|Illustration for Wolfville (1897), Frederic Remington|
The problem with them is that popular fiction from the period (1880-1915) is an unembarrassed reflection of the popular culture then current. It reflects values and makes assumptions that have been challenged and found questionable with the years. Reading these novels, for instance, you find casual racism and long-outdated notions about gender and social classes.
So when I pick what have been the most interesting western novels from these years, it’s not because they are twenty-first century friendly. They put a lot of hurdles in the way of a modern reader.
For one thing, they were self-consciously respectful of the tender sensitivities of female readers. Delicate subjects and frank language were simply avoided. While Charles Darwin was commonly understood, this was a time still untouched by Freud. Also, in the absence of a Hemingway, writing styles tended toward the ornate. Authors were likely to draw on their classical educations and the Bible for analogies and figurative references—meaningless to most modern readers.
So when you read any of these, think of them as time capsules from 100 years ago. They reveal a lot of where we have been as a culture, and how certain fixed ideas have been embedded in it. The list is in chronological order, and the links are to reviews here at BITS.
King was a military man, and his novels take you inside the social world of officers and their spouses on the frontier. This novel is a study of a man whose career and love life are affected by an ambitious and unprincipled fellow officer.
This collection of interrelated stories about a Wyoming cowboy shows Wister developing ideas that would appear again in The Virginian (1902).
This is another collection of interrelated stories set in a fictional desert cow town in southern Arizona. Humorous and satirical, it portrays an ensemble of characters in often comic situations.
This realistic and suspenseful trail-drive novel is a follow-up to Adams’ better-known Log of a Cowboy (1903). Adams knew the cattle business first-hand, and he is careful to be accurate in all the details.
Set in New Mexico, Hough’s novel captures the mostly easy-going life of a sleepy cow town during the years of the Lincoln County Wars. It’s also a sweet love story.
This is the first of Bower’s Flying U novels, set on a ranch in northern Montana. Bower knew rural Montana life from first-hand experience and offers a woman’s point of view.
This is the best of many railroad novels of the period. Smith is a railroad detective looking for train robbers and apprehending a sabotaging former employee.
Rhodes grew up in New Mexico, where he cowboyed and prospected. This short novel set in El Paso and Juarez involves the efforts of several men to find a kidnapped friend.
The central character in this darkly humorous novel set in Wyoming is a sleazy cattle rustler who is finally brought to rough justice.
This autobiographical novel by an African-American writer offers an entertaining and detailed account of homesteading in South Dakota.