Books, Culture and Society

The Literature of the West

The western story, which originated in the nickel and dime pulp magazines of the late 1800s and flourished for a remarkable period from 1925 through the early 1960s, has always been available in some form.

The Literature 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 western came of age as a pulp magazine and then as a paperback. The paperback market began to dry up in the 1970s as the celluloid western was replaced by the profitable science fiction extravaganzas. With the exception of books by Louis L’Amour, the western story was deemed a thing of the past. Even readers unfamiliar with the western will have heard of these titles: The Virginian, Riders of the Purple Sage, The Ox Bow Incident, Shane, The Searchers, True Grit. These books have become part of our national psyche, aided and abetted by the equally popular film versions.

Owen Wister’s The Virginian wasn’t the first, but it’s the best of the early westerns that would soon glut the market. Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage may be the best know title in western fiction. Readers interested in Grey’s original typescript are referred to the paperback version published by Leisure books which makes available the unexpurgated manuscript. Leisure Books also published Grey’s “Last of the Duanes,” which is the original version of what later become The Lone Star Ranger. Last of the Duanes is among the finest westerns yet published and Leisure books has contributed a milestone with this publication.

Walter von Tilburg Clarke’s The Ox Bow Incident was made into a classic film in 1943 starring Henry Fonda and the book remains in print today. Perhaps a better book is
Walter von Tilburg Clarke’s Track of the Cat, a little known gem that in some ways embodies the traditional western while elevating the genre to a higher level with its stunning prose, strong characters and dramatic plot. Jack Schaefer’s Shane is as famous as the 1953 film starring Alan Ladd, a film I maintain is one of the top ten westerns in existence. Schaefer’s stories are far from typical, but they are compelling, and I would list Monte Walsh as a classic alongside Shane. Alan LeMay’s The Searchers is best known because of the wonderful John Wayne film but the book’s recent reissue may serve to spark interest in LeMay’s fine work. Readers who haven’t seen John Wayne in True Grit must have lived their lives in seclusion. The book by Charles Portis is a classic and readily available.

While these popular titles have found themselves reprinted for decades, the pulp westerns of the 30s and 40s have rarely been reprinted. There is a pulp revival underway and numerous publishers are reprinting various authors with great success.

Adventure House, Galaxy Press publishing and Black Dog Books have begun reprinting pulp westerns among other genres. Interest in westerns has risen to a high unseen for years and readers are eager for any reprints they can find. Robert Hale Publishers in London continues to publish several hardback westerns each month. Their famed “Black Horse Western” imprint continues to attract collectors and scholars of the pulp era with their action packed stories. With a resurgence of interest in the pulp stories of writers like Lester Dent, L. Ron Hubbard and Zane Grey there is little chance that the western will become a thing of the past.

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When the West Was Wild!
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The Wild West, An American Story!
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