Of the 47 early westerns (1880-1915) reviewed this year at BITS, here are the ones that for various reasons stood out from the rest. Listed in chronological order by date of publication:
Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, The Squatter and the Don (1885)
This historical romance, set mostly in southern California, has a bundle of different aspirations. It’s a nostalgic recollection of life on the Spanish land grant haciendas and a bitter account of its swift demise when Alta California became part of the United States. The book is also a family saga, incorporating several love stories. And it’s a shrill screed attacking the greed and political corruption of the railroad monopolies. More. . .
Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills (1890)
There’s a bit of Charles Dickens in this story of long-held secrets ending with a cascade of deathbed revelations. In its study of white-Indian relations on the frontier, it is also a critique of racial prejudice. As a study in character, its hero and heroine portray a stubborn independence and loyalty to higher ideals that put them at odds with their social equals. More. . .
Owen Wister, Red Men and White (1896)
Republished in later years as Salvation Gap and Other Western Classics, this early collection of short fiction by Owen Wister was originally written in part for Harpers Monthly in 1894-1895. I first read it a half dozen years ago, and coming to it again after reading the work of his contemporaries, there’s more to notice that wasn’t obvious the first time. More. . .
Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville (1897)
Alfred Henry Lewis (1855-1914), published a trio of books, Wolfville (1897), Wolfville Days (1902), and Wolfville Nights (1902). Each is a comic collection of sketches set in a fictional frontier settlement in the Arizona desert. Ominously called Wolfville, it was no doubt meant to emulate the very real town of Tombstone. More. . .
Elizabeth Higgins, Out of the West (1902)
Set in Nebraska in a fictional small town, Columbia Junction, this anti-railroad novel describes the disastrous impact of rising freight rates on early settlers. The central character, Frank Fields, lives there in exile, sent West by his wealthy father to manage a couple of grain elevators acquired in a foreclosure. More. . .
Samuel Merwin, The Road-Builders (1905)
In this exciting railroad novel, Samuel Merwin tells of a crew of engineers building a railway in West Texas. It is the 1870s, and the principle obstacle to the operation is not the Apaches, as you’d expect, but a rival railroad magnate. More. . .
Herman Whitaker, The Settler (1907)
Reading this novel, it’s not a surprise that its author hung out with Jack London. Herman Whitaker shows a feeling for the kind of tough men who labored in the most physically demanding industries of the developing West. While an opponent of the monopolists, trusts, and robber barons who made fortunes at the expense of workingmen, he also saw that it took the hubris of their grand vision to build nations. More. . .
Frederick Niven, The Lost Cabin Mine (1908)
This early western by Scots-Canadian writer Frederick Niven (1878-1944) is a character study of a frontier outlaw with “good” bad man credentials. The Apache Kid is a congenial train robber, bank robber, and road agent, But he’s never been convicted of any crimes and socializes freely with any law-abiding citizens who care to have his acquaintance. More. . .
Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West (1908)
Martin Allerdale Grainger (1874-1941) was a true son of the British Empire. Born in London, he grew up in Australia, was educated at Cambridge, went to the Klondike, and served as a trooper in the Boer War. After trying placer mining and logging in British Columbia, he settled there, devoting the rest of his life to the timber industry. More. . .
And the beat goes on. Currently I have another 15 more early western writers whose first novels are on the to-read list.
Coming up: Zane Grey, Nevada (1928)