Friday, October 30, 2009

An Extended Essay - Conclusion


If one reads enough about a given subject, one will eventually pass over a divide that separates the casual learner from the specialist. By my freshman year in college, I was a specialist in the history of the Old West. By continual reading and research over the years, I’ve remained one ever since. I’ve developed other interests, in some ways much more significant or, some would say, more legitimate. I became a writer, not of Westerns, but of general historical fiction. Whatever recognition I’ve acquired is that of a historical novelist.

I’ve done lots of research on other periods of the past as fodder for my novels, chiefly 19th-century Southern Appalachia and, more recently, the Revolutionary War in the South and an instance of serial murders the Civil War years in Colorado Territory. But I’ve never lost my edge as a specialist on the Old West; in nonfiction, I’ve kept current on all the scholarship, such as it is (some is pretty slipshod). And I’ve continued to re-read my favorites among the old masters of Western fiction, especially Haycox, LeMay and Lea. The West remains my oldest and, still, my best love.

But it’s the old Old West, not the Westerns of today. With few exceptions, the Westerns now being written and filmed lack the salutary didactic element that helped me and thousands like me grow up and make our way through the ethical snares of the late twentieth century. They tend to be morally empty when they’re not depraved and vicious for viciousness’ sake. Now and then a Western film like Lawrence Kasdan’s 1994 biopic Wyatt Earp will dare to give us a protagonist who, due to the loss of his beloved wife, sinks from a buoyant innocence into a moral twilight that justifies murder; but audiences will shy away in droves from such grim fare. Much more popular was George P. Cosmatos’ Tombstone, made the same year about the same man, in which gallons of gratuitous blood gush forth but, oddly, the Roy Rogers-Gene Autry myth of absolute good versus absolute evil is resurrected. Spectacle and excess supplant a life-lesson about the effects of unexamined grief.

Do I write Western fiction myself? I’d love to, and have tried. For years I’ve kept some completed manuscripts stashed away in my hard drive, which I’ve now started posting on a special blog ( in hopes someone else out there might enjoy them. But I hesitate, at my age, to waste my time hoping to be commercially published as a writer of Westerns. The market for the kind of Westerns I love disappeared years ago. In the ‘40’s Ernest Haycox could be favorably reviewed in The New York Times. In the ‘50’s, so could Alan LeMay, and Oakley Hall could be nominated for a Pulitzer. There were multiple outlets for Western fiction—magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s; imprints of most major publishing houses. Why? Because the public recognized and read good fiction regardless of genre and publishers catered to that market—which was, by and large, a literate, intelligent, upper-middle-class market. Nowadays the only outlets for fiction are designed for the extremes—either for bottom-feeders or intellectual elites. The great mass of the middle class goes hungry. Interestingly, since I've been posting a Western novel chapter-by-chapter on my Rangerider blog, I've heard, second-hand, that at least one public librarian has hailed the move. Readers in her community, she reports, are so starved for Westerns that they keep checking out and reading the same Zane Grey books over and over.

Literary intellectuals tend to frown on the Western unless another literary intellectual chooses to write one, like Paul West (OK) , Michael Ondaatje (The Collected Works of Billy the Kid) or Bruce Olds (Bucking the Tiger). Westerns written by literary intellectuals tend to be unspeakably bad but draw high praise from the critics who are now our mandarins of literary taste and who insist that good writing must be inscrutably stylized in language and relentlessly obscure, self-regarding and morally clueless. There are the rare and welcome departures from this norm—Pete Dexter’s Deadwood (on which the recent HBO television series was very loosely based) and Ron Hansen’s phenomenal duet The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (made into another fine film that was deep-sixed by the studio as too depressing) and Desperados, to name but two. But in general the mandarins have declared the old-time Western fiction to be a base and trivial form of writing, which, now, it mostly is.

Though I hate to admit it, there was a time when I myself aspired to be a literary intellectual; during that regrettable period in my life I often felt a little guilty about my old abiding love. Even today, burdened as I am by the writer’s curse of self-doubt, I sometimes wonder if it’s a sign I’m in some way illegitimate as a serious novelist. I eagerly look for signs that will validate my fascination with the Old West.

Imagine my joy, then, when I learned the late Shelby Foote had told an interviewer that the only novel he ever saw his mentor William Faulkner reading was Ernest Haycox’s Bugles in the Afternoon. Or when I read that Ernest Hemingway always looked forward to the next story by Haycox in the old Saturday Evening Post. Or, most improbable of all, that Gertrude Stein was also a Haycox fan.

Of course I know there are literary intellectuals who’ll sneer at Hemingway and Stein. But nobody sneers at Faulkner.

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