Old West or New West, our novels tend to get categorized by subject. Mountain man novels, ranch novels, cowboy novels, Indian novels, pioneer novels, historical novels, homestead novels—the list goes on and on. Once in awhile this leads to confusion, like talking about books in a Wyoming saloon and saying that Annie Proulx wrote a cowboy novel. Ooops.
Which are the best of the cowboy novels? I don’t know. (I can’t tell you which of my kids I like best, either.) Here are five important ones:
1. Owen Wister’s The Virginian
You know the classic shootout in the street, good guy and bad guy facing each other with sixguns? It became a cliché, but it began in The Virginian.
The Virginian demonstrated that you could have a darn good cowboy book with no cows in it. It has long discussions of democracy and aristocracy, but there’s also romantic sparks flying between The Virginian and the schoolteacher Molly Wood. There’s good humor, too, such as The Virginian’s story about the cowboys who gave up cattle to raise frogs for eastern restaurants.
2. Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage
Here’s the start of another western movie staple, the man with one name who is rides the trail of vengeance. But it also pits a woman against an unforgiving land where lawless brutes have all the greed of a hungry wolverine and all the ethics of a tarantula. I’ve read it a dozen times and even edited it once and I still get a tingle up my spine when Lassiter and Jane flee into the hanging canyon with the bad guys in pursuit and she says “Roll the rock, Lassiter!”
(Side note: when it came out in 1911, Riders of the Purple Sage was heavily censored to make it more “moral” and less controversial. In 2005 Five Star Westerns finally published the restored edition containing the text as Grey wrote it.)
3. Jack Schaefer’s Shane
Here’s the hero without a past, a champion with no name defending the same farmers who signal the end of his open-range way of life. Shane is the spirit of the West, the symbol of all that’s wrong with it and everything that could be right about it. The book goes far beyond the movie, which Schaefer didn’t like. (Just for the record, Schaefer confided to me once that he not only liked the book better than the film, he liked his other novel Monte Walsh better than Shane.)
4. Andy Adams’s Log of a Cowboy
A “sleeper” is Andy Adams’s Log of a Cowboy. It’s a cattle trail narrative and became the prototype for books like Benjamin Capp’s The Trail to Ogallala. Many will swear it’s a true diary kept by a cowboy herding cattle up the trail out of Texas. You can taste the grit, smell the buffalo chip fire, hear the creak of the saddle leather. You’ll feel the excitement when the fight starts and the ramrod yells to his men “the stuff’s off, boys! Shoot and shoot to hurt!”
Despite the realism, Log of a Cowboy is fiction. Adams did go up the long trail and knew what he was talking about, but he meant it to be a novel.
5. Edward Abbey’s The Brave Cowboy
Where else can you find a cowboy breaking his pal out of jail and getting chased by a helicopter? It’s Abbey at his best, fighting the modern establishment and reaffirming the virtues of loyalty and honest living. Most importantly, Abbey brings the post-civil war cowboy into the era of Vietnam and shows his type is still alive and well.
In 1999 I surveyed more than three hundred members of the Western Literature Association and asked them to name the most important Western novels. Besides the ones I’ve mentioned, the following got the most votes in the cowboy category:
• Hal Borland, When the Legends Die
• Walter Van Tilburg Clark, The Ox-Bow Incident
• Ivan Doig, English Creek
• Elmer Kelton, The Time It Never Rained
• Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses
• Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove
• Eugene Manlove Rhodes, Paso por Aqui
Dr. James Work is the editor of the textbook Prose and Poetry of the American West, past-president of the Western Literature Association, and author of eight novels set in the West.
More articles in this series: