Westerns: alive, well and up - to -date

September 27, 1998|By Tom Linthicum | Tom Linthicum,SUN STAFF

Question: Who is the only American novelist to receive both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal?

Hint: He has published 90 novels, 20 short-story collections, two works of nonfiction, a memoir, a volume of poetry and his fans have bought more than 200 million copies of his works.

Give up?

The answer is Louis L'Amour, the most popular modern practitioner of a literary genre that historically has received little critical respect and has been said by many to be either dead or dying as recently as a decade ago.

I offer this fact not as an answer to a literary trivia question, because I don't think it's trivial at all. I offer it as proof that, to paraphrase the sometimes Western writer Mark Twain, "the reports of the death of the Western have been greatly exaggerated." The modern Western has been part of the American literary scene ever since - and arguably long before - Owen Wister introduced readers to "The Virginian" in 1902, and it shows no signs of riding into the sunset.

There is no doubt today that we are in the midst of a full-fledged revival of Western fiction. Fittingly, Mr. L'Amour is leading the charge from the grave. Last year, his "End of the Drive," a collection of never-published short stories, spent six weeks on the New York Times best seller list. "Monument Rock" (Bantam Books, 249 pages, $16.95), his latest book containing seven stories and a heretofore unpublished short novel, is one of a growing number of frontier fiction works published this summer.

But Mr. L'Amour is hardly alone in this Western renaissance. A new generation of frontier writers, including women and Native Americans, is moving to the forefront. With their emergence, historical detail and accuracy are improving and stereotypes of women and minorities are disappearing. And yes, the writing is still taut, suspenseful and action-packed.

Even in the last two decades, when the Western was in eclipse and many were predicting its demise, there was much evidence to the contrary. Mr. L'Amour's books have sold 60 million copies since his death in 1988.

That same year, Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove" won the Pulitzer Prize and spawned a wildly popular television miniseries. Terry C. Johnston has churned out a steady stream of popular western historical fiction since 1982 featuring sweeping sagas of mountain men, soldiers and pioneers. Tony Hillerman has produced a long-running series of best-selling detective novels featuring Navajo tribal policemen Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee.

And so it seems clear that the Western, even though it may have receded somewhat from the literary mainstream over the last 15 years, never really left the scene. The reason for that, I would argue, is as much or more cultural and geographical as it is literary. The Western, or frontier novel, is an enduring American literary form because it is uniquely American and its settings and themes are part of the fabric of our culture.

Americans can't claim spies or detectives as uniquely American literary heroes; James Bond, Sherlock Holmes and countless other stalwarts of those genres see to that. But we can certainly claim all the folks who shaped our frontier. They and their experiences are quintessentially American, and even though their era has passed, their spirits and stories live on in the vast expanses of the Western landscape that exist today much as they did in frontier times.

So if the Western never left in the first place, what's behind all the fresh activity? It's largely a back-to-basics movement of historical fiction, led by a diverse wave of new writers who are demythologizing the West without deconstructing it. Their method: mining this rich vein of material more deeply in search of compelling stories and vivid detail. "To me, the Western isn't so much a Western as it is a history book," says Cynthia Haselhoff.

Haselhoff's novel "The Kiowa Verdict," winner of the Best Western Novel of 1998, is a prime example of the new Western. Her fictional characters interact with historical figures in historically accurate settings in a narrative woven so seamlessly that the lines between fiction and history disappear and you lose yourself completely in the story.

More women are writing Westerns today, and their books often feature women as the central characters. Two of these writers are Baltimore-born Lucia St. Clair Robson, author of the New York Times best seller "Ride the Wind," who now lives near Annapolis, and Native-American Eileen Charbonneau, a distant relative of Sacagawea. Each produced a new book this summer.

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