BY 1890 THE AMERICAN wester frontier had moved to the Pacific and, according to historian F. J. Turner was closed. This should have ended the West, but didn't. In fact the literature portraying western life didn't really begin until 1902 when The VIRGINIAN ($"When you call me that, smile") was published. written by an easterner, Owen Wister, the novel was tremendously popular even though it didn't quite get the cow into it.
In The Novel of the American West John R. Milton traces of the growth of the serious Western novel and discusses the work of 14 of its major writers. Of these, only Willa Cather and John Steinbeck are treated in the standard Literary History of the United States. Why this lack of recognition? Chiefly because literary critics have been too quick to categorize these artists with the popular or formula novel turned out by the wagonload by such writers as Max Brand, Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour. This subliterary genre attracted the most readers, proving the truth of Dalton Trumbo's observation, "An accident will always draw a crowd." Its strength lay in its action, a tradition going back to Walter Scott, and drew on James Fenimore Cooper and Bret Harte, writers who too often produced stereotypes rather than real people and plots.
But from the welter of flashing guns and galloping horses a small residue of high-quality fiction emerged, worthy to stand with the best of American literature. How do these serious westerns differ from eastern fiction? Milton generalizes that where eastern fiction is sophisticated, Freudian and emphasizes the differences in characters shaped by society and psychology, western fiction is intuitive, Jungian and stresses the affinities in characters formed by land and morality. These appear sound enough, though at times Milton's ideas are arguable: for example, his view that the physical environmental pushed the posse to lynch the innocent men in Walter Van Tilburg Clark's The Ox-Bow Incident (1940) in a way that could not have happened in the East. Violence occurs everywhere, of course, but it is emotion rather than a unique terrain and weather pattern that triggers it.
Land shapes the work of all these novelists, and Milton uses it as a thread running through his analysis. In the Vardis Fisher of Toilers of the Hills (1928) who saw the primitive move toward intelligence; the A. B. Guthrie Jr. of The Big Sky (1947) who could see better behind than around him; the Frederick Manfred of Lord Grizzly (1954) with his energy and beautiful rhythms; the Walter Van Tilburg Clark of The Track of the Cat (1949), where a character complains that his wife was a clothes-pin in bed, a goddam, 'normous, wooden clothes-pin"; the Harvey Fergusson of Wolf Song (1972), the classic that begins "Up from the edge of the prairie and over the range rode three"; and the Frank Waters of The Man Who Killed the deer (1942), the mystic Milton puts with Clark and Fergusson in the pantheon of Western novelists.
Milton's, analysis and coverage sometimes are questionable. He is overly fond of symbols and arranging things in two- and three-part categories. And he seems unaware of and doesn't cite the critical work done by J. Frank Dobie, Lawrence Clark Powell, H. Birney, W. H. Hutchinson, Jeff Dykes, and others. Worse, he omits consideration of such classics as Frederic Remington's The Way of an Indian, Stewart White's Arizona nights, Eugene M. Rhodes' Good Men and True, ross Santee's Cowboy , Oliver La Farge's Laughing Boy, will Comforts's Apache, and Paul Wellman's Broncho Apache. Ironically, Milton cites Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage as an example of a formula western when, in fact, it may have been the only one of Grey's 80 books of real quality. Finally, he is full and forthcoming on the rugged Western male but reticent on the often tougher female (Conrad Richter is superb in depicting her); and too serious by half -- he has nothing on humor (of the Gene Rhodes sort) which sometimes was the only nostrum for the rigors of frontier life.
But he ends well: "The Western novel, rooted in the past, is prophetic. At its best it achieves a unifying vision of past, present, and future. Such a unity is possible only through a corresponding unity or harmony of man and the earth he walks upon." Though somewhat marred by omission, this is an excellently crafted work of scholarship which captures the fact and spirit of time and place in the literature of our West.