Western fiction: Wikis


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"As Wild felled one of the redskins by a blow from the butt of his revolver, and sprang for the one with the tomahawk, the chief's daughter suddenly appeared. Raising her hands, she exclaimed, 'Go back, Young Wild West. I will save her!'" (1908)

Western fiction is a genre of literature set in the American Old West frontier (usually anywhere west of the Mississippi River) and typically set during the late nineteenth century. Well-known writers of Western fiction include Zane Grey from the early 1900s and Louis L'Amour from the mid 20th century. The genre peaked around the early 1960s, largely due to the popularity of televised Westerns such as Bonanza. Readership began to drop off in the mid- to late 1970s and has reached a new low in the 2000s. Most bookstores, outside of a few western states, only carry a small number of Western fiction books.





The western in American literature emerged early in the nineteenth century with the novels of James Fenimore Cooper, particularly the five novels that comprise his Leatherstocking Tales. Cooper's novels were largely set in what was at the time the American frontier, the Appalachian Mountains and areas west of there. Most later westerns would typically take place west of the Mississippi River.


The Western as a specialized genre got its start in the "penny dreadfuls" and later the "dime novels" that first began to be published in the mid-nineteenth century. These cheaply made books were published to capitalize on the many fanciful yet supposedly true stories that were being told about the mountain men, outlaws, settlers and lawmen who were taming the western frontier.

By 1900, the new medium of pulp magazines also helped to relate these adventures to easterners. Meanwhile, non-American authors like the German Karl May picked up the genre, went to full novel length, and made it hugely popular and successful in continental Europe from about 1880 on, though they were generally dismissed as trivial by the literary critics of the day.


Popularity grew with the publication of Owen Wister's The Virginian in 1902 and especially Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage in 1912. When pulp magazines exploded in popularity in the 1920s, western fiction greatly benefited (as did the author Max Brand, who excelled at the western short story). The simultaneous popularity of Western movies in the 1920s also helped the genre.

1940s and 1950s

In the 1940s several seminal westerns were published including The Ox-Bow Incident (1940) by Walter van Tilburg Clark, The Big Sky (1947) and The Way West (1949) by A.B. Guthrie, Jr., and Shane (1949) by Jack Schaefer. Many other western authors gained readership in the 1950s, such as Luke Short, Ray Hogan, and Louis L'Amour.

The genre peaked around the early 1960s, largely due to the tremendous number of westerns on television. The burnout of the American public on television westerns in the late 1960s seemed to have an effect on the literature as well, and interest in western literature began to wane.

1970s and 1980s

In the 1970s, the work of Louis L'Amour began to catch hold of most western readers and he has tended to dominate the western reader lists ever since. George G. Gilman also maintained a cult following for several years in the 1970s and 1980s. Larry McMurtry's and Cormac McCarthy's works remain notable. Specifically, McMurtry's Lonesome Dove and McCarthy's Blood Meridian (both published in 1985) are recognized as major masterpieces both within and beyond the genre. Elmer Kelton, mostly noted for his novels The Good Old Boys and The Time it Never Rained, was voted by the Western Writers of America as the "Best Western Writer of All Time". Western readership as a whole began to drop off in the mid- to late 1970s.

1990s and 2000s

Readership of western fiction reached a new low in the 2000s, and most bookstores, outside of a few western states, only carry a small number of Western fiction books. Nevertheless, several Western fiction series are published monthly, such as The Trailsman, Slocum, and Longarm. The genre has seen the rumblings of a revival, and 2008 saw the publication of an all-Western short story magazine Great Western Fiction which was published by Dry River Publishing in Colorado. Unfortunately the magazine was short lived and folded after only two issues.[1]


Western authors are represented by the Western Writers of America, who present the annual Spur Awards and Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement. The organization was founded in 1953 to promote the literature of the American West. While the founding members were mostly western fiction writers, the organization began getting a number of other members from other backgrounds such as historians, regional history buffs, and writers from other genres.

See also


External links


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