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The Story Development: The Western Novel

Bret Harte Painted in1884 byJohnPettie (1839-1893)The very first Western stories record captivity.  Their Indian captivity tales, at first, are real.  However, they increasingly become fiction.  In addition, their stories dramatize whites' deep-rooted racial and sexual fears as they face the unknown inhabitants in a strange land.

For example, in 1542, Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca details his capture by Indians in Texas.  In the 1600s and 1700s, Puritan New England develops the captivity storyline into an art form.  These stories continue in the 19th century as both fiction and semi-fiction.  In 1911, this story line shows up with Col. William H. Selig's The Indian Vestal and is at the heart of the classic Western, The Searchers (1950).

In the 1800s, the American novel becomes the central story form.  These early novels start to deal with the West:

James Fenimore Cooper is not the first Western novelist; however, he is unquestionably the most influential novelist of the West in the first half of the 19th century.  In fact, these tales are about the early frontier that was up state New York and ends in the prairie.  His Leatherstocking Tales begins in 1823 with "The Pioneers."  The other four novels are "The Last of the Mohicans" (1826), "The Prairie" (1827), "The Pathfinder" (1840), and "The Deerslayer" (1841)

He balances the figure of Natty Bumppo (also known as Hawkeye, Deerslayer and Pathfinder) between the carefree life of the woods and the refined people of the settlements.  It also establishes the scout as a popular Western character.  "The Deerslayer" begins the story of Natty.  The next book chronologically is "The Last of the Mohicans," followed by "The Pathfinder," next "The Pioneers," and finally "The Prairie."

Cooper also dramatizes the noble red man in his Native American character Chingachgook.

Other early novelists explore the potential of Western settings:

Charles King bases his stories on frontier army life.  Before becoming a novelist, King serves in the United States 5th Cavalry.  Between 1883 and 1909, he writes many romantic novels.  They include "The Deserter" (1887), "An Army Portia" (1893), and "An Apache Princess" (1903).  Most of his novels, like his actual experience, are army post during the Indian Wars.  He mixes military campaigns and a love story.  Some critics believe his novels are the forerunner to the famous John Wayne and John Ford trilogy cavalry movies, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Bravo.

In 1884, Helen Hunt Jackson is an early advocate for Native American rights.  He history "A Century of Dishonor" (1881) attacks the U.S. government's dealings with the native peoples.  With public support, she writes the novel "Ramona."  This is a tale of a half-Indian girl.  She falls in love with a California Indian.  Her parents disown the girl and which forces her to elope with her lover.  Whites killer her lover; happily, she is accepted back into her family.

Bret Harte's is a native New Yorker, who in 1854 heads to California.  In 1868 her comes editor of the Overland Monthly.   In the periodical, he writes his classic short stories of California mining camps.  They include "The Luck of the Roaring Camp", "Tennessee's Partner", and "The Outcasts of Poker Flat."  The list of stories goes on.  He characterizations become common in Western films.

Owen Wister writes "The Virginian" (1902).  This novel establishes the cowboy as the central figure in Westerns.  He is terse, yet gallant and masculine.  He is slow to anger yet intimidating when forced.  In 1896, he writes "Red Man and White" after spending a summer in Wyoming to improve his health.  He was to attend Harvard Law School.  Over the next ten years, he continues to travel over the West.  In addition to "The Virginian," he writes "Lin McLean" (1898), "The Jimmyjohn Boss" (1900), "Members of the Family" (1911), and "When West Was West" (1928).  His friendship with Teddy Roosevelt and Frederic Remington helps his craft the Western cowboy.

In the early 1900s, novelists begin writing about the ordinary people of the West.  Novelist like Hamlin Garland and Willa Cather tell the story of the Nebraska and South Dakota farmers.  For the most part, the Western film ignores this subject.  Action is the center of the Western and popular fiction: the fierce conflict between men and nature.  Or, between the savage or outlaw and the so-called good guy.

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