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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.

The Five Most Important Cowboy Novels Ever

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:

Western Writing and Stereotype: Eastern Novels Go Inward, Western Novels Go Outward by James Work

Sentimental Cowpunchers, Homesteader’s Gramophone: Three Classic Western Christmas Stories by James Work

About Guest Writer

Comments

  1. James Work says:

    Thanks, Todd.
    I had to stick with the WLA survey results. But in a list of my own I would have included Elmer Kelton, especially “The Day the Cowboys Quit” and “The Time it Never Rained.” Ben Capps’ “Trail to Ogallala” is a swell retelling of “Log of a Cowboy,” too.
    “The Brave Cowboy” is interesting because it walks a very fine line–or sharp edge–between serious and spoof. I didn’t like the film version much, however.
    jcw

  2. Robert Hoskins says:

    Todd doesn’t like The Brave Cowboy because Ed Abbey wrote it. Shows a poor understanding of both the novel and Abbey. There was more cowboy in Abbey than most people realize. One has to think about it, of course.

    RH

  3. James Work says:

    I can’t speak to Abbey’s “cowboyness” but I sure learned he was a heck of a good writer. Ed gave me an early version of his story “Rites of Spring” to use in my anthology and just before going to press “The Fool’s Progress” came out with a version of that same story in it. Naturally I needed to do a word-by-word comparison so I’d know what changes he made. Maybe three, four times in my long life I’ve been awestruck by seeing a writer at work, and this was one of those times. Every change he made in that story was a master stroke.

    There used to be a legend to the effect that Abbey just dashed things off and sent the first draft to the printer. Not hardly. Few writers can self-edit the way he could. (Which makes it all the more interesting that he wrote TWO endings to “The Brave Cowboy”!

    jcw

  4. James Bowen says:

    My choice is The Oxbow Incident.

  5. James Work says:

    James–
    You’re right! The Oxbow Incident is a classic on several levels. Goes to show that “surveys” can have holes to let good pieces slip through.

    jcw

  6. GREEK says:

    Is the Western Literature Association is a bunch of old guys raised on dime novels? Nothing wrong with that, I’ve read my share and got the itch from my Dad before me. But how do you omit Wallace Stegner’s best work from a list of the best Western novels. Not to mention Marie Sandoz. Women can write, too.

    The Brave Cowboy is a fun read but it’s not great literature and doesn’t hold a candle to Fool’s Progress or Desert Solitaire. If Abbey wasn’t such an legend, this one might be out of print and forgotten.

    I’d put Lonesome Dove in the top five, easy, and for my money Zeke & Ned by McMurtry & Diana Ossana deserves a place. The Western experience was more than the cowboy mystique.

    Oil, Upton Sinclair. The Big Sky, A.B. Guthrie, Jr.

    Help us out here, Jenny. What’s the rest of the story?

  7. Tamara Linse says:

    Great list! I’d like to add, though maybe not “most important” but great nonetheless, Will James’s Smoky the Cow Horse, Charles Portis’s True Grit, and Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man. Oh, and don’t forget Vardis Fisher’s Mountain Man.

    I’m surprised you don’t have any Louis L’Amour on there, though he doesn’t hold up well. Does “great” or most important = popular? Is so, then maybe. (You’d be surprised how much L’Amour reads like J.R.R. Tolkien.)

    ~ Tamara

  8. Tamara Linse says:

    Oh, don’t get me wrong. I loved him too! When I was a kid, I read every book he ever wrote, and The Walking Drum and the Sackett series were my favorite. But he tends to rely on stereotypes and an elevated kind of language (much like J.R.R.). He doesn’t write the same way as, say, Wallace Stegner.

    I guess it depends on how you define “great.”

  9. James Work says:

    Well, “GREEK”,
    To set the record straight I didn’t say “The Brave Cowboy” is great literature. And I didn’t leave Stegner out–I only listed the top five from the survey. And Sandoz spelled her name “Mari”.
    The Western Literature Association was established in 1965 for the scholarly and academic investigation and promotion of literature. The journal Western American Literature is refereed, meaning that all articles are subjected to rigorous peer reviews before being published. WLA has published many articles on “dime westerns” and other popular-culture media such as film, poster art etc. WLA also published the definitive literary histories of the American West.
    The next WLA conference will be October 5-8, hosted in Missoula by Professors Nancy Cook (WLA President) and Bonney MacDonald (president-elect).
    We have had many well-known members including Vardis Fisher, Ed Abbey, Wallace Stegner, Vine Deloria Jr., Scott Momaday, A.B. Guthrie Jr., Fred Manfred, Terry T. Williams, Anne Zwinger and dozens more. We were a significant force in promoting Native American, Chicano/a and Asian American authors. Most if not all of the annual meetings include sessions on Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz, Beth Streeter Aldrich, Lesie Silko, Mary Austin–the list goes on and on.
    But don’t take my word for it–come to Missoula!! It promises to be a wild rendezvous.
    jcw

  10. James Work says:

    I’m told I neglected to reply to Tamara. My apologies.

    Those of us who are literary eggheads long ago gave up trying to tell the public which books are great, classic, outstanding and so on. Graduate programs devote entire course to such things as “Principles of Literary Criticism.” It’s art, therefore it’s abstract, therefore it’s not quantifiable–or, you know what you like!

    What the WLA survey asked the scholars was which books had the most significant influence. “Log of a Cowboy” for instance was the inspiration and source material for dozens of later books and set up a tradition of having a trail hand tell the story. “The Virginian” led to hundreds of books featuring Eastern women who fall in love with cowboys and to hundreds of meet-in-the-street gunfight encounters.

    Thanks for mentioning “Little Big Man,” which I think is the most comprehensive spoof of the western genre. I’m planning a little article about the most influential humorous books. And someday I might get around to Louis L’Amour.

    jcw

  11. Tamara Linse says:

    James,

    Thanks so much for responding!

    I have to say, I’m not one to totally give up on the distinction between literary and popular fiction. I don’t think one is less than the other at all, but I do think they’re two slightly different animals (along a continuum). As I said, I’ve read both in my life.

    Someone looking to read popular fiction might be disappointed by literary fiction, and vice versa. Among the distinctions are someone who wants to have their values and ideas affirmed as opposed to someone who wants to have their views challenged. Also someone who reads more for entertainment and plot than someone who also wants stylistic and writerly kinds of things. What is exciting for one is boring for the other, going both ways.

    I’m not for telling people what’s “better” and what to like, though, as you said.

    WLA sounds great! I’ll see if I can make it.

    Tamara

  12. James Work says:

    Thank you Tamara.
    There is an undeniable dualism there, the “literary” and the “popular.” I used to compare it with the literature of England. At the top of the literary heap you have the likes of Jane Austen, Thackeray, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy; moving toward more popular literature you come to Kipling, Conrad, Chesterton; and in the really popular pile there’s Dickens and Agatha Christie.
    At the top of Western lit we have Mari Sandoz, Frank Waters etc, and in the popular vein we come to Richard S. Wheeler and L’Amour, to Zane Gray and Elmer Kelton. No better, no worse, just appealing to different minds.

    jcw