Books, Culture and Society

Code of the West

In his 1969 book, The Cowman and His Code of Ethics, author Ramon Adams listed a group of ideologies that he felt best expressed a westerner's ethical behavior. This included loyalty, honesty, fairness, hard work, cheerfulness, determinism, and respect.

Code of the West

* Thomas McNulty is the author of Trail of the Burned Man, Wind Rider, and Death Rides a Palomino. Visit him online at thomasmcnulty.com. He is also a passionate advocate of lifelong learning through audiobooks on cd collections from http://www.goldensagestories.com.

The Cowman and His Code of Ethics remains a popular and respected work. Such a western ideology has been exemplified on film by numerous actors, but clearly John
Wayne has come to epitomize the image of an honest, law-abiding cowboy.

Perhaps no better representation exists than from Wayne’s final film The Shootist (1979) where his character, an aging gunman named J. B. Books, tells Gillom Rogers (played by Ron Howard): “I will not be laid a hand on. I will not be wronged. I will not stand for an insult. I don’t do these things to others and I require the same of them.” The line is so closely associated with John Wayne that it is mistakenly attributed to him on officially licensed coffee cups, posters and other merchandise. In fact, the line originated with novelist Glendon Swarthout and was used verbatim by Miles Swarthout when he wrote the screenplay based upon his father’s 1975 book.

Glendon Swarthout’s The Shootist is every bit the masterpiece as the John Wayne film. And John Wayne is undeniably the number one actor for fans of the western. But while the film industry is responsible in a large way for our mythic image of the western, it was the pulp magazines and adventure writers of the Golden Age who first espoused the virtues of fair play, honesty, determinism and loyalty.

At the forefront of this group was Zane Grey. He was best known as the author of Riders of the Purple Sage. His many other titles include Code of the West (1934) and Knights of the Range (1936) where the idealism is evident in his hard-working, determined characters. Of course, in the actual west there was never any written code, but these principals were universally acknowledged, based upon Christian theology, and became part and parcel of any frontier family’s life.

Grey was brilliant and prolific and at the time of his death in 1939 the mantle had been passed to a new generation of pulp writers responsible for entertaining a nation in the throes of the Great Depression. The pulp writers set a new standard in action and writing and were noted for producing relentless pacing, strong characters and sharp images. The front cover illustrations were phenomenal and many are collector’s items today!

A resurgence of interest in the pulps has resulted in various publishers such as Sanctum Books, Black Dog Books, Galaxy Press and Adventure House – to republish numerous writers from the 30s and 40s. In each of these westerns, readers will quickly recognize “the code of the west” as characters like Lee Weston in Branded Outlaw, fought hard against injustice! Pulp fiction writers from, “The Golden Age of Pulp Western Adventures,” produced many stunning action scenes, snappy dialogue, and the code of the west all combine to make these stories exemplary entertainments!

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