On the Western

Bannack, Montana (photo  m.a.h. hinton)

Bannack, Montana (photo m.a.h. hinton)

As a literary and film art form, the western’s time has passed. And yet… there remains a small number of dedicated western fans who remain loyal to this most American of all art forms. I count myself as a proud member of this anachronistic remnant.

One of the many peculiarities of the western is that the greatest practitioners of the western as art form came after the form’s apparent demise: Elmer Kelton, Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy. (Elmore Leonard is still alive and writing, but he has not written a western in decades.)

Even though McCarthy and McMurtry have been critically and commercially successful,  any true western fan is painfully aware that good, new westerns are difficult to find. Those that are published for the most part seem to fall into one of four ultimately dissatisfying categories: reprints of old classic westerns that are in the public domain anyway, historical fiction novels that happen to take place in a “western” context, romance fiction that takes place in a “western” context, and male-adventure fiction (soft-core action stories featuring hot, beautiful women and virile, superhuman protagonists) that takes place in a “western” context.

While it is certainly nice to have reprints available of classic works by Max Brand, Zane Grey, Owen Wister and other pioneers in the western form, these writers are not the best example of the art form. Some, like Grey, are unreadable by modern standards. And since all of these writers are available for free from places like Gutenberg, what is the point of re-publishing them anyway. There are a great many writers whose works are out of print but not in the public domain that could be published. But these are not the ones generally reprinted.

What western fans really want… what the publishing and movie industry needs…. what America needs is more new western writers and new western books, and more western movies. The myths and symbols that we embrace, share, and love define and shape us. Fans of the western know that as a country, a people, and individuals, America was at its best when the dominant American myth was the western.

What fans of the western intuitively understand is that by turning our back on that most American of myths, by replacing it with smaller and smaller “post-modern” myths, we have left a large hole in the American soul and psyche. A hole as large as…well, the West itself.

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