Essay:New Generation of Gunslingers

A New Generation of Storyslingers
Stake Out America’s Frontier

Rocky Mountain News

by Jerrie Hurd

As a kid, I did what everyone my age did. When I came home from school, I flopped down in front of the television and watched westerns ­ Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Maverick. It’s embarrassing, but I’ll confess that the power of that visual medium was such that I began to think of the West the way it was being presented in those series-as a place of strong men and few women. Never mind that I was growing up on a working ranch in Idaho that included horses, sheep, and three generations of women who had run that place since it was no more than a hopeful claim in a raw wilderness.

What’s more this wasn’t distant history for me. I knew all these women, even my great-grandmother who first staked that claim and then went on to grow her 160 acre homestead into a sheep ranch that included all of Long’s Valley. She lived to be ninety-four years old. I was eleven when she died, and my grandmother, who might best be described as “Auntie Mame in boots” took over from her. My mother now runs the largest remaining piece of that ranch, 1500 acres, while my father, who died several years ago, had his own land and held local political office.

Books also didn’t reflect the “West” I knew. Louis L’Amour, writing in the mythic tradition of Zane Grey, continued a western storytelling that had already proved successful with legend-hungry readers.

As a kid, I did what everyone my age did. When I came home from school, I flopped down in front of the television and watched westerns ­ Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Maverick. It’s embarrassing, but I’ll confess that the power of that visual medium was such that I began to think of the West the way it was being presented in those series-as a place of strong men and few women. Never mind that I was growing up on a working ranch in Idaho that included horses, sheep, and three generations of women who had run that place since it was no more than a hopeful claim in a raw wilderness.

What’s more this wasn’t distant history for me. I knew all these women, even my great-grandmother who first staked that claim and then went on to grow her 160 acre homestead into a sheep ranch that included all of Long’s Valley. She lived to be ninety-four years old. I was eleven when she died, and my grandmother, who might best be described as “Auntie Mame in boots” took over from her. My mother now runs the largest remaining piece of that ranch, 1500 acres, while my father, who died several years ago, had his own land and held local political office.

Books also didn’t reflect the “West” I knew. Louis L’Amour, writing in the mythic tradition of Zane Grey, continued a western storytelling that had already proved successful with legend-hungry readers. In fact, his success in writing westerns was so astonishing (his books still sell in the millions) that for decades few publishers wanted to try anything else. As a result, readers got book after book, followed by film after film about a romanticized frontier that never existed. Actually that’s not entirely correct. A shoot-out at the OK Corral really happened. There was a Billy the Kid and a Calamity Jane, but the men and women in my family and the larger ranching community where I grew up built lives out of the drama of everyday decisions. These were not lives that lacked excitement. It’s just that the excitement wasn’t always focused at the end of a gun. L’Amour exaggerated as most writers do in order to heighten the drama of a story. That’s not the problem. The problem is that he frequently chose to write variations on a single kind of story ignoring other possibilities.
The bad news is a lot of people still think that’s the only story this region has to offer. The good news is that writers of a newer kind of western are fleshing out the frontier with greater depth and understanding than ever before.

I’m not talking about historical revisionism or political correctness. This is larger than discovering that women played broader roles than ranch wives or prostitutes, and the fact that not every white male was a cowboy. It goes beyond acknowledging that Asians and African-Americans had a large part in our settlement story, or that Native Americans got a bum deal.

It started with Larry McMurtry although he was not the first to get it right, so to speak. Considerable credit needs to be paid Willa Cather, Wallace Stegner, and Frank Waters. Nevertheless, McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1985, is an undisputed watershed. But it didn’t come easy. Early in his career McMurtry is quoted as saying that Texas themes and Texas settings could be “gravely injurious to a novelist’s career.” He was referring to the hazard of writing about a region that had been reduced to “shoot-’em-ups,” and therefore thought to lack literary legitimacy.

In Lonesome Dove, McMurtry went back to original sources. Much of his material is drawn from oral histories and a biography of Charles Goodnight. Working from first-hand material, McMurtry delivers a fresh honesty, yet doesn’t debunk the more appealing myths, traditions and pride of the West. He works hard to satisfy his audience’s yearning for the familiar. That’s what legends are made of. The secret seems to be in the embellishment. McMurtry presents misfits and backwater towns and odd details that keep his story from slipping into a rut.

This is the same thing Wallace Stegner did in his novel, Angle of Repose, which is based on Mary Hallock Foote‘s diaries-the same thing a whole new generation of western writers are doing with stories as diverse as Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian and Cindy Bonner’s Lily.
But this newfound realism comes with a price: how to market such stories? What do we call these decidedly different tales of the new Old West, and where do booksellers shelve them? Larry McMurtry’s publisher, Simon and Schuster, insisted that Lonesome Dove was not a “western.” In fact almost without exception publishers have jettisoned the term “western.” That word is too strongly associated with the Zane Gray and Louis L’Amour and Hollywood films of the 50’s and 60’s. But no one has come up with a good substitute-“frontier fiction,” “western Americana,” “novels of the West.”

Publishers struggle with things as basic as book jackets. My publisher has opted for filly covers for my tales of women in the West in an obvious attempt to capture romance readers.
Ellen Recknor, author of Me and the Boys, has a different publisher who has taken a different approach. Her book covers feature horses and sunsets in an equally obvious attempt to capture western readers. Neither approach is quite right.

This is a struggle that will no doubt continue, mirroring the perplexity of the world at large. Let’s face it, we love the image of the Marlboro Man, but are suddenly less sure about some of the things he stands for. We all know too much about nicotine. We are too aware of the questions, right or wrong, about the potential for overgrazing and desertification that go with raising cattle. In other words, like it or not, our view of the American West has gotten complicated.

Is it too much to ask that our literature reflect that view?

That’s a question I wrestle with daily. I just finished a novel about a Lady Pinkerton detective in 1880’s Wyoming (The Lady Pinkerton Gets Her Man), and I did my homework. I know that the Pinkerton Detective Agency hired women agents as early as the Civil War and several of these women, Kate Warne and Mattie Lawton, for example, became famous. It’s also true that there was an agency code of conduct for these women. They were NOT expected to pack guns and certainly not supposed to give the appearance of being “loose.”

I guess I’ve grown up. I’ve learned what’s real and what’s fanciful. From the beginning of this book, I wanted my Lady Pinkerton to be an exciting western original-more like the women I grew up with than Calamity Jane. The women I grew up with taught me how to push back my own frontiers in the broadest most useful sense-they’re the women I’ve always loved.

Fortunately there are other writers who share my passion and a growing audience for these new stories. In fact according to a study done by Yankelovich Partners and reported in American Demographics (10/93) one in four US adults describe themselves as “western enthusiasts.” That means there are fifty-seven million Americans who are enthralled with everything from Santa Fe architecture to the two-step. And that includes a good new western story.