Authors of Popular
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.
- 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.
- 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?)
- The Hash Knife Outfit
- An outlaw
befriends two damsels in deep distress, teaches them what it
means to be frontier women, and goes straight.
- 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
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."
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Part I: The Legendary Western Hero
Part II: Why Americans Love
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