William Eastlake once gave William Kittredge a piece of advice about writing as a Westerner. Never allow a publisher to put a picture of a horse on the cover of your novel: “The people who buy it will think it’s some goddamned shoot-up. And they’ll hate it when it isn’t.”
For more than a century, picking up a “western” meant caressing a myth. The plot rarely varied. Decent folk who’d left behind the corrupt world–always somewhere to the east–came to a land of primeval beauty and promise and set about turning a little chunk of it into a nice, prosperous garden. But there were a few corrupt souls lurking in the vicinity, and before long they showed themselves: heedless savages, horse thieves, men with pistols on their hips. The good folks had no choice but to confront the bad guys on their terms–often with the aid of a mysterious and taciturn stranger on horseback. Violence, regrettable but necessary, ensued. The good guys were wounded. The bad guys were killed. Our happy homesteaders returned to taming the wilderness, cultivating their corner of paradise, a little less innocent but having earned in blood their claim to the land. The taciturn stranger was saddled and gone by morning, having left neither a card nor a silver bullet.
Louis L’Amour wrote more than a hundred works of fiction along those lines, 260 million copies of which are moldering on cheap pulp paper all over the world. In the second half of the nineteenth century alone, 1,700 novels about Buffalo Bill were published. Our appetite for the myths of law-bringing and wilderness-taming is as old as America itself. The pulp western simply spruced it up with big hats, six-guns and blue roan appaloosas. Hollywood seized on the concept and tinkered with its variations for more than thirty years; John Wayne had one of the longest runs of any male movie icon of the past century.
This is the seductive mythology serious writers in the West have to grapple with as they set out to write the much messier, much less uplifting story of the true Western experience. They also face an Eastern literary establishment that is often indifferent or unsympathetic to their aims. Norman Maclean couldn’t find a major publisher to bite on his masterpiece, A River Runs Through It. “These stories have trees in them,” he was told. And in a snotty review in these very pages, Edward Abbey was called “puerile” and “dopey” and was accused of arrogance and xenophobia.
Not that every literary effort to come out of the West deserved canonization. Kittredge published a collection of stories, We Are Not in This Together, that borrowed much from the old myth–except the happy ending, which leaves a rather curdled vision. Despite a laudatory foreword from Kittredge’s friend Raymond Carver, the stories contain a predictable mix of unfaithful women, barroom hijinks, cold-blooded killings, guns and knives and whisky and tight-lipped men who, when they deign to speak, do so not with or even at but past one another. “My stories were mostly imitations about old men and wounded boys, reeking of sorrow and sad romance about the ways love is bound to fail, and could never have been enough anyway,” Kittredge eventually admitted.