy. And I vaguely remember that some of them featured (along with the action) romances of cloying sentimentality.

I think you are right, Dave, that the genre's greatest appeal was to an older generation ... few of whom survive now. There is the occasional best seller, which is not classified as part of the genre.

And yet in romance novels western settings are very popular. A look at the titles shows so many stories about mail order brides, you would think that this part of the country would hardly have been populated without them.


David, the story of "The Last of the Mohicans" takes place in what came to be New York state and maybe a little bit of it in Canada, during the French and Indian War. I can see how it would seem like a western from your side of the Atlantic, but actually the main characters were English colonists.
Hi, Teresa.

Somewhat lateral to topic, some cable stations recently have played repeats of "Have Gun...", "Maverick" and "The Rifleman" and watching one now and again has been nostalgic. It was a little like revisiting my childhood.

I do wonder what the glut of Western movies of the 1950s and TV shows in the 1950s and early 1960s did to the popularity of the genre. I know my wife can't abide them because her family watched so many when she was a child; she doesn't even like Blazing Saddles.

Randy M.
The Ox-Bow Incident showed up in my literary class reading list.

Many thanks Extollager - the Clark looks particularly of interest. Any particular thoughts about them? What makes them great/literary?

Oddly enough the movie made from it also showed up in my Film as an Art class.
I know my wife can't abide them because her family watched so many when she was a child

I was actually quite devoted to some of them at the time, and didn't want to miss a single episode: "Maverick," "Cheyenne," "Sugarfoot" and later "Bonanza" and "The Big Valley." So it is a little strange that I wasn't attracted to them as reading material.

It can't be because I thought the books were written for an older generation (though they were) because why would I be reading Dickens and Austen if that were the case. Maybe it was because I knew that those I saw in the stores were written to appeal to men, rather than the family audiences (including females) the TV shows were aiming for.
Nice. I'd love to get my hands on that volume. Especially wondering which Steinbeck that might be.
I hope Dask doesn't mind me answering this but I have a copy of that book and from memory the Steinbeck story is Johnny Bear. An interesting and carefully plotted story that explores themes of race, gender and class.
How strange our day's obsession with these three may seem to people in the future who look back on us.... (Meaning no offense to you, Gollum.)
No offense taken. These themes were in fact what Steinbeck explores in this story (which I don't think you are disputing just highlighting) but sadly I think they will always seem an issue to humanity.
The movies changed when Clint Eastwood showed up in those Italian jobs. Suddenly it was cool again, real believable tough guy westerns with great music and a bit of tongue in cheek ala Batman or other stuff around at the time. The graveyard scene in Good Bad n' Ugly is a great one. I've learned to play the little piece that the pocket watch plays, the gold watch/musicbox Ramone stole when he killed Angel Eye's wife.... and so far nobody has drawn down on me.
You beat me to it. I was going to ask who could watch The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly and not be totally captivated by it. One of my favorite movies, if not my favorite.

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