The Western Canon - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

The Western Canon


The Western: Four Classic Novels of the 1940s and 50s
Edited by Ron Hansen
(Library of America, 2020)

What the Mediterranean Sea was to the Greeks, breaking the bond of custom, offering new experiences, calling out new institutions and activities, that, and more, the ever retreating frontier has been to the United States directly, and to the nations of Europe more remotely. And now, four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.” Thus wrote historian Frederick Jackson Turner in his famous 1893 essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” Turner’s essay followed the announcement by the superintendent of the census that the American frontier was “closed” on the grounds that the country had been settled but for isolated pockets.

Turner’s grand thesis was that while the frontier no longer existed in the physical world, it lived on as the dominant force shaping the institutions of American society and the character of the American people. Western values of courage, ingenuity, determination, practicality, and equality were defining characteristics of the American soul. More than anywhere else, these values flourished on the frontier. “In short, at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish. . . . Little by little he transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not the old Europe. . . . The fact is, that here is a new product that is American.”

Given the importance of the West in shaping the American character and self-understanding, it is curious that literature that tells the story of the American West, the “Western novel,” has for so long been neglected—partly due to its reputation as unliterary trash. That oversight is at last rectified by a new entry in the Library of America (LOA), The Western: Four Classic Novels of the 1940s and 50s, edited by Ron Hansen, himself an acclaimed Western writer. The volume reproduces four classic novels of the era: The Ox-Bow Incident (1940) by Walter Van Tilburg Clark; Shane (1949) by Jack Schaefer; The Searchers (1954) by Alan Le May; and Warlock (1958) by Oakley Hall. All four were eventually made into major films, the first three of which are considered classics. But as this new volume shows, they are also important works of literature that portray different elements of the Western experience and, as Turner suggests, the American character.

The typical Western novel is set in the period between the Civil War and 1900. The earliest historical setting in this volume is that of The Searchers, set in 1868 Texas. The story features the six-year effort to rescue a girl captured in a Comanche raid by two men, Amos Edwards and Martin Pauley. As the story proceeds, it becomes evident that they are hardly more civilized than the Comanche.

Warlock, set in the early 1880s after the Indian threat had largely been cleared (its story loosely ties into the famous 1881 Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and its location is modeled after Tombstone, Arizona), features a semi-settled town carved out of the wilderness. Threatened by a criminal gang, a Citizens’ Committee hires as its “marshal” a well-known gunslinger named Clay Blaisedell. Blaisedell has become a gun for hire, making a career of moving from town to town restoring order by extralegal means. The novel turns on simultaneous conflicts between Blaisedell and the outlaws and between Blaisedell and deputy sheriff “Bud” Gannon, a reformed member of the gang who now seeks to instill the rule of law.

The Ox-Bow Incident, set in 1885 Nevada, shows the transition to the cusp of civilization. The story turns on the brutal lynching of three strangers accused of murder and cattle rustling. Unlike the earlier novels, there is a sheriff, judge, and other institutions of formal government in Bridger’s Wells. The fundamental tension in the book is between those who want immediately to form a posse and lynch the suspected rustlers and those who want to bring them in for proper and orderly treatment.

Finally, Shane is set in 1889 Wyoming and shows the closing days of the frontier. Here an early boom town has been settled, and the old turmoil is a memory. With order come settlers brought west under the Homestead Act of 1862. Notably, Shane is told from the perspective of eleven-year-old Bob Starrett. The central role of a child and his family is unique among the books in this collection.

The chronological arc of these novels illustrates the pattern of settlement through the West from the barely civilized Indian fighter Amos Edwards to the pastoral homesteaders Joe and Marian Starrett and their son Bob. In so doing, the stories wrestle with the continuing relevance of the frontier virtues—courage, self-reliance, ferocity, and honor—in a world governed by law, modern technology, and organized economic enterprise. In Shane, for example, the general store (patronized by the farmers and their families) symbolically sits next door to the saloon, which remains the center of lawlessness and is the headquarters of the outlaw toughs.

The novels in this volume are representative because much of the genre follows the same basic pattern. The stereotypical Western turns on the challenges of intrepid frontiersmen searching for gold, furs, or simply adventure. Like the West itself, the heroes of these books are young: men such as young Woodrow Call or Augustus (“Gus”) McCrae, who serve as Texas Rangers and Indian hunters in Larry McMurtry’s novel Dead Man’s Walk (set in the 1840s), a prequel to Lonesome Dove.

A second era of Westerns deals with the effort to escape encroaching civilization. Lonesome Dove itself, set in the 1870s, is a leading illustration. Generally regarded as the greatest Western of all, Lonesome Dove draws on the great tradition of quests, featuring an epic cattle drive led by the now middle-aged Woodrow and Gus. Prompted ostensibly by economic interests, it becomes evident that the real impetus for the journey is the claustrophobia that Call and Gus feel in Texas. Montana, by contrast, remains wild and unsettled.

The lifelong friendship of Call and Gus reflects another recurring theme, male friendship. Westerns are often portrayed as glorifying individualism, but at the heart of each novel in the LOA collection is a relationship between men who rely on each other implicitly. Western novels are often referred to as “chick lit for men,” usually as a dismissal of their superficial storylines. Yet Westerns are “dude lit” for another reason: accurate portrayals of male friendship are rare in fiction, often because male friendships are unspoken and literature is composed of words. Unfortunately,  Hansen misses this point in his otherwise-useful introduction, instead suggesting homoerotic undertones to the relationship between Shane and Joe Starrett.

Out of Place and Time

Eventually even Montana succumbed to settlement, civilization, and the rule of law, leading to the third era of the Western. This phase provides the drama of most of the LOA collection. The tension between frontier justice and rule-of-law values is most obvious in The Ox-Bow Incident. It is represented by the generational conflict between Major Tetley, an ex-Confederate officer who leads the posse, and his son Gerald, who is portrayed as sensitive, thoughtful, and in his father’s eyes effeminate.

Although The Ox-Bow Incident frames this conflict directly, it arises in more interesting and nuanced fashion in Shane. The story is familiar to most by now—the mysterious stranger Shane shows up at the Starrett farm looking for a meal and a roof. Despite the hint of a checkered past, Shane tries to settle down. Eventually, however, he witnesses the harassment of Joe Starrett and his fellow farmers by the local warlord, Luke Fletcher, who wants their land to run his cattle on the open range. Fletcher isn’t just in it for the money. He is upset by the passing of his freewheeling way of life and feels disrespected by Starrett and the other homesteaders.

Like Fletcher, Shane is out of place and time. He seeks to leave behind the Old West that shaped him and move into the new, modern world. In the end, however, he is who he is. And once his savage side emerges, doing the dirty work that civilized farmers and townspeople can’t do, it’s clear he can’t stay among them.

Similar themes run through Warlock. The hired gun Blaisedell taunts the townspeople, telling them he knows they will turn their backs on him after he does what they can’t. Similarly, in the famous closing scene of the movie version of The Searchers, we see John Wayne standing on the porch, unable to rejoin civilization (if he was ever civilized to begin with). We see in all these books the uneasy fit between the chaos and wildness of the Old West and the pressures of order and conformity of the new.

The final era of Western novels is the period of the closing of the West. Novels set in this phase tend to be dark and cynical, with themes of old age and death framing the story. Glendon Swarthout’s The Shootist exemplifies the genre. Set in El Paso in 1901, the story opens with John Bernard Books, the last surviving gunfighter, riding into town to waste away from the unglamorous disease of prostate cancer.

The town sheriff tells Books bluntly, “Where do you fit into the progress? You don’t. You belong in a museum. To put it in a nutshell, Books, you’ve plain, plumb outlived your time.” While in El Paso, Books encounters a range of con artists and schemers, all seeking to make a quick buck off Books’s fame. In a last show of courage, Books takes it upon himself to die in a suitable manner, and not just passively waste away.

It is not a coincidence that the golden age of Western novels coincided with victory in World War II and the opening of the Cold War. Like Shane, the United States was a reluctant combatant in World War II (as in World War I) but came to the aid of settled Europe, which lacked the ability to defend itself against gangster states. Indeed, Clark has acknowledged that the inspiration for The Ox-Bow Incident was the rise of Nazism in Germany and fear of similar temptations at home. 

During the Cold War, as America sought foundations for its traditional faith in individualism and clear moral rules of right and wrong, the spirit of the American West helped identify what made us special. Clair Huffaker’s novel The Cowboy and the Cossack (1973) brings these themes to the surface. The story is set in the 1880s and involves fifteen American cowboys shipped to Russia for a cattle drive across the forbidding plains of Siberia. Along the way they are joined by Cossacks, suffering under the czar’s rule, who accompany them to their destination. On their journey the cowboys and the Cossacks come to appreciate their shared humanity—and particularly the desire of the Cossacks for the freedom of the cowboys. The story is a touching and timeless testament to shared dreams of living free of autocratic rule.

Since the 1960s, though, few great Westerns have been written. Most of the candidates, such as John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing (1960), are obviously revisionist in their use of the standard mythos. So what is the continued relevance of the West to modern America?

In some ways, the Western hasn’t gone anywhere. From the portrayal of Texas oil barons of the twentieth century to the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs of today, the ideal of Americanism remains the individual adventurer who strikes off into the unknown, risking it all and braving new frontiers. Unlike the cynicism of Swarthout, contemporary authors such as Elmer Kelton have sought to explain the continued relevance of the “cowboy” in the modern age.

As for me, I read most of these books sitting on a porch at the Bar Lazy J guest ranch in Parshall, Colorado (population fifty-two), on my annual family vacation, which I spend riding my favorite horse, Hondo, and playing cowboy for a week every summer. Occasionally there are guests from England, Europe, even the Middle East. They come for a taste of the Old West, but this is no mere nostalgia. Just as visiting the Statue of Liberty and Constitution Hall help us to understand the intellectual foundation of America, the cowboy adventure brings to life the American spirit. The West exerts a hold on our imaginations. These books help us understand why the West made us what we are. 

Todd Zywicki is professor of law at Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University, and Senior Fellow of the Cato Institute. He would like to thank his father-in-law, Jerry Curry, for introducing him to several of the books discussed here.

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