Monday, December 26, 2011

Progress report

Owen Wister
Have you ever started out on a project that just kept growing? A year and a half ago I got the idea I’d like to read the novels of the writers who helped invent the western. There was Owen Wister and Zane Grey, and a gap of about a decade between them. I figured there was maybe a dozen writers at the time trying their hand at cowboy westerns. It would not be a big job.

Acquiring a few reference books, like Tuska and Piekarski’s Encyclopedia of Frontier and Western Fiction and Geoff Sadler’s Twentieth-Century Western Writers, I found there were a good deal more than a dozen. The notion of a “cowboy western” also enlarged until I was considering any fiction set in the West. Western writers of the time were also telling exciting stories about mining, railroading, and engineering projects. Cowboys sometimes figured in them; sometimes not. So the notion of a “cowboy western” got fuzzy and then kind of leaked away.

The period I was looking in expanded, too. There were more western writers than I expected to find who were publishing before Wister. If you think about it, there were “westerns” to be read from almost the beginning of American fiction. From the days of the first white settlements, there was always a “West” out there beyond civilization. I arbitrarily chose to draw the line at 1880.

At the other end of the period, I came to see WWI as an important watershed and chose to stop with 1915. That was also the first year after The Virginian that a western novel reached the annual top-ten best seller list at Publisher’s Weekly. It was Zane Grey’s The Lone Star Ranger. (His The U.P. Trail would go to no. 1 in 1918.)

What made the project doable at all was the purchase of a nook and the availability at Barnes & Noble of nearly every book I was looking for at .99 or free. So far, I have read the first novels or story collections of 48 writers, starting with Mary Hallock Foote’s The Led-Horse Claim (1883) and ending with George W. Ogden’s The Long Fight (1915). Meanwhile, my TBR pile of early westerns has kept growing.

The light was at the end of the tunnel a week ago until I got my hands on a copy of Nina Baym’s Women Writers of the American West, 1833-1927. It’s an old story, and we know how male writers took over the genre of western writing. Women, it turns out, were also publishing volumes of fiction about the West. I’d found a few of them before now: B. M. Bower, Mary Austin, Kate Boyles, and Carol Lockhart. Now I’ve got a bunch more. Which is a lot of reading, but definitely cool. I like the idea of a more balanced picture.

So I am now miles away from the book I’ve been putting together about these writers. There’ll be about 75 of them when I’m finished. Maybe a year from now, you’ll hear me shout on the western wind, “I’m done!” In the meantime, I’m enjoying this project even more now than before, and I continue to believe I’ll be pleased with the end result and that readers and writers of westerns will find it fun and informative reading.

I’d be interested in hearing stories by anybody else who's had similar experiences.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Tom Mix, Sky High (1922)


  1. Ron, that's a fascinating project. The more any research is done the more there is to find out. Good on your for taking this one. I'm looking forward to your results.

  2. I've been there indeed. Am there with a project I started several years ago. I do make slow progress but it has snowballed hugely. Slow and steady wins the race, they say. I think that's true of writing as well.

  3. Ron, this is a great project that you have been working on and one that does not cover the same old ground like most western fiction research. You are doing some original work that will last long after we are all gone. Scholars, readers, and collectors, will be using your book many years from now.

    This will be a great book and one that I am eagerly looking forward to reading.

  4. I heartily agree with Walker and can't wait until it's out!

  5. Mr. Tuska and Ms Piekarski are fine, knowledgeable guides.

  6. Your small project is turning out to be almost formidable, maybe a multi-volume end product, quite an undertaking. Good luck with it, Ron.

  7. I have a few projects like that ongoing--but mostly non-fiction (Nevada and the Cape Fear Region of NC)

  8. A great project. It seems like in most literary genres women got pushed aside at some point. A fellow on NPR last week was speaking of early women crime writers who did not write cozies and were eventually forced to write for the "ladies" to succeed.

  9. I learned to read very young (courtesy of an older sibling who was learning and decided to teach me) and by the time I was ten I was devouring every book that my father didn't physically remove from my ken. I was lucky --- for some reason our house was full of old westerns, William McLeod Raine and others, and they were my first exposure to the Western genre. Then I enlisted in the Marines and often found myself in situations where the only books available (at least the only ones fit to read) were Louis L'Amours. I, too, have an e-reader loaded with way more books than I'll ever read.

    I figure this is one way of making sure I'll never die; I still have those 600 or so books I have to read.

  10. Another great resource is The Western: Parables of the American Dream, by Jeffrey Wallmann, Texas Tech University Press. Disclosure: I wrote the foreword. The study was done in response to a comment I made in an article: "no disciplined, scholarly, unbiased research dealing broadly with the values, themes and ideals, plots and characters in westerns, decade by decade, from 1900 to the present, has ever been done." So Wallmann did it.

  11. The ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FRONTIER AND WESTERN FICTION is an excellent book published in the early 1980's. I saw Jon Tuska at a couple Pulpcons and asked him about a second edition which would include some authors that were left out.

    On Feb 11, 2008 he addressed this subject on the MYSTERY FILE blog:

    Basically he said there would be no 2nd edition because of lack of time. It seems he was preparing another edition but then around 1994 Five Star Westerns was launched which was the hardcover western fiction series that many of us are familiar with. This kept Tuska busy for quite a long period.

  12. Leah, thanks for the encouragement.

    Veronica, thanks to you, too.

    Charles, slow and steady; I should have that appliqued over my desk.

    Peter, it was the emergence of Zane Grey that kind of got me started; out of a big field of contenders, how did he happen to be so commercially successful?

    Walker, I appreciate your continued encouragement; you comments have helped keep me going. Tuska and Piekarski is a good reference, but far from exhaustive; it may also be showing its age. We read westerns differently today than we did 30 years ago.

    Laurie, thanks also for your encouragement; I think about western enthusiasts like you as an audience for what I write.

    Richard, thanks for mentioning Wallman's book; sounds like a great resource and I will look for it.

    Oscar, it divided into at least two volumes already a while ago.

    Sage, I can't imagine staying interested in living without having a project of some kind in the works. Ha.

    Patti, much the same thing happened with western fiction; I think we see the remnants of that today in the proliferation of romance westerns by women writers. Someone could do a study, if it hasn't been done already, of how gender has being a primary force in shaping genres.

    Shay, I've got several hundred books that are supposed to keep me going, too. Ha.