I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012. The full collection is accessible here.

Selling the Wild West: Popular Western Fiction, 1860 to 1960

Christine Bold

The western novel represents the popularization of the Frontier myth. It is through fiction that the myth comes alive and becomes a means of escape for the general population who will never be able to experience the frontier for themselves. According to Christine Bold, the western novel owes its origins to James Fenimore Cooper. Cooper took the historical romance writing method and tweaked it for a new set of circumstances. The result was a fictional model that was highly dualistic. Cooper’s novels consisted of an analysis of the deep fissure between wilderness and civilization and were manned by the quintessential western hero, who was constantly confronted with forces that tested his integrity. The result of Cooper’s writing was a western fiction formula that became deeply embedded in the popular culture of the late nineteenth century. This popularity rose at the same time as mass production, which led to extreme standardization and regimentation in the writing of western fiction, the product of which was the dime novel. The purpose of the dime novel, at least in the publisher’s eye, was to inundate the market quickly and cheaply, and thus make as much profit as possible. Artistry ranked below profit. This regimentation stuck with the western novel through much of the twentieth century and its changing forms, such as the pulp magazine and the mass-market paperback.

However, Bold argues that the uniformity in content is not the most important part of western fiction. Rather, Bold argues in Selling the Wild West that it was the form that the fiction took that is more significant. “The friction which results from individual initiatives being applied to conventional material is the real locus of creativity and development in the formulaic Western story,” (169) she writes. For instance, writers of fiction in the pulp magazines and slicks, although they were very much absorbed by the values of the industry, often broke out of their fictional restraints by expressing themselves by talking directly to the reader, Bold states. Famous paperback novelist, Zane Grey broke from convention by centering his plots around a mono-myth progression, in which the character goes through the stages of separation, initiation, and return. Bold is very critical of Louis L’Amour who she says broke out of the formula and made a place for himself in the overcrowded genre by discrediting the authenticity of other authors. There is one point in the twentieth century in the literary history of the western novel that the mass-production formula is broken, and this is when several authors start writing in response to the closing of the west as announced by Frederick Jackson Turner. Owen Wister is one of these authors. Bold writes that Wister and others wrote novels such as The Virginian in order to immortalize the West of their imagination. They saw the west, or at least the deified frontier, as the cure to the sickness that modernization was bringing upon the country.

Bold asserts that at the time she is writing there is no longer any room for new stories or ingenuity within the western genre. Even great hacks like Louis L’Amour were struggling to find original storylines. One must wonder what she would say about The Englishman’s Boy, a western fiction that was published ten years after her study was published. Would The Englishman’s Boy be considered a new generation of the anti-Western genre that Bold describes having risen in response to the formulaic in the 1960s? Despite claiming that the heart of the western genre lies not in its content, but in its differing authorial forms, the forms that she suggests seem rather humdrum and unsurprising. It is not shocking that different authors approached their narratives in slightly different ways because no matter how formulaic the model is, the fiction is still produced by the human imagination, an entity that varies greatly from person to person. She also does not show how this phenomenon is unique to the western. Is it not the same case for many modern-day writers in such genres as the romance novel or the mystery? The one thing that Bold’s book does illuminate is the process by which the western myth was transmitted to the masses, and thus embedded in the nation’s subconscious.

Feature Image: Dime Novel Collection, New Mexico State University

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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