If there is one unique genre the United States has contributed to world literature, it is the Western. The expansion of the country across the frontier to the Pacific was a defining feature of American history and politics until the end of the 19th Century, and this theme continues to be addressed in American literature in a variety of ways.
The traditions of the ‘Western’ genre, as it became established in countless novels and films, became entrenched just as the frontier was closing. The very fact that the Western territories were being subsumed into the United States was a sign that the ‘Wild West’ was being civilized, and its disappearance created a certain romanticism in public perception. The way for Western literature was paved by performance acts like Buffalo Bill Cody’s travelling Wild West Shows, where patrons could see retired cowboys, soldiers, and even Indian chiefs with their own eyes.
The early writers who defined the Western genre were Easterners who traveled into the western territories in search of adventure. The Virginian (1902), often regarded as the archetypal Western, was written by Owen Wister, who was born in Pennsylvania and spent the 1880s and 1890s travelling through Wyoming and Montana with his friends Theodore Roosevelt and Frederic Remington. Remington was a New York native who established iconic images of cowboys, Indians, and cavalrymen in his paintings and sculptures. Zane Grey, author of Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) among many others, grew up in Ohio, played baseball in Pennsylvania, and practiced dentistry in New York before reading The Virginian and deciding to write frontier-tales of his own.
These traditional stories of cowboys, Indians, and lawmen would undergo many revisions, both on page and on film, after World War II. Unlike the earlier, more romantic stories written as by Easterners as frontier closed, Western-themed fiction was now more often written by people from that region. Before writing of Stoner and Augustus, John Edward Williams spent most of his life in Denver and published a revisionist Western called Butcher’s Crossing (1960) about a young Emerson enthusiast from the East who joins an ill-fated buffalo-hunting expedition. California native Oakley Hall wrote a number of Westerns, most famously Warlock (1958), in which a famous gunslinger is brought to the titular town to restore order but fails tragically. Another notable work from the period is Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (1964), a picaresque and frequently parodic novel that crams in virtually every Western trope. Other writers to work in that era include New Mexican Edward Abbey and Arkansan Charles Portis, who primarily wrote about their home lands in modern-day settings but sometimes revisited classic Western tales in novels like The Brave Cowboy (1956) and True Grit (1968).
Contemporary writers continue to revisit and re-work stories on the American West. Probably the most famous is Cormac McCarthy, a Tennessee native who has since moved to the Southwest, and changed the settings of his stories accordingly. Blood Meridian (1985), his gruesome tale of an 1850 scalping expedition into Mexico, is considered a classic, and was followed by The Border Trilogy (1992-1998) and No Country for Old Men (2005). The past few years have shown a trend of other literary writers delving into Western settings and producing lengthy novels, including Marylander-turned-Texan Philipp Meyer’s The Son (2012), Mary Doria Russell’s Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral (2015), and William Vollmann’s The Dying Grass (2014).
If the first era of Western writing was about capturing the romance of the closing frontier, the postwar era seemed to be about revisiting the styles and tropes established by Wister and Grey and reexamining them from the perspective of a changed America. Just as Butcher’s Crossing sets its sights on Emerson’s romantic naturalism, Warlock breaks down gunslingers, law and justice, and Little Big Man gives a ribbing to just about everything. More recent Westerns, however, seem less concerned with re-evaluating old clichés than with reanimating specific corners of the past. The Son sprawls across almost two centuries of Texan history, while Epitaph and The Dying Grass dramatize the Tombstone shootouts and the Nez Perce War, respectively, and include detailed recreations of well-documented historic figures. Overall, Western fiction continues to be a unique and lasting element of American literature. Its shapes and forms have varied, and will likely continue to change for years to come.