Sunday, July 15, 2012

Progress report

About six months ago I posted here a progress report on my early-western project. For two years now, I’ve been finding and reading first novels and story collections set in the West and published between 1880-1915. That project grew to be much larger than first expected. The dozen or so writers I started with gradually grew into a much longer list.

Back in December, the list had grown to 75, and I was seeing light at the end of the tunnel, but since then the 75 writers have grown once more to 100. I believe now there are probably many more, but I’ve decided to stop when I get to that 100th one. There is such a thing as overkill.

Over the past six months, I’ve read and written up the following books:

With retirement, I’ve had more time to devote to this project, but it hasn’t exactly gone into overdrive. I carefully read and then write up each book based on several pages of notes. A condensed version of each write-up gets posted at BITS each week. Looking at the TBR list, I don’t expect to be done before the end of the year.

Besides the plot for each one, I try to follow several threads that run through all the novels. I’m interest in the portrayal of character, the role of women, romance, racial attitudes, language and style, the western setting, cowboys, mining, timber, railroads, the military, and regional differences, plus whatever biographical material I can find about the author.

My guiding objective has been to assemble an extensive study of the period’s popular literature that will give a picture of how the West was imagined by turn-of-the-century writers and readers. I see the finished product as an informal guide to the period, not something stuffy and academic.

Context. It’s an interesting period historically. The years follow closely on the heels of the Civil War, the gold rushes, the Indian Wars, and the “closing” of the frontier West. They embrace the Spanish-American War and the Progressivist era of Theodore Roosevelt, and they are fraught with social issues that eventually produced women’s suffrage and Prohibition.

As we look back to that time, Owen Wister and Zane Grey remain prominent for us today. But in reality Wister was regarded as only one among several successful western writers. And Zane Grey did not emerge until the end of the period.

There were scores of other writers who produced a substantial outpouring of fiction set in the West. Many of them are still highly readable and entertaining. Still at the dawn of the coming age of both movies and pulp magazines, they wrote at a time when print was king. People read books, periodicals, and newspapers in great numbers.

Writers then as now wrote to capture the attention and recognition of this public and, if possible, to make a living. I want to capture some of how all that gave shape to what would eventually become “the western.”

Is there an audience out there for all this? Maybe, and it’s probably small. If the data at GoodReads is anything to go by, I seem to be the only person reading these books, let alone taking the time to write about them. But it keeps me occupied, entertained, and feeling useful.

And so it goes.

Coming up: Old West glossary, no. 37


  1. Perhaps you're the only one reading them right now because of the way they've fallen into obscurity. I'll bet there are a lot of people who would enjoy the hundreds of forgotten books out there if they only knew they existed.

  2. I really believe there is an audience. Certainly readers and collectors like myself and the readers of BUDDIES IN THE SADDLE. Don't forget many libraries might want to order such a book because of the original research.

    At first, sales might be small but I really think, as the years go on, that such a book about the early western fiction authors, will be in great demand, especially for lovers of early American popular and western culture.

    Long after we are all gone, your book will live on. And that's really quite an achievement.

  3. you've done some amazing work with this. It's one reason why i'm looking forward to retirement myself, to be able to take on some projects that I'm really interested in

  4. Thank you again for your priceless word lists. I don't think there's anything like them anywhere and that's quite an achievement. I've read the 19th Century word lists produced by Google searches, but I don't see any duplication. Someday, at least some historians will thank you because the words are reproduced from an era.

    Of all the period books you've read, what are the top five?

    Tell us that and some of us will read them.

    1. Top five. Need to think about that. Sounds like a future blog post.

  5. Rob, speaking as one who had rarely read the genre, I expect I'm not alone in thinking that you're providing me with "a western education". You've introduced this Canadian to several writers who have been completely forgotten by those of us north (and, it seems, south) of the border. I add that many had escaped my attention, and yet so many of my waking hours are spent in pursuit of the neglected. I very much appreciate your effort, your passion and most of all your writing.

    So, here's hoping that you won't end it all at one hundred... and that you'll continue until the well runs dry.

    Overkill? Surely, you jest.

    More, please!

  6. A remarkable project, and one I hope you will turn into a scholarly book-- perhaps a collection of your reviews, plus in introduction. I had naively believed Owen Wister had played a key role in the creation of the western story. But you've persuaded me there was a lot more to it.

  7. Ron, that's an amazing project, indeed, especially in context of the specific period, 1880-1915. Do you find it touch and go? I mean, what happens when you come across a book written just before 1880 or just after 1915 and deserves to be a part of your commendable project? Do you have second thoughts, now that you have frozen the period and the number of books at 100?

    1. Prashant, the year 1880 is arbitrary, as you can argue that there was a western frontier for European settlers from about 1500 onward. But 1915 is more of a watershed year, as WWI produced such a jarring historical change. It's also the year that one of Zane Grey's novels became a no. 1 bestseller. There had not been a western of that popularity since THE VIRGINIAN in 1902.

      The 100 writers is a round figure. As things go, I'm likely to find some more that are too good to leave out. Thanks for your interest.

  8. Thanks, everybody, for your generous and encouraging comments. I plant to keep on keepin' on.