Sunday, March 10, 2013

Progress report


Desert spring, clouds, March winds, and new leaves
About eight months ago I posted here a progress report on my early-western projectFor well over 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.

Last July, the list had grown to 100, and eventually topped off at 105. I am now down to the last 5-6 novels—and as many as ten if I include writers who are well known today: Willa Cather, Jack London, Frank Norris, and Helen Hunt Jackson. By contrast with mostly unknown books and writers, there is more than enough already written about these authors. But I’d welcome the opinion of readers here as to whether I should include them.

At any rate, the end is in sight.

Objective. My guiding objective has been to assemble an extensive study of the period’s popular fiction 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.

Besides the plot for each novel, I try to follow several threads that run through all of them. I’m interested 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.

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 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, though forgotten, 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.”

Any thoughts from interested readers as I go into the final stages of writing are welcome.

Image credits:
Desert photo, Ron Scheer © 2013
Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: The Sundowners (1960)

14 comments:

  1. Ron, while reading early westerns, I never thought of the period 1880-1915 as being historically significant till I started following your reviews of scores of western books that underscored the relevance of the period and the events it shaped. It has been a truly educative experience and I look forward to the successful culmination of your unique project.

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    1. Reading the popular fiction of that period, you can almost feel the wheels of history turning.

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  2. I'm all for you publishing a big book dealing with these early writers of western fiction. We need such a book since there is not much information on many of the early writers like Francis Lynde and Dane Coolidge,etc. I would mention such well known authors as Cather, London, Norris, and Helen Hunt Jackson, but you are right about how they are well known compared to the other authors that you have covered.

    Your book will not be the same old stuff about the western. I'm looking forward to reading it and owning a copy.

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    1. Thanks, Walker, for your support--really from the beginning of this whole project.

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  3. I am hoping you will include the better known people, including Willa Cather and Jack London, in this fine project, if only to contrast them to the rest. Cather and London are readable today, and they tower over most of the others you have examined so carefully. Their presence in the project will add perspective.

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  4. Wait, you can't finish up. I've just started reading your blog. What about the 1901 novel, That Girl Montana, by Marah Ellis Ryan that I read as a teenager. You don't have any that take place in Idaho, which this does. Was it well-written? I have no idea. I liked it at the time. I do think that the attitudes of characters in books did have an influence on the readers at the time, just as you've intimated. A progressive woman character that wasn't helpless like The Little Doctor in Chip of the Flying U by B.M. Bower must have had an impact on young women.It must have had a subtle impact on me - I became a lawyer. And does that mean that the publishers were progressive, too?

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    1. There's already a Marah Ellis Ryan novel in the book: TOLD IN THE HILLS (1890).

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  5. Although I like the idea of the "Unknown" or unremembered writer focus, having a few more famous writers in there would certainly be a selling point for the book. If you are concerned about that. Name recognition is important to editors certainly.

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    1. You realize, of course, this will make a long book even longer. Ha.

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  6. Will this be in print? I'd love to buy a signed copy off you for my Western History collection. I haven't done much work in Western History in the past decade, but I'm teaching a class at a local Community College this spring titled "Mark Twain and the American West" and have enjoyed thinking more about the region.

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    1. I'm hoping to have a print version available.

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  7. I will be very sorry to see the series end as I am learning a ton. I too would love to buy a signed copy of your book. However, I was wondering what inspired the date of 1915, and wondered if it might be possible to include some later writers like Max Brand, or would this be something for a different project on the inter-war years? And finally, I too d'avoir including the better known authors from the early period. Best of luck. Michael

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    1. Michael, originally I picked 1915 because it was the first year that a western was the no. 1 bestseller since Wister's THE VIRGINIAN. With the outbreak of war in Europe, it also marked the end of an era.

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