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.
Coming up: Old West glossary, no. 37
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.