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Part V:

Authors of Popular Western Fiction

Rosalie More

If James Fennimore Cooper was the most popular historical romance writer of the early 1800s (notwithstanding that Mark Twain ridiculed his writing), then Zane Grey, who followed a century later, was the most popular of the early 1900s. 

Grey made a point of claiming to write historical romances. He obviously admired women and often wrote of strong independent females. At last count, over one hundred and thirty movies have been made of Zane Grey's books. A million copies of his books are still sold each year throughout the world. Zane Grey has fan clubs, organizations, websites and museums to honor him. Zane Grey's West Society, on their website, claims that RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE is the best selling western ever. His Thundering Herd is also popular. Other titles by Grey include CODE OF THE WEST and KNIGHTS OF THE RANGE. Notice how those titles relate to our concept of the legendary hero? http://www.zanegreysws.org/

How did Zane Grey become so popular? He started out an ordinary man. He attended the University of Pennsylvania on a baseball scholarship, earned a degree in dentistry, and later opened a dental office in New York. In 1907 he met Buffalo Jones, who invited him to go to Arizona with him and help rope mountain lions to sell to zoos. Grey answered the Call to Adventure and fell under the spell of the West. [The Call to Adventure is the first step in the Heroes Journey which is the pattern that legends have followed from the beginning of time.]

Grey's first novel BETTY ZANE was a failure. In fact, he had to print it himself. After he went west, his fourth novel, RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE, sold more than a million copies. After that, he wrote continuously until his death in 1939, sometimes averaging 4 novels per year. In all, he wrote 54 books. Harper & Row, his publishers, estimate sales of his novels to be around 40 million dollars.

The following blurbs illustrate how Zane Grey's plots follow the pattern for the legendary "Hero's Journey," some based on real people.

    1. Fighting Caravans - Zane Grey tells of the romance and dangers on The Santa Fe Trail. Meet some of the trail blazers of the Old West such as Kit Carson and Lucian Maxwell.
    2. Arizona Ames - A knightly horseman lays aside the sword for the pistol and rides forth to defend honor, right wrong, and protect the weak. His quest for adventure and love takes him from Arizona to Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado where he finally finds his Holy Grail. (Notice the parallel with an ancient legend here?)
    3. The Hash Knife Outfit - An outlaw befriends two damsels in deep distress, teaches them what it means to be frontier women, and goes straight.
    4. The Fugitive Trail - The hero takes the blame for a bank robbery, because his no-good brother is loved by the woman he loves. (A truly self-sacrificing hero)

If you don't want to take Zane Grey's word for it that he wrote romances, check out this excerpt from Desert Gold: A Romance Of The Border:
"This hour, when the day had closed and the lonely desert night set in with its dead silence, was one in which Cameron's mind was thronged with memories of a time long past--of a home back in Peoria, of a woman he had wronged and lost, and loved too late. He was a prospector for gold, a hunter of solitude, a lover of the drear, rock-ribbed infinitude, because he wanted to be alone to remember."

Louis L'Amour followed in the footsteps of Zane Grey. He was born in 1908 and passed away in 1988. Like Grey, he was and still is extremely popular for his western genre stories. How did he get that way?

L'Amour always considered himself to be "just a storyteller, a guy with a seat by the campfire." His novels are known for their authenticity and accuracy, their descriptions, their wide-ranging lectures, particularly about Western American history, their endless tidbits of advice, their excitement, and their entertainment. Readers ignore the haphazard composition and flaws that demonstrate his claim of never revising his stories.

He grew up in North Dakota in a family that had a 300-book library. Young Louis read avidly from that collection and also frequented the city library. The family fell on harder times in the 20s, and they moved to the southwest. At that time Louis left home, at the age of 15, not wanting to be a burden to the family.
From that time on he went through an amazing string of jobs and experiences, all valuable for the future writer. He skinned cattle in Texas, went to sea and lived in the Far East, served on an East Indian schooner, was a professional boxer, longshoreman, lumberjack, elephant handler, fruit picker, gold prospector, and a tank officer in WWII.
Westerns were very popular among readers at that time, so after the war L'Amour decided to settle down and write to that market. He published his first full-length western novel in 1950, a book called Westward the Tide. He published four Hopalong Cassidy books under the pen name Tex Burns and used the pen name Jim Mayo to publish other books. In 1953 he published Hondo, which became his best-selling novel. It was quickly made into a movie, starring John Wayne, who said it was the best western novel he had ever read. By 1983 sales of Hondo had reached 2,300,000 and is still going strong. For awhile, L'Amour was America's most popular author. All of his novels, and he wrote over 100, are still in print. Total sales have topped $225,000,000. Between 1953 and 1971 thirty of his novels were made into movies.

In spite of this success, critical reception of L'Amour's work was often indifferent. Before he gained such popularity that he could no longer be ignored, he was often not reviewed at all. Many critics categorized his novels as "Westerns" and therefor not worthy of critical analysis. L'Amour spoke out about the literary establishment and critics narrow view of genre fiction, saying "If you write a book about a bygone period that lies east of the Mississippi River, then it's a historical novel. If it's west of the Mississippi, it's a western, a different category. There's no sense to it."

Once popularity demanded that he no longer be ignored, critics faulted L'Amour's work for the repetition of characters, his confusing tendency to switch between first and third person narration in the same passage, and in some cases, an overwhelming amount of historical details that detracted from the action of the plot. L'Amour claimed that he never revised his work. There was one draft - the first and final. Some critics felt that his work could have benefited from some revision. Other critics however, praised L'Amour for his storytelling abilities, memorable characters, complex family structures, and his humorous, evocative narrative technique.

"I think of myself in the oral tradition - as a troubadour, a village tale-teller, the man in the shadows of the campfire. That's the way I'd like to be remembered - as a storyteller. A good storyteller." ~ Louis L'Amour

In 1982 he was awarded the Congressional (National) Gold Medal by Congress and in 1984 the Medal of Freedom.

Unlike Zane Grey, L'Amour tended to portray women as the weaker sex, and he kept them in their place. According to a review of one of his books by a reader on Amazon.com: "It kept to L'Amour's trademark of no sex, no graphic violence, and little cursing, and I like that a lot."

HOW THE WEST WAS WON. "Louis L'Amour's great epic of human courage and endurance, his brave saga of the men and women who pushed relentlessly forward--despite the uncertainties of nature, the wrath of savage enemies, countless dangers and cruel death--to win the wide, shining lands of the rich and untamed West!"

DOWN THE LONG HILLS: Winner of the Spur Award for Best Western Novel.

BOWDRIE: "It was a name that caused the most hardened gunmen to break out in a cold sweat. Chick Bowdrie. He could have ridden the outlaw trail, but the Texas Rangers recruited him because they didn't want to have to fight against him."

L'Amour's stories, like the epic plots typical of oral literature, are filled with adventure, color, and the age old struggle between good and evil. His are usually strong, brave men, who struggle with their conscience and sense of independence. L'Amour's heroes do not die in the course of their battles, but are always ready to die, bravely and honorably for that which they believe in. Family values run high in his novels, and the main characters don't have to stand alone. For example, the Sackett family series, to which L'Amour devoted some seventeen novels, features family members who are willing to travel across the country to come to the aid of another.

A modern western story can be found in The Legend of Lejube Rogue by P.L. White. Her hero is honorable, honest, and ready to defend those who can't defend themselves. Here's the opening paragraph: "The winter winds cried and mourned. The cold, inscrutable mountains kept their own secrets. The nights were dark and long. When the fires had dwindled to ash and embers, the pioneers huddled close, whispered fearsome tales of Lejube Rogue, the white Indian who ghosted through the untamed land, seeking the man who had murdered his father and seduced his mother. The man Rogue had sworn to kill. Calling Rogue demon or hero, speaking from fear or admiration, the settlers told many strange tales of the ice-eyed gunfighter and his incredible deeds . . . and perhaps some of the tellings were true. Or perhaps the truth was stranger still. . ."

Other popular western writers include Charles West, Elmer Kelton, Kirby Jonas, Loren Estelman, and Dick Vaughn.

Kirby Jonas. An Amazon.com review by a reader: "…if you like L'Amour you just have to read all of the books by the author critics are calling The New Louis L'Amour, Kirby Jonas. He is tremendous, and may one day even replace L'Amour. L'Amour was always my favorite, but Jonas has edged him out. You have to read this guy!" (November 1998) Howling Wolf Creations.

One popular western writer today is Larry McMurtry, author of Lonesome Dove. I first heard of him when an editor from Viking retired in southern Oregon and gave some lectures and a workshop. Bill Decker tells about kidding McMurtry for writing a "Wild West Novel" and reminding him that he had sworn never to write one "those" books. He made it sound like it was something to be ashamed of. But look how popular that mini-series was! Viewers loved it! Nobody predicted such a success. The book publisher had practically given away those film rights. According to Decker, McMurtry only got about $12,000 for his share. He went on to write Dead Man’s Walk and The Streets of Laredo—prequels to Lonesome Dove.

Bill Decker himself won the Spur Award one year. His book wasn’t a traditional western novel. The first half of the book consisted of an account of the protagonist’s early life, and the plot didn't actually begin until the middle of the book. Ironically, in the last half, Decker broke down and introduced a traditional good guy/bad guy plot with a shoot-‘em-up ending. And after he teased McMurtry about doing that! 

What caused the decline of the Western novel in the last few decades? Have Americans lost their own idealism and no longer seek it in their heroes? Have we lost our sense of values and don't want to read about them in books? Does society no longer admire heroism in the form of Ethics, Morals, and Principles, in addition to courage and bravery? Is a man who sacrifices his best interests on behalf of the downtrodden considered a worthy hero? Or is he seen in derogatory terms like Boy Scout, Goody Two-Shoes, a prude, or a schmuck. Is a rebel a bad thing, now? In my opinion, Americans need heroic role models more than ever, but they may be too arrogant to look up to anyone.

Americans have few living heroes anymore. They have become jaded and cynical. Why? Where can we look for heroes? In the White House? We have lost respect for our political leaders because so often they lie, cheat, steal, and hoodwink the public. Look at Watergate and the Whitewater investigation. Not to mention, their morals are almost nonexistent. They don’t even have the grace to look ashamed when they’re caught with their hand in the cookie jar. They grin and shrug as though getting caught was the only crime.

The Legendary Western Hero will never die. Just like folk music, folk art, and folk dances, the classic western story will never die. They say that cycles repeat themselves, and if that’s true, we can expect to see a resurgence of the legendary western hero. I'm waiting impatiently for that to happen. Perhaps it's up to us to make it happen.     

The end


Part I: The Legendary Western Hero
Part II: Why Americans Love Westerns

Part III: Western Heroes in American Literature
Part IV: Dime Novels and Early Westerns
Part V: Authors of Popular Western Fiction
About the Author, Rosalie More


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