America Re-Imagined, in Retrospect: Fifty Notable American Novels about the “West”: 15-17.

 

Grey, Zane.  Riders of the Purple Sage.  New York: Harper, 1912.

Trained as a dentist, Grey had a practice in New York City from 1896 to 1904.  But in 1907, he fulfilled a lifetime obsession and began a decade of travels throughout the American West.  He used these experiences to lend immediacy to the novels that he began to write both to support himself and to express his sense of awe at the geography and the passing history of the region as a wilderness being opened to settlement.

Along with Owen Wister’s The Virginian, Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage provides the prototype for the Western genre.  But whereas Wister did not devote himself to the genre, Grey made it impossible for reviewers and readers to ignore it.  From 1910 to 1925, his novels dominated the bestseller lists, and their enduring popularity has kept many of them in print long after his death.

Grey transcended the popular Dime Novels about the West by emphasizing the ways in which the Western landscape shaped the destinies of his characters.  The Dime Novels had featured stock Western types in stories that could have been set in a variety of historical periods and locations.  In contrast, Grey sought to capture the essence of the Western experience in his novels, to tell stories that could not be told without recognizing the importance of their Western settings.  He was the first to address realistically distinctly Western issues such as the influence of racial stereotyping in the treatment of Native Americans.  Grey’s novels are sometimes overly romantic and formulaic, but the triteness and other limitations of his countless imitators should not be permitted to diminish his achievement.

In Riders of the Purple Sage, the main character is a gunfighter named Lassiter who falls for a Mormon heiress named Jane Withersteen.  For her sake, as well as his own, he cannot abandon the violence that has characterized his life up to this point—certainly not as quickly as she would wish him to do so.

 

Guthrie, A. B., Jr.  The BIg Sky.  New York: Sloane, 1947.

Although there are some other claimants—Frederick Manfred’s Lord Grizzly (1954), Vardis Fisher’s Mountain Man (1965), and Harvey Fergusson’s Wolf Song (1927)–The Big Sky remains the pre-eminent novel about the mountain men.  Through the novel’s protagonist, Boone Caudill, Guthrie presents an astute psychological study of the young men who were attracted to the solitary and hazardous life in the Far West.  The Big Sky demonstrates how the very traits that made the mountain men successful contributed to the end of the era that they dominated.  With their relatively advanced weapons, they prided themselves on killing many of the region’s great predatory animals, such as the grizzlies and wolves, and with their diseases, they unintentionally wiped out large numbers of Native Americans—in both instances, reducing the threats to the soldiers and settlers who followed.  They penetrated into the most remote regions of the Far West and in the process located trails for others to follow. They exploited the seemingly limitless numbers of fur-bearing animals and managed to reduce their numbers until their industry was increasingly difficult to sustain.  And they contributed to the wilderness mythology of a forbidding and yet wonder-filled land.

 

Guthrie, A. B., Jr.  The Way West.  New York: Sloane, 1949.

Following the success of The Big Sky, Guthrie began to conceive a series of novels presenting a fictional account of the major historical phases in the development of the West.   His next novel, The Way West, treated the wagon trains that carried pioneer families across the American interior to the rich farmlands opening up in Oregon and other places along the Pacific coast.

Dick Summers, the experienced mountain man who mentors Boone Caudill in The Big Sky, has outlived his era and, faced with the prospect of resuming his long-past life as a farmer, chooses to become a guide for the wagon trains. Although Dick Summers is a major character in The Way West, acclimating the pioneers to their new surroundings at each stage of the passage westward, and although he provides a linkage between the first two novels in Guthrie’s series, the real protagonists of the novel are the pioneers.  Without being overly mechanical in matching characters to types, Guthrie provides, in microcosm, a survey of most of the motives that drew people to the West.  Beyond the vagaries of accident and chance, Guthrie demonstrates what character traits enabled some people to survive the passage whereas others perished before reaching their destination.  For The Way West, Guthrie received the Pulitzer Prize.

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Previous Posts in This Series:

America Re-Imagined, in Retrospect: Fifty Notable American Novels about the “West”: 1-2: https://academeblog.org/2014/09/10/america-re-imagined-in-retrospect-fifty-notable-american-novels-about-the-west-1-2/

America Re-Imagined, in Retrospect: Fifty Notable American Novels about the “West”: 3-5: https://academeblog.org/2014/09/16/america-re-imagined-in-retrospect-fifty-notable-american-novels-about-the-west-3-5/

America Re-Imagined, in Retrospect: Fifty Notable American Novels about the “West”: 6-8: https://academeblog.org/2014/09/20/america-re-imagined-in-retrospect-fifty-notable-american-novels-about-the-west-6-8/

America Re-Imagined, in Retrospect: Fifty Notable American Novels about the “West”: 9-11: https://academeblog.org/2014/10/04/america-re-imagined-in-retrospect-fifty-notable-american-novels-about-the-west-9-11/

America Re-Imagined, in Retrospect: Fifty Notable American Novels about the “West”: 12-14: https://academeblog.org/2014/10/12/america-re-imagined-in-retrospect-fifty-notable-american-novels-about-the-west-12-14/

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Posts in the Previous Series:

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 1-3: https://academeblog.org/2014/05/30/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-1-3/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 4-5: https://academeblog.org/2014/05/31/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-4-5/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 6-7: https://academeblog.org/2014/06/01/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-6-7/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 8-10: https://academeblog.org/2014/06/04/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-8-10/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 11-13: https://academeblog.org/2014/06/06/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-11-13/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 14-16: https://academeblog.org/2014/06/11/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-14-16/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 17-19: https://academeblog.org/2014/06/18/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-17-19/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 20-22: https://academeblog.org/2014/06/25/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-20-22/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 23-25: https://academeblog.org/2014/07/07/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-23-25/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 26-29: https://academeblog.org/2014/07/11/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-26-29/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 30-32: https://academeblog.org/2014/07/23/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-30-32/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 33: https://academeblog.org/2014/07/29/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-33/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 34-36: https://academeblog.org/2014/08/10/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-34-36/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 37-39: https://academeblog.org/2014/08/15/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-37-39/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 40-42: https://academeblog.org/2014/08/21/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-40-42/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 43-45: https://academeblog.org/2014/08/23/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-43-45/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 46-48: https://academeblog.org/2014/08/26/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-46-48/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 49-50: https://academeblog.org/2014/08/30/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-49-50/

 

18 thoughts on “America Re-Imagined, in Retrospect: Fifty Notable American Novels about the “West”: 15-17.

  1. I just discovered these reviews of Western fiction. Looking forward to the rest of the entries. Guthrie and Berger (and Fisher) being my favorites of what you have listed so far. If you are unaware of Milton Lott, I think his book The Last Hunt is a classic. And Janice Holt Giles never gets enough credit. The Great Adventure (mountain men) and Johnny Osage (frontier trader & love story) are quite good. I could list more but this your blog, not mine.

    • I agree with your assessment of Lott’s The Last Hunt. I should have included it in my list of 50 but somehow didn’t.

      I have not, however, read any of Giles’s novels.

      I am working my way through the fifty alphabetically, by authors’ last names. So feel free to make other suggestions. I can do an addendum of titles that I should have included, such as the Lott novel.

      • Hello again. Here is a list of Western fiction that I have enjoyed (not to mention some titles you already listed). Maybe you will find something here of interest; they are listed alphabetically by author:

        Comanche Dawn by Mike Blakely
        Brules by Harry Combs
        The Snowblind Moon by John Byrne Cooke
        The Great Adventure by Janice Holt Giles
        Johnny Osage by Janice Holt Giles
        Apaches by Oakley Hall
        Carry the Wind by Terry C. Johnston (first published of a nine book series)
        The Searchers by Alan Le May
        The Last Hunt by Milton Lott (honorable mention to Dance Back the Buffalo)
        When the Tree Flowered by John G. Neihardt
        The Wolf is My Brother by Chad Oliver
        Cheyenne Autumn by Mari Sandoz
        Martin’s Land by Jess Shelton
        Carrington by Michael Straight
        Fools Crow by James Welch

        I also want to state that Centennial by James Michener, while not an outright Western, deserves to be mentioned. If you’ve ever read it, perhaps you will agree.

        I didn’t read this yet but it’s supposed to be good:
        Lords of the Plains by Max Crawford

  2. I forgot to mention two books above (from the top list that I have read):

    Bugles in the Afternoon by Ernest Haycox
    Chiricahua by Will Henry (I’m usually not a fan of Will Henry but something about this book is different)

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