Western Fiction

History of the American Western Novel

A good story is one that can transport the reader to a different place, another time period or both. American Westerns were written to depict life and adventures in the ‘Wild West.’ The writers often based the novels on real people, exaggerating hardships and violence to make the story more interesting.  The desert landscapes where the stories unfolded were harsh and the era was one where people fiercely defended their property.

IMAGE: Donna Beeler / Shutterstock.com

Many western novels depict the Native Americans as savages and the plot included small towns or ranches that were being invaded by them. Cowboys or gunfighters, as the story’s heroes would need to defend the territory. Another popular plot was for sheriffs, bounty hunters and other lawmen, to be tasked with finding and capturing a bandit and bringing them to justice. Many of the stories were based on real people such as Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Buffalo Bill, and Wyatt Earp while he was still alive.

Fans loved the violence and romance which surrounded these mystery men. They were normally attired in hats, cowboy boots, spurs and bandanas. It would be highly unlikely for them to go anywhere without their ever faithful horses, and at least one firearm. Frequently the novel’s conclusion involved shootouts in the village square, which would result in several of the characters dying.  The other popular face-off would be a one-on-one quick draw contest. Many stories had a romance element added in the form of a damsel in distress that was ultimately saved by the hero, or in many cases, saved the hero himself.

Inspiration for Western Novels

Westerns were inspired by events that took place during the American Colonial Era, especially in what we now consider the Old American West. Some of the most significant events of this time were:

Texas Revolution of 1835 – Texas was originally a part of Mexico and declared their independence from the country, becoming the 28th state in the US.

The US/Mexican War of 1845 – In an attempt to expand their territory, the US went to war against Mexico. At the end 1/3 of Mexican land had been taken over including Utah, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona.

California Gold Rush – During the US/Mexican War there was gold discovered in California and this caused an influx of wealth seekers to the area, both from in the Americas and overseas. The conditions at the start of the gold rush were lawless and this became one of the most violent periods in the Wild West, because of anti-foreign attacks and laws.

Western Literature (1800s to present)

Late 1800s

During this time period penny dreadful and dime novels, which were cheap comics or stories, were very popular. They encouraged the average person to read, and this was the beginning of the nation’s love of westerns.

Early 1900s

Novels by Zane Grey, whose Riders of the Purple Sage (1912), and Owen Wister, best known for writing The Virginian (1902) can be credited with kick-starting the Western as a genre of writing. The novels were more detailed and romanticised and a wider variety meant that more people could find something in the genre that suited them.

Pulp magazines took over from dime novels and penny dreadfuls, and their popularity peaked in the 1920s. Max Brand’s short stories were the reason that many people actually bought the western magazines.

In addition to these popular American writers, authors from other countries started to write about the Wild West and the love of the genre grew as their work became available in Europe, and other countries around the world.

Another positive influence in spreading the popularity of the genre is the fact that in the 1920s there were many western films being made, especially adapted from the popular novels of the era.

Mid 1900s

In the 1940s western fiction expanded into a new branch, by the rise of the comic. Marvel (Kid Colt Outlaw and Two-Gun Kid), D.C. (All Star Western and Western Comics) and Charlton Comics (Billy the Kid and Cheyenne Kid) were some of the most widely read. There was also a regular comic strip in American newspapers, Red Ryder, from 1938-1964.

During the 1960s, authors such as Ray Hogan, Outlaw Marshal, and Louis L’Amour, Sackett’s Land, began taking hold of readers. This decade also brought with it the growth of the television and western t.v. shows. The popularity of the genre peaked in the early 60s as a result of this latest development. Towards the end of the 60s, however, the public’s interest started to wane probably as a result of the same t.v. shows.

Image: Gobonobo

Late 1900s

In the 1970s Louis L’Amour continued to dominate western novels and even though there were still many fans, the interest in them continued to decline and has been doing so ever since.

2000 – Present

Even though novelists like Ann Parker, Silver Lies, are continuing to write about the Wild West, the public’s support is now at an all-time low. Bookstores only stock a few Western books.

Even though the domination of the western has been over for a while, the novels still have die-hard fans who will always to support them. The cowboys, ranchers, native Indians and outlaws of the time will continue to have their shoot-outs in our hearts and minds for many years to come.

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