The first western was The Virginian written by Owen Wister in 1902. It is the origin of the line \"Smile when you say that pardner\" and was the first in along line of western stories that continues to this day.
There are some times and places that generate more than their share of stories: pirates in the Caribbean, knights-errant in the middle ages and cowboys and Indians in the American west.
Properly speaking, the classic western is a movie. Written western fiction of the kind written by Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour is a lesser branch of popular entertainment. Western novels and short stories are genre fiction and as with any genre, it fans have rules about what makes a genuine western story.
What are these rules?
What is it that makes a western a western?
Westerns are about cowboys. Westerns are never about sheepherders or stagecoach drivers. In historical fact sheep were as much a part of western life as cattle. Most of the ranches in eastern Oregon have been both sheep and cattle ranches at one time or another depending on what is most profitable at the time. But cowboys are romantic and sheepherders are not. Miners, gamblers, mothers with twelve children, politicians and storekeepers were all common in the west and there are many dramatic and entertaining stories to be told about them but the western story is about cowboys.
Westerns are set in the American west from 1843 to 1912. These dates are somewhat arbitrary but 1843 was the start of the wagon trains and in 1912 Arizona and New Mexico ceased to be territories and became states. Between those years was the period when the regions which were to arid for farming, the deserts, high plains and badlands were settled and incorporated into the United States.
But late nineteenth century cattle herders alone are not enough to make a story a western. People have written stories set on ranches in the mid nineteenth century American west which are fine stories but which nonetheless are definitely not westerns. Frank Norris' The Octopus is a good example. There are others that in spite of their time and setting must be classified as romances of detective stories or something else other than a western. The key to a true western is the landscape. In a true western, the landscape is a major character in the story.
This is appropriate because in the west the landscape does dominate. In other regions, in the great cities of the world, the horizon itself is shaped by the hand of man. In New York city I have seen swathes of concrete of an extent to constitute geological features in their own right. Where I live now, this is not so. In the west the land dominates and the works of man are relatively minor and transient.
Some non-American readers may ask \"What about Karl May?\" His stories are set in the American west with cowboys and Indians and they antedate Owen Wister by a generation. His stories are exciting and wildly popular adventure tales but they are not westerns because the landscape in them is fictitious. The reason May's books are almost impossible to find in English in spite of their wide circulation elsewhere is that although his stories are full of striking vistas they are jarring to American readers because, being made up, the scenery doesn't ring true. May's Texas only works if one has never been in Texas. Louis L'Amour on the other hand, whose dialog I find almost unreadable, made a point of visiting all the places he described and so his descriptions are both recognizable and exact.
Western fiction is not as popular as it was in the mid-twentieth century. There are fewer people today who can identify with that land and that life. In 1900 most of the population was rural and dependent on the land around them. Today ninety-nine per cent is urban and would be afraid to drink the water in a mountain stream.
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