Sunday, December 11, 2016

Edge books as revisionist westerns?

I've read a couple of the later Edge series western books over the years and I'm thinking about reading some of the earlier ones. This post suggests some revisionist characteristics in the Edge series. Having not read enough of them yet, this doesn't feel like the best comparison, but as I read more of them I'll keep an open mind to the possibility. I'm intrigued to look at the books through that lens. The post also attempts to draw some broad parallels between the western genre and the fantasy genre.
Edge is billed as a "new kind of Western hero" - a self-consciously revisionist approach to the John Ford / Zane Grey tradition.

True West Magazine's Best of the West books article

One of the questions I think about is the state of the modern western: whether it is dead, dying, or doing just fine. The annual Best of the West article from True West magazine suggests doing just fine. As per usual some of these non-fiction titles jump out at me the most but I'll be looking into some of the fictions ones as well.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Gunsmoke radio show

Been listening to Gunsmoke the OTR show. I've been really surprised at how great the show is. The storylines are dark and have a psychological depth to them. I think I prefer them, so far, to the episodes I've watched over the years (I've never watched the entire series). The radio show episodes are widely available. Here they are at the internet archive. Each episode is timed well for my drive to and from work so they are perfect for the car. Highly recommended.

The Picadilly Cowboys

Paul Bishop has an informative post on The Picadilly Cowboys, a group of seven UK writers who wrote western series novels starting in the 70's. They really are their own sub-genre. Remember the series names and grab a couple next time you see them at a thrift or used book store.

Friday, November 4, 2016

The lonliness of the western mind

or, How geography and landscape affects the human mind over time (which is a really wild concept) One of the things I've been thinking about is the effect that being out in the wild had on the mind of those in the west. This was a wild land, a wild time, and in many places, not very populated. One might spend long stretches of time with minimal to no human contact. Not everyone can handle that kind of time spent with thoughts.
Grat hammered thick plate shoes on his horse at Bakersfield, the cowboy capital, and he took the Tehachapi trail for Barstow and the Mojave desert, thence to Needles and across Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, sleeping afternoons in caves or in the tangled shade of mesquite or Joshua trees, feeding on fence lizards, salamanders, greasy peccary and drinking sulphur water. The land was bare as worn carpet except for the balls of tumbleweed and the animal carcasses and the purple mountains in the distance. He'd see strands of smoke from Hopi and Navaho fires fifteen miles away, but by the time he got there the cooking stones would be cool, the wickiups would be empty, and vicious travois dogs would bark and lunge at his horse. Sheep would stare as he slumped by at night; rattlesnakes would stab at his stirrups and flop down to squirm under sagebrush; small tarantulas crawled over his face to drink water from his eyes as he slept. He lost thirty-two pounds, pried out an aching tooth with his dinner fork, blistered both heels so far down to the bone that he could pour blood when he took off his boots. I suppose Grat's brain cracked just a bit with aloneness because he invented a cowboy named Dangerous Dan who supposedly rode an albino mule and caught turtledoves in his hands and talked to Grat about railroads and how they were going to get even. "Old Dan, he was good company," said Grat. His journey from California to Oklahoma took one hundred and seven days.
-- Desperadoes by Ron Hansen Did the push west create the American national trait (desired or not) of rugged individualism? Did the US have two births and two sets of founding father? The first being in 1776 with George Washington, Ben Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, etc. The second in the wild west with Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, Bat Masterson, Wild Bill Hickock, etc. If so did the first foundation give the country one set of values, one type of philosophy, one outlook on life. Did the second foundation give the country another set of values, another type of philosophy, another outlook on life. What is the relationship of the "code of the west" to a comparable "code of the south"? Is there one? How did these two strains intertwine post-West? Are they compatible? How has the country moved forward after two big births? Is there a see-sawing between the two? Here's the :Alone" monolog from the final season of Rectify. It gives specific voice to the main characters prolonged isolation on Death Row and how that time changed him. If there has been a re-wiring, can that be undone? (For the full effect watch it delivered
When you are alone with yourself for all that time, with no one but yourself. You begin to go deeper and deeper in your self until you lose your self. It's a perverse contradiction . It's like your ego begins to disintegrate until you have no ego . Not in the sense that you become humble or gain some kind of perspective. But that you literally lose your sense of self. And I'm not sure anyone, unless they've gone through it, can truly understand how profound that loss is . It's like the psychic glue that binds your whole notion of existence is gone and you become unglued. I think therefore I am. I think too much therefore I am not. I am not therefore I am nothing. I am nothing therefore I am dead. And if I am dead then why am I still so goddamn lonely.
--Daniel Holden, Season 4 of Rectify The west was wild land eventually tamed by the east. Did the west mindset of individualism, not working with others, maintaining a certain seperatness leave the people in the west ripe for the progress of the east? The wild lands create a mindset that allows for eventual occupation and dominance yet, in the long run, nature will, if given the chance, take over. Very cyclical. Interesting. (Explore more...)
That winter, Tom McLaury went for days at a time without another human being to speak to, but it was no hardship. He enjoyed the quiet companionship of his draft horses, Peggy and Bob. He talked to the dogs, too, and to a pair of Mexican pigs he'd bought recently. "Your babies'll be meat someday," Tommy told the pigs when he fed them, "but I'll give them a good life until then That's about all a pig can ask for."
--Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell

Friday, October 28, 2016

Top 12 TV Westerns

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Larry McMurtry vs. Cormac McCarthy

"As codified by Texas literary giants like Walter Prescott Webb and T. R. Fehrenbach, our quasi-religious history has often resembled historical fiction—a triumphalist mythology that a generation of “revisionist” (i.e., factual) historians has largely failed to budge from our collective psyche. Instead, ironically, the task of debunking all those popular misconceptions has fallen to contemporary Western novelists. Historical revisionism, it seems, wears better in cowboy boots; over the past three decades, the nihilistic anti-heroism of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985) has evolved into Meyer’s more complex but no less morally desolate frontier, where everyone is either a victim or a thief. While the new offerings by Wittliff, McMurtry, and Guinn are considerably less apocalyptic in tone than McCarthy’s and Meyer’s books, they similarly challenge old-school readers with timely meditations on racism, sexism, and even economic inequality. "

Five Sundowns episode of Bonanza

Watched two Bonanza episodes recently. I remember my old man watching reruns of Bonanza when I was a kid but I haven’t really watched the show as an adult. The two episodes we watched were “Hound Dog” and “Five Sundowns to Sunup”. Bonanza was a show that offered different types of episodes ranging from the comedic to the suspenseful and dramatic.  “Hound Dog” was the former and “Five Sundowns” was the latter.

“Hound Dogs” doesn’t really hold up well but “Five Sundowns”, directed by veteran director Gerd Oswald, holds up really well.

It opens with a man sitting on the roof of a building, holding a shotgun, keeping a watchful eye over the town. It’s clear something just happened and we’ll find out what in short time. The sheriff has been shot, Ben Cartright steps up to wear the badge. Before long the battle lines are drawn and both sides are heading for a reckoning.  There is a definite Rio Bravo influence. It is a great western story condensed to a shorter time frame. The plan that the bad guys hatch is simple and effective. The stakes are effectively raised. The only downside is that the resolution is a little forced for such a dark set up but that is due to this being a series rather then a film and as such a couple of potentially dark avenues aren’t really explored.

The episode is available to watch on Youtube. I suggest checking it out.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Genre and the geographies of violence: Cormac McCarthy and the contemporary western.

Really interesting paper from Susan Kollin


If we take seriously Robinson's observations about the self-subversion of traditional Westerns, the ways even classic Westerns contain elements that overturn their dominant themes, then the generic distinctions defining Western texts as traditional or revisionist ultimately fail us, as the concept of a purely faithful or fully critical text loses its explanatory power.(FN2) If classic Westerns contain moments of resistance and self-reflection, carrying with them their own critique, to what extent might anti-Westerns preserve moments of desire, moments of connection and identification with elements of the classic Western? Perhaps the genre might better be understood as a continuum, its critique operating along a spectrum. On the one end may be found the classic Western, which upholds--with varying degrees of success--the codes and conventions of the form, its Anglo male protagonist, and the national project, but which contains resistant elements that undermine its cultural logic and status as a discrete, coherent entity. On the other end may be found the anti-Western, itself an unstable and shifting form that engages in a critical dialogue with the genre but that is also shaped by a certain desire for and attraction to the classic features of the Western. By understanding the Western as a genre structured by competing and contradictory impulses, audiences may make better sense of McCarthy's--and by extension McMurtry's--shifting treatment of the form.

Western article from 1985

From the September 20, 1985 edition of  The Day. "Western Novels Ride High Again" by Edwin McDowell.


Some western writers contend that the western fell  into decline because of the rise of the "adult western," books with a western setting that are really about sex and violence. But its fall from popularity, in bookstores, at the box office and on television, more probably resulted from the black-white world that it projected, a world that struck many people as unrealistic and offensive.

7 Plots for Westerns (1960)

In an earlier post I posted about the four types of western stories. I was doing some digging and found this AP article in the May 19, 1960 edition of the Kentucky New Era titled "7 Plots for Westerns" by Cynthia Lowry.


Frank Gruber, writer of westerns and currently producer of "Shotgun Slade" once made a list of the seven basic plots for westerns.

They are:

The Marshall Story--exploits of the dedicated peace officer.

The Outlaw Story--adventures, sympathetically treated, of the badman (but the badman dies at the end.

The Ranch Story--the adventures of the working cattle-raisers.

The Revenge Story--the hero tracks down the villain or vise-versa.

The Cavalry-and-Indians story--variations of the Custer's Last Stand theme.

The Empire Story--sagas of the cattle barons.

The Union Pacific Story--bringing transportation or communications to the West.

Naturally, nothing new has been added during the last two years.

The Western flavor however, is so standardized that most of us can tell what kind of show it will be just from the title: "Bronco," "Gunsmoke," "Wanted Dead or Alive," "Overland Trail." This season there was "Hotel de Paree," which might have been anything so next year it will be called "Sundance," which is more like it.
Heath Lowrance on weird westerns

Interview with Red Seven author Robert Dean

New interview series over at Spinetingler with western authors.  First up, Red Seven author Robert Dead.

Note: Interview will appear here after Spinetingler.

Haints Stay and some thoughts on revisionist westerns

[I wrote a little something on revisionist western novels. I'm not an expert, only an aficionado, and I'm still thinking on the subject so this may be a little rough and evolving. But it was something I wanted to write.]

this piece originally appeared at Spinetingler on August 3, 2016

Haints Stay seems to occupy a space where the prime influence is Blood Meridian. I want to talk a little about that space.

When Cormac McCarthy wrote Blood Meridian he approached the western from an honest place, meaning he genuinely liked the genre and Blood Meridian came from a long gestation of consuming the genre. Blood Meridian is a very popular book and it’s influence cannot be overstated. This is, potentially, a problem because subsequent writers carry Blood Meridian as a primary influence without all of the ground work that influenced McCarthy’s writing of it. Kind of like a history book that cites only secondary influences.

"I want only to underscore the point I made earlier about the absence of a present in western literature and in the whole tradition we call western. It remains rooted in the historic, the rural, the heroic that does not take into account time and change. This means that it has no future, either. Nostalgia, however tempting, is not enough; disgust for the shoddy present is not enough; and forgetting the past entirely is a dehumanizing error…Millions of Westerners, old and new, have no sense of a personal and possessed past; no sense of any continuity between the real Western past, which has been mythologized almost out of recognizability, and a real Western present that seems as cut off and pointless as a ride on a merrygo- round that can’t be stopped.… If you are any part of an artist, and a lot of people are some part of one…then I think you don’t choose between the past and the present, you try to find the connections, you try to make the one serve the other." -- Wallace Stegner

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Random theory

Elmore Leonard's writing rule about the weather is rooted in his start in writing westerns, a genre that LOVES it some nature descriptions.

Monday, August 22, 2016

In memory of John Tuska

Short post today, just something quick to say.

It's no secret that for the last year plus, I've been reading primarily westerns. Western novels, short stories, cowboy poetry, non-fiction, analysis and criticisms. One person has been a constant touchstone as I've interrogated, thought about, and had conversations with the genre.

Jon Tuska.

One of my most heavily thumbed through books has been the Encyclopedia of Frontier & Western Fiction by Jon Tuska and Vicki Piekarski. I often refer to its entries and consult it often.


Because Jon Tuska was likely the greatest western fiction scholar of the last 50 years. There are two traits that are worth mentioning. First, the amount of research, reading, and watching he did was immense and it was obvious he had a love for the genre and loved writing about it. Second, his writings were easily accessible. They weren't locked up in academic or dedicated journals, they were available to readers in readily available books, introductions to anthologies that he edited, talks that he gave.If you thought about westerns at all, there was a good chance you came across his work.

The Encyclopedia is an interesting book. It was published in 1983, a year before Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy and Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry were published. It's interesting, unintentional, timing to say the least. Two atom bombs went off in the genre and this is a book that doesn't deal with them because it can't.

I would have liked to ask Tuska about that timing, and what his opinions were of those two books. It was that stray thought that made me wonder if any contact info was out there for him, and sent me to Google. Which is when I discovered that Jon Tuska died earlier this year.

I don't always agree with some of Jon Tuska's conclusions (I think he was, perhaps, more of a traditionalist than I was), and sometimes he was just wrong ("I seriously doubt that Clint Eastwood will have Duke Wayne's staying power")but I continue to respect his opinion and the work that went into forming it. There have been times when I have formed an opinion or drawn a conclusion, only to discover that Tuska got there first

I'll leave you now with Jon Tuska, in his own words, on the Western.

The story of the American West, truly, has nothing to do with heroes and romance; it is rather a question of human endurance in the face of tragedy and defeat. But in tragedy combined with human endurance, in spiritual resilience in the face of disaster, as writers since Aeschylus and Sophocles have known, there is the potential for human nobility. Most of the best fiction about the American West is about man in nature, not the denatured, mechanical, sterile world that has come increasingly to serve as a backdrop for human activity in other kids of fiction. Indeed, in finding some  good in our American past, albeit in these more realistic terms, we might well entertain some hope for the future. In this way the American West remains what the Native Americans always thought it to be; the land beyond the setting sun, the Spiritland. The Delphic γνῶθι σεαυτὸν [know thyself] is deepened and broadened by the new experiences on a new continent; our collective idea of humanity is strengthened through a more truthful understanding and assimilation of our historical past.  -- From Jon Tuska's introduction to the Encyclopedia of Frontier & Western Fiction (1983)
 And finally:
I suppose the Western motion picture symbolizes and compresses a basic view of the changing morality, ideals, ambitions, , aspirations, and the fears, insecurities, doubts, and self-interrogations of the American people. In the end, the Western may indeed propound the American philosophy of life and the manner of confronting adversity amid hostile elements of raw nature and human evil. The conquest of a continent and the conquest of the personality are, to me, the Western's most dominant themes. it isn't reality, nor has it ever generally pretended to be. The Western is a living legend of our frontier history, altered to meet the differing needs of changing times. It frequently represent an innately heroic concept of man and his possibilities. The Western, even in its latest evolutionary forms, captures the game atmosphere, the optimism toward life true of our adventurers, the mythical cowboys of the great Southwest, the easygoing and capable fashion with which frustrations are met and solved, or the anguish with which the self-divisions and despair at the barren futility of an unsympathetic environment threaten, even destroy, but cannot extinguish the integrity of the individual's right to be himself. For me, the Western is the infusing of the human soul with the expanding and always imperiled vision of liberty. -- From Jon Tuska's The Filming of the West (1975)
 I just wanted to take a moment to point out the passing of a great writer.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

A fight for the identity of the genre

Does anyone know if old issues of The Roundup, the journal for the Western Writers of America, are available?

In the 60s there was a big and ongoing debate within the WWA about what constitutes a western, should traditional westerns dominate, etc. I know TV Olsen and Brian Garfield each wrote columns on the subject. Writers such as Larry McMurtry, Charles Portis, and Edward Abbey were not considered to be western writers by the old guard.

I would love to read those columns.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Revisionist westerns

My current project is working on and grappling with, a history and working definition of revisionist western novels. I just finished reading Welcome to Hard Times by E. L. Doctorow (holy shit what a great book).

To understand revisionist westerns you also have to understand traditional westerns. So I wanted my next read to be traditional. I wanted to read a Luke Short and remembered that Heath Lowrance had written about him in the past. So I settled on Fiddlefoot.

(And if anyone has any ideas on what to do with a finalized, longer piece on revisionist westerns let me know.)

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Ostern

I'm 14 months into my study of the western genre. Just when I think I've got a handle on it all a new type of western makes itself known to me, The Ostern ("the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries' take on the Western").

Does anyone know anything about these films? Was there a written equivalent in those countries?

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Favorite western short stories

Read a lot of great westerns over the last year and had some great conversations here about the genre. New question.

What are your favorite short story westerns?

A couple that I really like:

Miley Bennett by Jack Schaefer

Stage to Lordsburg by Ernest Haycox

Lost Sister by Dorothy M Johnson

The opening section of Hard Rain Falling
"...the traditional western has sexism built in because the woman symbolizes an alternative to violence: she offers the hero a way out without killing, but to satisfy the need for action, this offer must be rejected, making the woman’s role a rather tiresome impediment to the main attraction. "

Monday, July 4, 2016

Interesting. I don't necessarily like the "neo" term but agree with the sentiment. The Western genre, in many respects, literally died. And that has to be taken into account when writing in and about the genre:

"Leonard’s novel was written just at the end of what we now remember as the golden age of the Western genre, at a time when the author himself had already migrated to more fresh and vibrant varieties of potboiler. Since then, time has passed, John Wayne has died, and the image of a ranch-dwelling man on horseback has been requisitioned by a series of decreasingly plausible American presidents. Yet the Western itself has never quite gone extinct. It lives on in the form of the neo-Western, the backward-looking descendant of the original species, distinguished above all by its self-awareness as a genre out of time. That is to say, the neo-Western knows that the Western is a dead genre, and it knows that we know it, too. And so it must somehow attempt to answer (implicitly or explicitly, through serious reflection or through mocking parody) the question of how this came to be."

Friday, June 10, 2016

I'm reading Sixguns & Society: A Structural Study of the Western by Will Wright. It's really interesting in places and really egg heady in others.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

"America's great cowboy epic consists of a hundred thousand simulacra (cast in forms ranging from novels and movies to model kits and lunch boxes) of an imaginary original. At that primal point where other cultures find their Ramayana or Iliad or Le Morte d'Arthur, we make do with rumors and fabrications, replicas of wanted posters and tintypes of miners' shacks, Owen Wister and Zane Grey, and the deathless ideogram of a man on a horse crossing an empty space. Because of this void, the epic can always be written for the first time, the pieces finally put definitively together, even if only at the bitter end, or, indeed, long past the end. If the western died some time ago, that death was only a way station in this longer cycle of unappeasable striving after the Total Western, whether it materializes as Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, Gilbert Sorrentino's Gold Fools, Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, or the HBO series Deadwood."