Thursday, March 5, 2015
When I was a teenager living in rural Idaho, I couldn't get enough of fiction of the Old West, paying ten cents a book at Clark's Old Bookstore in Spokane or hunting through the shelves of St. Vincent de Paul's charity shop. The cowboy hero was rugged and moral and he fell in love with the independent-thinking heroine. So, it was a pleasant dose of nostalgia when I discovered Ron Scheer's blog, Buddies in the Saddle, http://buddiesinthesaddle.blogspot.com/ in which he reviews old frontier fiction (and movies and other bits that catch his eye). One of the joys of reading Ron's blog is his fine writing. Now he has published in paperback and on Kindle two volumes that encompass his reviews, analysis and interpretation of these early westerns: How the West Was Written, Volume 1 (1880 - 1906) (283pp) and How the West Was Written, Volume 2 (1907 - 1915) (331pp). In reviewing these two books, I will call Ron Scheer by his first name because I feel that I know him from following his blog, commenting on it, and his commenting back to me.
If you think that Owen Wister's The Virginian (1902) was the first western novel published, you'd be wrong. Novelists, many of them women, were already contributing to the mythologizing of the frontier west of the Mississippi before that watershed year.
On his blog, Ron reviewed each novel as he read it, and it's a great source if you're hunting for an old western to lose yourself in, because most, if not all of these books, are available to download free from Google (anything published up to 1923 has lost its copyright and has been put in the public domain).
His original plan had been to understand how the cowboy western evolved. What he discovered was that frontier fiction encompassed every aspect of life. As Ron says in his Introduction, "There were not only novels about ranching and the cattle industry. Writers told stories about railroads, mining, timber, the military, politics, women's rights, temperance, law enforcement, engineering projects, homesteaders, detectives, preachers, Indians, and so on." So, in writing his own books, he approaches these works more analytically than perhaps he did in his blogs, but no less entertainingly.
Some of his chapter headings in Volume 1 (1880 - 1906) are: Social activism and romance; Waiting for Wister; Cowboys, railroads, and miners; New directions; Westerners; The year of The Virginian; Plains and Deserts; Enter Willa Cather; Waiting for Zane Grey.
In Volume 2 (1907 - 1915), Ron writes of western fiction booming, based not only on the success of The Virginian, but silent movies were depicting the western hero, too. He makes a cogent point that "[f]ans and writers of the traditional western novel today often draw a direct line of descent from Wister and his imitators of a century ago. . . Today's western novel is chiefly an adventure story in which a central admirable character confronts villainous adversaries in what is often a formulaic revenge plot." Wister's and other authors' early novels offered more than a "singular plot line." Because it was a period of change, the novels written during this time offered ideas. "Reformist sentiment pushed hard against existing social and economic structures and would lead to trust busting, women's suffrage, labor laws, and Prohibition." The western was a forum to look at these ideas.
His chapter headings in Volume 2 are: Cowboy stories; Women writers of the West; Oh, Canada; Western adventures; Ranching an homesteading; Engineering and reclamation; Big timber; Western romances; Story collections; Old meets New West.
If your curiosity about western fiction arises from being a student of the history of the Old West or because you enjoy literary criticism, you can do no better than Ron Scheer's two books. They are available in paperback on Amazon and as a digital download on Amazon Kindle.
Ron died of brain cancer on April 11, 2015. He will be missed, but his blog remains.