Sunday, February 15, 2015

How TheWest Was Writtem, Volume 2 by Ron Scheer

Ed here: Ron Scheer is one of my favorite bloggers. His reviews are crisp, clear, educated and even at times downright stylish. I mention these virtues because they are all on display in abundance in his Volume 2 of How the West Was Written.

Here are two paragraphs from a review by Prashant C. Trikannad:

"During the years 1907-1915, frontier fiction boomed with new writers, and the success of Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902) began to make itself felt in their work. That novel had made the bestseller lists for two years running. With the continued popularity of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show, and the appearance of one-reeler westerns on movie screens, many featuring the adventures of Bronco Billy Anderson, the cowboy hero was becoming an established mythic figure in the public imagination. 

For writers of popular fiction, the frontier was also a subject for exploring ideas drawn from current public discourse—ideas about character and villainy, women’s rights, romance and marriage, democracy and government, capitalism, race and social boundaries, and the West itself. With each new publication, they participated as well in an ongoing forum for how to write about the West and how to tell western stories. Taken together, the chapters of this book describe for modern-day readers and writers the origins of frontier fiction and the rich legacy it has left us as a genre. It is also a portal into the past, for it offers a history of ideas as preserved in popular culture of a century ago that continues to claim an audience today.

Ed here:  As Ron points out  realistic depictions of everyday life were found in the work of many early western writers. But myth prevailed. As I was reading his section on Zane Grey I realized that for all his vaunted prowess John Ford's version of the Old West was not a great deal more sophisticated than Grey's. They both peddled the same old romantic myths. It was not until after the war that writers such as  H.R. DeRosso  (and many others) and directors such as Anthony Mann (Mann would have been right at home directing "Deadwood") began to challenge what had come before.

But that's a sour note and there's nothing sour about Ron's fine history. Hell, I was steeped in the mythic west thanks to Republic Pictures. I can still get through an early Roy Rogers movie. I even like the songs. And some of his movie girl friends were real babes.

And in addition to the writers,Ron discusses, some unexpected names turn up as western scribes. Nathanael West author of the great American classic Day of The Locust cranked out B westerns for a number of studios.

What Ron Scheer has done so admirably, trenchantly and even wittily here is take on an entire body of literature and make sense of its elements not only to it followers but to the greater culture at large. Make no mistake the impact was considerable on both our social mores and our politics. Just the other day  one of our dumber politicians asked (in a call to war) what "John Wayne would do" in this situation. Since Wayne never served I doubt he would have been much help. But the point is the popularity and mores of the Old West pulpsters remain with us today. 

I know that conventional wisdom says the western is dead. But as this magnificently researched and written book makes clear, the mythical west will never die. 


Anonymous said...

Mr. Scheer has done something unique in these two editions. He organized his reviews of titles by attribute: by plot, character, storytelling, etc., and then has grouped these together in chapters, which allows readers to follow trends, similarities, shifts, etc., through the decades of western fiction. It adds great depth to the material under review. I've never seen this done, and appreciate what I saw in the first volume.

Ben Boulden said...

This really sounds wonderful.

Unknown said...

Thanks for bringing attention to this collection, Ed. I've been enjoying Ron's essential reviews for a number of years and am pleased to be able to publish them.

David Cranmer said...

PS I'm the Unknown of the last comment.