Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Crime in early western fiction

Cover, 1902 edition
This may seem like a stretch, but the early western novel is more than a little about crime and criminals. I’m talking here specifically about the flood of novels that followed the huge popular success of Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902).

The scores of writers of these westerns are unknown today except for Zane Grey. Most of them (again, with the exception of Grey) are as good as Wister. Many had long careers in the pulps and in hard cover, their stories often made into Hollywood films.

The essential themes of the western are on full display in The Virginian, and that includes an interest in the criminal mind. Wister’s imitators followed suit, inventing the genre as they went. So let’s start with Wister.

Trampas, the villain of the novel, qualifies on many counts as a sociopath. The historical West had its share of misfits, which is often how they got on the frontier in the first place. And Wister, writing from first-hand knowledge, didn’t have to dream up this bad guy.

Trampas is a cauldron of barely contained rage. Meanwhile, he can competently hold down a job as a cowboy – not an easy occupation. Still, engaged in a continuing battle of wits with our hero, the Virginian, he carefully avoids open conflict. He backs down when challenged with "When you call me that, smile" [Illustration at left].

Wister, Harvard-educated and from a prominent Philadelphia family, is curious about what makes such a man. In the characters of Steve and Shorty, he shows how two men are corrupted by their association with Trampas.

Both descend into thievery out of weakness of character, stealing horses and rustling cattle instead of working at an honest living. Steve, though he’s the Virginian’s long-time friend, is captured and hanged. Shorty could make a career of handling horses, which he has a gift for, but he's lured by Trampas' promises of easy money. Trampas then shoots him dead as the two men flee from the vigilantes, but with a single horse between them [Illustration below].

So far, the story has two elements that make it a western on the one hand and crime fiction on the other. It’s a western because it takes place on the “lawless” frontier. I put that word in quotes because there were in fact two kinds of law out there: duly constituted and something called the code of the West.

Duly constituted authority were the sheriffs and federal marshals based in widely scattered settlements hundreds of miles apart. These men were too few and far between to enforce the law outside their immediate vicinity. Even so, a jailed prisoner awaiting trial might easily be dragged off by a lynch mob and never get the benefit of appearing before a judge and jury.

The code of the West was a loose, unwritten agreement among men of good will to respect each other’s rights to life and property. This agreement was self-enforced by widespread ownership of firearms. Where it was believed necessary, private citizens organized as vigilantes and went after malefactors on their own. Or they hired “detectives” to do the job for them.

What constituted crime on the frontier was typically thievery, resulting in hanging. While many were injured and died of gunshot wounds, these were almost always matters of self-defense and not considered worthy of a trial. For a punishable offence, the victim had to have been unarmed or even just unwarned, i.e., ambushed.

Likewise, if two private citizens decided to settle a disagreement with guns, as the Virginian and Trampas do at the end of the novel, that’s entirely up to them. Whoever survives will have been lawfully defending himself.

So the early western operates in an imaginative world with its own understanding of crime and criminals. Yet there is plenty of both that must be dealt with by men whose job it is to stop them.

Thus, writing for an Eastern (supposedly more civilized) audience, Wister takes pains to justify the matter of vigilante justice in his novel. Molly the schoolmarm from Vermont is horrified to learn that her cowboy sweetheart has been a vigilante, and it puts the skids to their romance for a while. Then, on the night before their wedding, she pleads with him not to confront Trampas in the final showdown [Illustration above]. It’s a western, so she loses on both counts.

Finally, Wister never seems to understand what goes into the making of a villain like Trampas. Unlike Steve and Shorty, he is criminal to the core. This, to me, is part of the fascination of crime fiction, and it’s where it overlaps as a genre with the western.

Each in its own way takes the reader on a journey into the heart of malevolence, around which there remains always an unsolved mystery. You can kill off Trampas, but there he is again in the next western you pick up. And the struggle to locate and neutralize him begins anew.

The Virginian is currently available free online at google books. Also at amazon, AbeBooks, alibris, and for the Nook.

Image credits: Cover, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming
Illustrations from the first edition of the novel by Arthur I. Keller 

Coming up: William R. Lighton, Uncle Mac’s Nebrasky (1904)


  1. I really like this post, Ron. I read my first Western not long after I started reading crime fiction, and have always thought that, outside of the setting, there isn't that much difference.

  2. Good post, Ron. Been reading about the Nebraska vigilantes that tracked down horse thieves in the 1880s. A fascinating time. Common folk acceptance of such ideas didn't go as far as our myths (or popular fiction) would have us believe. Men who took the law into their own hands tended to take over other matters too --ultimately losing favor with the populace they purported to protect.

  3. I thought Wister's characterization of Trampas was very good and one of the highlights of the story. Of course, he weakened him a bit in contrast to the hero but still he was interesting.

  4. A really well thought out post. Also really too bad a western can get pigeon holed just because of the setting. After all, a crime is a crime.

    Another good one, Ron.

  5. I agree with Mr. Wilkerson. A nice essay, Ron.

  6. A keen grasp of the early western story here. The Virginian, by the way, is deeply reluctant to do violence, especially to hang his friend Steve, and does so out of duty. Maintaining a lawful social order is a matter of duty. This is quite the opposite of the modern western.

  7. Great post. I've read a great many westerns (and written a few) and there's an aspect of ciminality in all of them. I've heard it said that the depictions are blown out of proportion but the people of the early 21st century aren't that much different than those of 1870s. Someone thinking he can make big bucks for doing nothing and somebody else with a strong sense of morality.
    And the opening of the Canadian West wasn't that different from the US West ... despite what some would like to believe.

  8. I lost my comment! Interesting the way the genre developed. Have you read Richard McGraft's (I think that's his name, my library is on the other side of the world) work on violence in the west?

  9. Chris, the parallels between the genres are as interesting as the differences.

    Richard, it would take a degree of blood lust, I think, to take the law into your own hands. Thanks for the background on Nebraska vigilantes.

    Charles, Trampas is a bit of a coward; he keeps pushing the Virginian and then has to back down.

    Mike, a lot of readers miss out on good westerns because they have these stereotype ideas that are far from accurate.

    Oscar, thanks.

    Richard W., it's been said that Wister was mistaken in this scene; the code of the West put friendship before the law. A true westerner would have declined to be part of the hanging of a friend.

    Dave, human nature being what it is, it's hard to believe that people would have behaved more honorably then than now.

    Sage, I don't know McGraft, but I do have Richard Slotkin's GUNFIGHTER NATION, which I hope to read this summer.