Westerns - Study Guides on General Topics

Realism and Regionalism 1865–1914 - Gary Scharnhorst and Thomas Quirk 2010

Study Guides on General Topics

Few literary forms conform as rigidly to formulaic definition as does the Western, and yet the genre has undergone an almost continuous process of revision and reinvention since its appearance in the early nineteenth century. For most readers, the term describes a work of popular fiction set in the period after the Civil War and before the supposed “closing of the frontier” famously described by historian Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893. Indeed, the genre has been irrevocably linked to Turner’s “frontier thesis,” the claim that the experience of western expansion and settlement serves as the defining feature in the establishment of a uniquely American national character. As popular and critical attitudes toward Turner’s ideas and an underlying ideology of American exceptionalism have evolved, so too has the Western adapted to a shifting cultural context. Likewise, the cultural turn in the study of literature has encouraged critical scholarly exploration of popular culture, including the Western, and this scholarly scrutiny has led to increased recognition of the genre’s aesthetic and ideological significance in the literary history of the United States.

Among the distinctive generic characteristics of the Western is the presence of a solitary male protagonist, whose sense of honor and dignity invoke the chivalric hero of romance, yet whose temperament and personal history render him unfit for full participation in an increasingly bureaucratic and industrialized society. The origins of this figure, as well as the basic contours of the Western narrative, can be found in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels, a series of five books published between 1823 and 1841 and modeled on Sir Walter Scott’s immensely popular historical romances. Cooper’s novels chronicle the life of Natty Bumppo, or “Leatherstocking,” a white man raised among Indians, whose prodigious skills as a frontiersman help to ensure ongoing westward settlement during the years before and after the American Revolution.

Following the model established by Cooper’s self-described “national epic,” similar historical romances began to appear within an increasingly lucrative American publishing marketplace. Indeed, the same market forces that oversaw western expansion helped to create a middle-class audience that eagerly read such stories in ever-larger numbers. In 1860 the firm of Beadle and Adams began marketing sensational adventure tales, usually shorter than thirty thousand words, for ten cents each, and these “dime novels” sold millions of copies within a decade of their first appearance. Among the best-selling titles were Edward Ellis’s Seth Jones; or, The Captives of the Frontier (1860) and Edward L. Wheeler’s Deadwood Dick series, which included over thirty novels, beginning with Deadwood Dick, the Prince of the Road (1877). Wheeler’s inclusion of contemporary events and real-life figures in the novel, set in the Black Hills following George Armstrong Custer’s historic 1876 defeat at Little Bighorn, exemplifies the blurring of distinctions between historical fact and fiction that characterized the Western for generations. The presence of Sitting Bull and Calamity Jane in Wheeler’s fictional tale lends an air of authenticity to the narrative, written in Philadelphia by a writer who never traveled west, and also presents an imagined history of western expansion to a curious public, even as the events themselves are unfolding in real time.

Dime novels served as a crucial conduit for the mythological Western narrative that gripped American society in the late nineteenth century. The partnership between William Cody, a sometime hunter and army scout, and the prolific Ned Buntline (aka Edward Z. C. Judson) helped generate the mass-culture phenomenon known as Buffalo Bill Cody, hero of dozens of dime novels, legendary Indian fighter, and entrepreneur behind the “Wild West,” a theatrical spectacle that toured worldwide well into the twentieth century. In fact, Turner delivered his address “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” to the American Historical Association at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago literally across the street from the site where the “Wild West” was staged in 1893. The ritual reenactment of western expansion as “manifest destiny,” exemplified by scores of virtually interchangeable dime novels and Buffalo Bill’s long-running extravaganza, rendered the line between fact and fiction virtually indistinguishable in the popular imagination.

At the turn of the century, as dime novels began to disappear in favor of even cheaper magazines marketed toward younger readers, the publication of Owen Wister’s The Virginian in 1902 breathed new life into the genre and heralded the arrival of the highbrow “literary” Western. Like so many writers of Westerns, Wister was an Easterner caught in the thrall of the mythology of the West, and his characterization of the protagonist of The Virginian solidified several elements of the modern Western hero: a displaced Southerner, he is a natural aristocrat who rejects convention and pretense, a reluctant yet deadly warrior, and an articulate advocate who is reticent by choice. Most significantly, the hero is a cowboy. Whereas dime-novel heroes might serve in any number of roles, including soldier, scout, mountain man, it is the prototypical cowboy, leading cattle across unfenced plains, that occupies iconic pride of place within the Western story. By 1900 longdistance cattle drives were a thing of the past; modern industrial ranching had radically circumscribed the cowboy’s role. Wister’s evocative vision of a Wyoming landscape not yet conquered by the forces of civilization, therefore, resonated in an industrial America nostalgic for its myth-laden agrarian origins. Like Leatherstocking, the Virginian and his cultural descendants reflect the ambivalent combination of mourning and optimism that characterizes twentieth-century attitudes toward modernity itself.

Among the thematic concerns raised by Wister’s seminal novel, are shifting gender roles, racial conflict, and the changing demography of the United States, all of which loom large in subsequent retellings of the Western narrative. To a great extent, The Virginian reinforces the dictates of the “strenuous life” defended and exemplified in Theodore Roosevelt’s writings and political career. Moreover, in response to the increasing influence exerted by urbanization, industrialization, and corporate capitalism on the lives of American citizens, the Western has consistently reflected the appeal of a restored tradition, albeit one largely invented within fiction itself. Although Westerns generally acknowledge the presence of women, Native Americans, and other groups in the historical development of the American West, their roles within the genre are, for the most part, greatly circumscribed by the ideological imperatives of the “westering” narrative. Although several literary works, such as Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona (1884), Sui Sin Far’s Mrs. Spring Fragrance (1912), and Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! (1913) are deeply concerned with the history, stories, and people of the western United States, their focus on the perspectives of Native Americans, Asian immigrants, or women places them outside the boundaries of the Western genre. In other words, these works, along with such canonical texts as Mark Twain’s Roughing It (1872), Stephen Crane’s “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” (1898), and Frank Norris’s The Octopus (1901), are widely acknowledged as “Western literature” but not as “Westerns.”

Although Wister’s novel gained currency within the sphere of high culture, one of the most prominent inheritors of Wister’s legacy was Zane Grey, among the most popular and successful writers of the twentieth century. Amazingly prolific, Grey published fifty-seven novels, the most famous of which, Riders of the Purple Sage (1912), further codified the heroic elements of Wister’s Virginian. Grey’s protagonist, Lassiter, embodies the dark, brooding mystery, highly personal moral code, and capacity for sudden violence that characterizes the modern Western protagonist. His arrival in the narrative is both an affront to the society he shuns and a necessary step to ensure its survival. When Jane Withersteen, a Mormon woman running a cattle ranch under the manipulative and cruel eyes of the local church elders, watches the arrival of “a horseman, silhouetted against the western sky, coming riding out of the sage,” she intuitively understands what he represents. The combination of strength and vulnerability and of skepticism and idealism marked the prototypical hero of countless Western stories and reinforced the Wesern’s role as a stabilizer of cultural anxieties regarding social change. Like Wister’s schoolteacher Molly in The Virginian, Jane represents a “New Woman,” strong, independent, and confident. Although these qualities make her fascinating to both the protagonist and audience, she nonetheless represents a potential threat to the prevailing social order that must be subsumed and contained through her involvement with the protagonist.


  • 1. In his famous address “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” (1893), Turner defined the frontier as “the meeting point between savagery and civilization.” In what ways does the Western as a literary form reflect the coexistence of these two ideas, and how do the protagonists of these stories negotiate between them?
  • 2. How has the success of the Western been facilitated by changes in the publishing and entertainment industry? How does the form and impact of the Western reflect such phenomena as the spread of magazine publishing and the manufacture and marketing of cheap paperbacks?
  • 3. How do the dynamics of gender operate in Westerns? Are male and female roles always stable or clearly established, or do these stories sometimes reflect cultural instability or uncertainty with regard to gender?
  • 4. Westerns have always laid claim to a level of truth and authenticity. How do the mythical elements of the Western complicate assertions of historical accuracy and the veneer of Realism typical of the genre?
  • 5. The Western has proven adaptable to other storytelling conventions, from mysteries to science fiction. What are some identifiable characteristics of the Western that have been translated into other genres and other cultures? What are some examples of the lasting prominence of the Western?


Primary Works

Bill Brown, ed., Reading the West: An Anthology of Dime Westerns (Boston: Bedford, 1997).

Includes four quite different examples of the nineteenth-century dime novel: Ann Stephens’s Malaeska; or, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter; Edward Ellis’s Seth Jones; or, the Captives of the Frontier; Edward Wheeler’s Deadwood Dick, the Prince of the Road; and the anonymous Frank Reade, the Inventor, Chasing the James Boys with His Steam Train. From the comparative study of these texts readers gain some perspective on the development of the formula “Western” that emerged from the dime-novel tradition.

Ned Buntline, Buffalo Bill and His Adventures in the West (1886; reprinted by Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 2007).

Republication of a classic example of Buntline’s work mythologizing the figure of William Cody, which captured the public imagination for years to come. No writer’s name is more closely associated with the dime novel than Buntline’s.

Zane Grey, Riders of the Purple Sage (1912; New York: Penguin, 1990).

Affirming the antimodern ideology of the traditional Western and borrowing heavily from Wister’s The Virginian for its themes and structure, presents an ideal of gender balance in the romance between the rough and impulsive Lassiter and the nurturing Jane Withersteen.

Owen Wister, The Virginian (1902; New York: Penguin, 1988).

The prototype for the modern Western.


Blake Allmendinger, The Cowboy: Representations of Labor in an American Work Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

Bringing together traditional Westerns, dime fiction, music, and “cowboy poetry,” explores the shifting image of the cowboy within American popular culture.

Richard Aquila, ed., Wanted Dead or Alive: The American West in Popular Culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996).

A wide-ranging collection of essays about popular fiction, film, television, music, and live performances that present the iconic imagery and mythology of the Western from the mid nineteenth century to the present.

Christine Bold, Selling the Wild West: Popular Western Fiction, 1860-1960 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987).

Analysis of the ways in which the Western form has adapted and evolved, providing a comprehensive overview of the Western genre. It is among the first recent works to present a wide-ranging argument that encompasses both “high” and “low” literature.

John G. Cawelti, The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999).

A revision of Cawelti’s 1970 The Six-Gun Mystique, provides a thorough genealogy of the development of the Western as a genre, as well as a useful chapter updating the critical debates surrounding the subject. Cawelti deploys a historically grounded notion of myth indebted to the work of Henry Nash Smith and Richard Slotkin.

William Handley, Marriage, Violence, and the Nation in the American Literary West (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

A revisionist argument about Westerns centering on the impact that these works have had outside the Western genre itself, particularly in their focus on issues of marriage and family. Handley traces the ways in which notions of race, gender, and religious Otherness are negotiated in Wister’s and Grey’s best-known novels.

Lee Clark Mitchell, Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

Responding to contemporary studies of gender and masculinity, asserts that a fascination with the male body is among the defining characteristics of the Western.

Susan Rosowski, “The Western Hero as Logos,” in her Birthing a Nation: Gender, Creativity, and the West in American Literature (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999).

In the context of Rosowski’s larger argument about the relationships between aesthetic production, procreation, and gender, a concise argument about the laconic Western hero and nature of language within the traditional Western.

Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (1950; revised edition, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970).

An early example of the kind of interdisciplinary interpretation that characterizes American Studies. Smith’s investigation of the unifying myth of western expansion traces the origins of the Western hero through Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales and the dime novels and offers a substantive analysis of the contradictions behind the central narratives and images of the frontier.

Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Atheneum, 1992).

The final volume in Slotkin’s trilogy of works on the myth of “regeneration through violence” in American literature and culture. This book focuses on the emergence of the formula Western in the late nineteenth century and its development through the twentieth century, particularly in film.

Jane Tompkins, West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

Investigates the “cultural work” performed by the Western. Largely avoiding issues of literary genealogy and historical context, Tompkins instead focuses on several key areas of concern within the Western genre, including landscape, death, and gender, seeking to explore the ways in which several canonical Westerns respond to ongoing cultural anxieties.

Barbara Will, “The Nervous Origins of the American Western,” American Literature, 70 (June 1998): 293-316.

Builds on claims about gender made by Mitchell and Tompkins and explores the overlapping discourses of neurasthenia and manhood in The Virginian. Will argues that Wister’s novel emerges as the product of then-current debates about gender and Wister’s association with S. Weir Mitchell, the physician best known for his treatment of nervous disorders.


Ned Buntline (aka Edward Z. C. Judson) (1823-1896)

One of the most successful writers of pulp westerns after the Civil War, totaling some four hundred novels, many of them featuring Buffalo Bill Cody.

William F. (Buffalo Bill) Cody (1846-1917)

American soldier, hunter, and showman, founder of the circus-like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in 1883.

James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851)

Author of the five Leatherstocking Tales published between 1823 and 1841 featuring Natty Bumppo.

Edward S. Ellis (1840-1916)

A prolific writer of dime-novel Westerns best known today for Seth Jones, or Captives of the Frontier (1860), published by the New York firm of Beadle and Adams.

Zane Grey (1872-1939)

Was a popular writer of Westerns and other adventure novels and one of the first millionaire authors. He also was instrumental in the adaptation of the Western formula to film.

Edward L. Wheeler (circa 1854-1885)

Sensational dime novelist best known for his “Deadwood Dick” series inaugurated in 1877.

Owen Wister (1860-2938)

A Harvard graduate, began to travel to Wyoming in 1885 to treat his “neurasthenia.” His first Western story appeared in Harper’s in August 1892, and a decade later his novel The Virginian established the classic Western formula and became a best seller.

—John Dudley