Westerns are, in their most basic storytelling, the mythology of America. The stories are as old as the Egyptians and Mesopotamians played out across a vast expanse of untamed desert wilderness that the Ancient Greeks would find both frightening and recognizable. I write them because I love these timeless tales. They are as familiar as the family anecdotes our parents repeated around the dinner table. The trick for me is in re-imagining them.
I think re-imagining is a better notion of an evolving genre than what some might call revisionism. Anyone who thinks that Charles Portis’ Rooster Cogburn (1968 True Grit) or Elmore Leonard’s John Russell (1967 Hombre) set the image of the western anti-hero must be unfamiliar with Jim Lassiter in Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage (1912). Lassiter was the original “Man in Black”. The truth is that as in Norse or Greek myths, the players in Westerns are flawed. And just like Thor or Achilles it is in rising above their flaws that they reveal what is best in all of us.
So the western tells us about who we think we are, who we aspire to be and the standard we measure one another against. Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove seems a more realistic western than Jack Schaefer’s Shane not because it is more true to the time period in which it is set, but because it is more true to our own time.
And that is the point of the Western. It never tells me about a time and place long ago, it calls me to the time and place I want to live in now. At its best this is what all mythology does.
Who is your favorite Western writer?