I grew up on Westerns – movies, television, books, toys.
I played Cowboys and Indians in the woods of upstate New York and in the snake-infested scrub of South Florida. I was just as likely to pretend to be a gunslinger as a brave. The scenarios I dreamed up tended toward last stands, ambushes, and suicide attacks. I died a lot back then, and loved every minute of it.
Even as a kid, I preferred the grit of Clint Eastwood to the stiff-legged swagger of John Wayne. Wayne’s one-liners rang false. Eastwood’s one-liners sizzled. For better or worse, Eastwood taught the boy how to talk like a man.
Summer days meant re-runs of Bonanza and Big Valley. I preferred Bonanza all the way. My identification with Little Joe led me to Little House on the Prairie. My outlaw self-image softened, began to work the farm, raise a family, do right. Yet, below the honorable lifestyle lurked a man who could take violent action if need be. I became Pa Ingalls with a wild past.
At times it seemed as though Western novels were everywhere, too. There were boxes and boxes of half-inch thick paperbacks at every flea market and thrift shop; there were shelves and shelves of Westerns at the local bookstore. Heck, there were whole sections of the bookstore dedicated to the literature of the West. Even the school library had Westerns! (For some reason finding Westerns at the school library shocked me, seemed somehow scandalous.)
My parent’s both grew up in Cooperstown, NY, the village founded by James Fenimore Cooper’s father, and I spent a lot of time roaming the woods and hills up there. Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales were more reality than fiction to me. And because my father told the stories to me, they took on an even deeper meaning. Each re-telling carried the weight of a father’s lesson to his son and served as a guide along the wooded trails to manhood.
Leatherstocking, also known as Hawkeye and Natty Bumppo, is a white man who lives among the Indians. He is a loner. Though raised to be an Indian, he ultimately remains connected to but alienated from the white villagers. Like a lot of creative kids, I felt misunderstood and marginalized. I identified strongly with Leatherstocking, took solace in his skills and wisdom.
In college, I would learn to connect the dots between Leatherstocking and Owen Wister’s Virginian and Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield and beyond. Everything I read seemed to come back to Leatherstocking. And, deep down, I felt like I was Leatherstocking
I spent weekends of my junior year sprawled on the floor of my brother’s apartment chewing through stacks of novels set in the West. More and more, I’d find myself enthralled with the description of the landscapes and less and less with the gunfights.
The words formed in my head one morning while reading Last Stand at Papago Wells by Louis L’Amour: “There’s more here than gunfights. So much more!”
Sure, a good shoot-out can still get me so excited that I have to read while walking around the room, but what really gets me are stories of honor, loyalty, and of trying to do the right thing in a violent world. And I still prefer stories of last stands and lost causes, no matter what genre or category I am reading in.**
Nowadays, the pickings are slim. We get a Western film every couple years. Now and again a network tries out a new Western series then drops it just when the actors are getting a good feel for their characters. The Westerns section at the local Barnes and Noble does keep shrinking, though we will get an extra couple feet of shelf space whenever there’s a major motion picture set in the West.
For the most part, each passing year seems to mean fewer and fewer new titles.
Tell you what, though. It might be harder and harder to find Western novels in the chain stores, but there are still plenty of great Westerns being written. Publishers might be releasing fewer original titles and bookstores might be stocking the bare minimum, but the quality is higher than ever. Head over to the Western Writers of America website and look around. You’ll see what I mean.
There are a lot of great writers writing the West, which means that there’s also a lot to learn about writing from Westerns.
This week I will be talking to a variety of writers who write the West. The line-up includes Johnny D. Boggs, Thomas Cobb, Jane Candia Coleman, Russell Davis, Cameron Judd, Max McCoy, James Reasoner, Lucia St. Clair Robson, and Susan K. Salzer. The interviews are short and to the point. And the “point” is to get you re-evaluating the literature of the West in terms of what it can offer you, your writing and your creative life.
* This sentence originally read: “Eastwood’s one-liners sizzled like burning fuses into my cerebral cortex where they exploded in the still forming language centers of my brain.” I cut it because it struck me as laughably over-wrought. It also struck me as ironic to over-write a sentence when talking about the influence of the ever-laconic Eastwood.
** My favorite last stand novel is David Gemmell’s Legend. Gemmell, a British fantasy novelist, cites Louis L’Amour as an important influence on his writing, especially L’Amour’s ability to capture a character in just a few sentences.
Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and part-time professor. Jones is a frequent contributor to Clarkesworld Magazine. He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.