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How the Wild West was Written.
There is a shelf in my local library – and perhaps in your local library too – for books under the label of Westerns.
Who reads Westerns nowadays? – stories of Red Indians attacking the wagon train and scalping their victims; the new sheriff taming the brawl-house saloon and shooting the killer who is lightning quick on the draw; the bounty-hunter bringing in the bandit; masked raiders on horseback robbing the train (the ‘iron horse’)? Haven’t those cowboy stories had their day? Didn’t the movie studios stop making Westerns forty years ago?
Certainly from the 1910s through to the start of the 1960s American cinema was awash with Western films. Classic movies included Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, High Noon, Rio Bravo, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Stagecoach, The Magnificent Seven and many more. But after that, the suddenly fast-fading genre was only kept alive by the life-support machine of the ‘spaghetti’ Westerns of the 1960s and by occasional early 1970s box-office hits like Blazing Saddles, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, Little Big Man and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. After 1980, the output of cowboy movies dwindled to a very small fraction of the prolific number released by Hollywood when Westerns were in their heyday.
On the bookshelf today: book titles and authors
For book-lovers, what has there been by way of classic fiction stories categorised as Westerns? Historians might cite Longfellow’s poem Hiawatha (1855) and Fennimore Cooper’s famous frontier novel The Last of the Mohicans (1826). But today when I’m perusing the fifty or so hardback and paperback books filling the Westerns shelf of my local library it seems to be very modern-day publications dated 2009, 2010 and even 2015 and 2016 that I’m seeing: many of them with specialist publisher imprints such as Black Horse, Gunsmoke and Linford.
So … fiddle dee dee! Authors are still writing Westerns, I see?
But whoa! Hold your horses there, Jerry. For on closer inspection this literature of the American Wild West seems to feature the re-publication of popular stories dating back to the vintage cinema era – as far back, even, to the first silent movies starring long-ago Wild West legends such as Tom Mix and William S Miller; and to the early pulp fiction genre of cowboy stories that started to be serialised in the ‘penny dreadfuls’ in-between the wars.
Assiduous tracing and honouring of copyright is an evident convention. Valley of Outlaws (2009) under copyright of Golden West Literary Agency is marked as first published in the USA by Castle V Westerns. A publisher’s note informs us that Valley of Outlaws first appeared as Outlaw Valley by Evan Evans, a five-part serial in Street & Smith’s Far West Illustrated, copyright 1928. That copyright was renewed in 1955 by one Dorothy Faust. Golden West registered the copyright in 2009 (with acknowledgment to Conde Nast Publications for their co-operation). Meanwhile, the nominal author Max Brand turns out to be a registered trademark. So in summary we are reading a recycled story by one Evan Evans that is almost ninety years old.
Let’s have a look at Lawless Guns (1959) by Dudley Dean and The Man from Cody County (1966) by Lauran Paine. Each of these has the Gunsmoke imprint but in its current manifestation it is output from BBC Audiobooks, respectively in 2009 and 2010. Again this is via the Golden West Literary Agency. So … two books not quite as old as Valley of Outlaws, but what of their authors? Dudley Dean, we learn, was the name that Dudley Dean McGaughey used in the 1950s when writing Western novels under the Fawcett publishing brand. Born in Rialto, California, he had earlier written for Street & Smith’s Wild West Weekly during the 1930s under the name Dean Owen. Another pen name of his was Lincoln Drew, and he wrote also for the Masked Rider and the Texas Rangers brand. No total is given for this author’s career output of Western stories and books, but of the author Lauran Paine we learn that he wrote more than nine hundred! - using various pseudonyms such as Mark Carrel. He was born in Duluth, Minnesota.
The Family Jensen (2015) is one of many stories penned by the late William W Johnstone, another prolific author of Westerns. His half-dozen paperback books in my local library have a 2015 or 2016 publication date. An information note from Pinnacle Books eulogises his legacy and explains that his family currently is working with a carefully selected writer to complete the many outlines and unfinished manuscripts that he left behind.
Storylines and new modern-day authors
Westerns have always been narrow territory for authors and scriptwriters to work and invent in. Westerns typically occupy the short period between 1865 (the end of the American Civil War) and 1890. Storylines have tended to be formulaic, choosing from a small selection of stock situations and stereotyped characters. Above all, readers expect lashings of adventure, action, gun-fighting and gore. The early stories provided those qualities in abundance, and just in case the 1950s movies had become a little too twee with the likes of Calamity Jane starring Doris Day, the ‘spaghetti’ Westerns of the 1960s brutally and controversially ramped up the violence level. First and foremost of the ‘spaghetti’ Westerns was the unforgettable mid-1960s trilogy of Clint Eastwood movies directed by Sergio Leone, with legendary music by Ennio Morricone.
But never mind if Westerns might sometimes be hackneyed and repetitive: a good quality book or film will always entertain and will stand out from the pack. A.B. Guthrie was a top notch novelist who wrote in either prose or script a number of famous Westerns including The Big Sky, Shane and The Way West. Elvis Presley starred in the film Flaming Star (1960) re-worked from Clair Huffaker’s novel Flaming Lance (1958).
To evolve and survive, any genre of literature and film needs to move with the times. Westerns may have been almost entirely shunned by Hollywood since the 1970s but if contemporary authors seek to reflect modern-day new social themes and attitudes, one may hope that the species will never become extinct. Clint Eastwood as actor / producer has notably kept the flag flying with output such as Pale Rider (1985) and Unforgiven (1992) while Kevin Costner has taken cowboy roles in Dances with Wolves (1990), Wyatt Earp (1994) and Open Range (2003) – the latter based on a Lauran Paine story.
New writers such as Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx have written Westerns. The movie Brokeback Mountain (2005) is set in modern (1960s to 1980s) Wyoming and Texas. It is drawn from an Annie Proulx story that is pioneering in its sensitive exploration of marital and extra-marital relationships. Brokeback Mountain is thus a very long way removed from the macho, gun-slinging Westerns of the early Hollywood era such as The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1913) with Indian savages, miners and trappers, or Hell’s Hinges (1916) with typical hard-bitten dialogue: ‘Shoot first an’ do your disputin’ afterwards.’
Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:
Emmeline Pankhurst and Florence Foster Jenkins
Paula Hawkins: The Girl on the Train
H G Wells
In praise of the British Seaside!Girls Just Wanna Have Fun in 1963: Christine Keeler & Nell Dunn
Politicians, Pop Stars and Preachers - John Mortimer's Characters of 1986
Shakespeare's 400th Centenary
Gregory's Girl: Remembering the Hit Film
The Impact and Legacy of Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
A Tribute to Margaret Forster
Remembering Saeed Jaffrey
Old Wine in New Bottles - "new" books by Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler & Agatha Christie
Remembering Ruth Rendell
Philip Larkin: His Maiden Voyage on The North Ship (1945)
The Catcher in the Rye and Billy Liar
Erle Stanley Gardner
Antony Sher: The History Man
Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author
Computer Chess: The Imitation Game
P G Wodehouse
John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green
Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution
Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam
The Story of Edith Nesbit
Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert
Rebels With A Cause
Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective
The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas
The Bergerac Police Adventure Series
It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene
Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers
The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym
D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...
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