The Wister Trace: Assaying Classic Western Fiction

The Wister Trace: Assaying Classic Western Fiction

by Loren D. Estleman

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A master practitioner’s view of his craft, this classic survey of the fiction of the American West is part literary history, part criticism, and entertaining throughout. The first edition of The Wister Trace was published in 1987, when Larry McMurtry had just reinvented himself as a writer of Westerns and Cormac McCarthy’s career had not yet taken off. Loren D. Estleman’s long-overdue update connects these new masters with older writers, assesses the genre’s past, present, and future, and takes account of the renaissance of western movies, as well.

Estleman’s title indicates the importance he assigns Owen Wister’s 1902 classic, The Virginian. Wister was not the first writer of Westerns, but he defined the genre, contrasting chivalry with the lawlessness of the border and introducing such lines as “When you call me that, smile!” Estleman tips his hat to Wister’s predecessors, among them Ned Buntline, the inventor of the dime novel, and Buffalo Bill. His assessments of Wister’s successors—Zane Grey, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, and Louis L’Amour, to name but three—soon make clear the impossibility of differentiating great western writing from great American writing.

Especially important in this new edition is the attention to women writers. The author devotes a chapter each to Dorothy Johnson—author of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”—and Annie Proulx, whose Wyoming stories include “Brokeback Mountain.” In his discussion of movies, Estleman includes a list of film adaptations that will guide readers to movies, and moviegoers to books. An appendix draws readers’ attention to authors not covered elsewhere in the volume—some of them old masters like Bret Harte and Jack London, but many of them fascinating outliers ranging from Clifford Irving to Joe R. Lansdale.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806144818
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 10/01/2014
Edition description: Second Edition
Pages: 210
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Loren D. Estleman is the award-winning author of nearly 70 novels and hundreds of short stories in the crime and Western genres, including his popular Amos Walker and Page Murdock series.

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The Wister Trace

Assaying Classic Western Fiction

By Loren D. Estleman


Copyright © 2014 Loren D. Estleman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4774-1


The Man with No Name

In 1902, Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch were still in flight from Pinkerton agents sworn to their death or capture. Jim Younger, released with his brother Cole from prison the previous year after serving a quarter-century for the robbery of the Northfield, Minnesota, bank, shot himself to death in St. Paul that autumn. Bat Masterson was writing sports copy in New York. Tom Horn, who helped talk Geronimo into surrendering, was gunning down suspected rustlers in Wyoming and had a year to live before hanging for a youth's murder. Meanwhile, employees of Thomas Edison were in New Jersey, scouting locations for a short motion picture to be called "The Great Train Robbery." The West stood poised somewhere between Wyatt Earp and John Wayne.


The western novel as it has come to be recognized sprang full-grown from the imagination of Owen Wister in 1902. In style and content, The Virginian owes little to the dime thrillers of Ned Buntline and Prentiss Ingraham and bears little resemblance to the more sanguinary, less sanguine "oaters" of a later day that are often and erroneously considered typical of the form. None of its heroes or villains is a professional gunman, not much blood is shed, and perhaps its most colorful character is a suicidal chicken named Em'ly. Yet, as is the pioneering privilege, it introduced most of the clichés with which Wister's literary heirs are still wrestling.

Enter Wister's nameless hero, a mysterious frontiersman with a pragmatic view of life founded on the philosophy that "a man has got to prove himself my equal before I'll believe him." Thus is born the proud man of action, whose opposite number, a rustler, back-shooter, and calumniator of women, represents the Devil. "Trampas has got hold of him," laments the Virginian, summing up the fate of a fellow cowboy who has gone over to the rustlers. From his famous first words to Trampas, "When you call me that, smile!" until the inevitable face-off—remarkable today for its subtlety and restraint—the line is drawn indelibly for Wister's successors to trace.

But the book is not all, nor even a tenth part, picturesque threats and spent powder. Beneath the surface hilarity of the Virginian's tale-telling contest with Trampas aboard the train to Medicine Bow, and of Em'ly, the demented hen who finds only a broken neck in her quest for motherhood, lie essential clashes of will and a regard for life that serious literature in our own day often promises and seldom delivers. Such episodes are part of a process by which the principals are constantly measuring themselves against one another on every level.

In Wister's hands, even the obligatory romance performs double duty, wooing the reader with a rough-hewn love story while hammering home the novel's basic theme, that West and East are worlds entirely foreign to each other. Afternoon rides involving the hero and heroine (a schoolmarm), long since a staple of the form, become Socratic debates, as when the Virginian sets her up with her own words:

"All men are born equal," he now remarked slowly.

"Yes," she quickly answered, with a combative flash. "Well?" ...

"I used to have to learn about the Declaration of Independence. I hated books and truck when I was a kid."

"But you don't any more."

"No. I cert'nly don't. But I used to get kep' in at recess for bein' so dumb. I was 'most always at the tail end of the class. My brother, he'd be head sometimes."

"Little George Taylor is my prize scholar," said Molly....

"Who's last?"

"Poor Bob Carmody. I spend more time on him than on all the rest put together."

"My!" said the Virginian. "Ain't that strange!" ...

"I don't think I understand you," said Molly, stiffly.

"Well, it is mighty confusin'. George Taylor, he's your best scholar, and poor Bob, he's your worst, and there's a lot in the middle—and you tell me we're all born equal!"

Molly could only sit giggling in this trap he had so ingeniously laid for her.

The Virginian is not a western novel but a novel of the West. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the brilliant defense of lynch law presented by Judge Henry, the Virginian's employer, and in the easy camaraderie that exists between two captured rustlers and the men who will hang them in the morning. Here, Wister's anonymous narrator (like the Virginian, an unchristened Everyman in his own world), an easterner, demonstrates his respect for and fear of an alien code by spending a sleepless night in a cabin with the condemned men and refusing to interfere. Lesser artists, seething with democratic outrage, have sought to press contemporary eastern values on a period and a society that Wister knew too well to attempt to influence. The reader, like the narrator, is forever on the outside looking in.

The cowboy gunman is a myth. Ranch hands had little time or inclination to practice their fast draw and less use for it. Although to some extent Wister circumvents this stumbling-block by pitting two cowboys against each other in the climactic shootout—the first such in fiction—a potent whiff of tall tale lingers, and it is this larger-than-life element that has inspired several motion picture versions of the story and one long-running television series, the last inexplicably presenting Trampas and the Virginian as friends.

Much scholarly smoke has been blown on the subject of this western Grendl, for reasons that are not quite clear. As a villain, Trampas is a rather bland foreshadowing of Shane's Mephistophelean Stark Wilson, and his worst crimes take place off the page. He stands as a mundane symbol of a greater evil, threatening an unspoken system of honor in a way no mere challenge between men can approach. If he lives, decency dies.

Readers accustomed to the superficial explicitness of the standard action western may be surprised by the aridity of Wister's prose, which forms a link between the allegorical sea stories of Joseph Conrad and Ernest Hemingway's deceptively flat narrative stance. It is not difficult to read in the way that William Faulkner is difficult to read, but it demands an alert mind, else much of its effect is lost. Whether this is a fault or a strength depends on which colors the literary fraternity is flying this season.

"Perennial" doesn't begin to describe the ubiquity of The Virginian on screen. The film was produced as early as 1914, and as recently as 2000, and the TV series ran for ten years, from 1962 to 1971, with Trampas transformed from a villain to the hero's best friend. The versions I've seen all have something to commend them, although I prefer the 1946 outing starring the great Joel McCrea opposite Brian Donlevy's oily Trampas over all the others. Gary Cooper's 1929 turn was hobbled by the snail's-pace imposed by the stationary camera of early sound technology. There's a heartbreaking moment in the McCrea entry, when the Virginian perks up at the sound of a bird-call, only to remember in the next moment that he's lynched the friend who used to greet him with it. The scene epitomizes the Code of the West in all its exalting and terrible truth.

If the importance of a work is measured by the size of its audience, The Virginian stands taller than any dozen "straight" novels that have appeared since. But Wister's instinctive knowledge of the human condition remains the book's bedrock. By the time Trampas snarls "I'll give you till sundown to leave town," the Virginian's reaction is not the knee-jerk of the so-called macho stereotype, but the inevitable response to a challenge of his entire concept of self.


The Poet and the Pulpit

It has become fashionable in these more jaded times to denigrate Zane Grey, following the lead of critics who have never read him and writers seeking to promote their own interests by pulling down the old bull. This is symptomatic of the literary philosophy of the elevator car, whose fixed capacity demands that a passenger be turned out at each floor to make room for a new rider.

True, Grey's characters are punched out of the same grade of cardboard that new shirts come wrapped around. True, he borrows his plots from Victorian morality plays. He telegraphs his punches, mixes backcountry dialect with the Queen's English, lingers over slight scenes in the manner of a starving dog licking a naked bone, while hurriedly dismissing key plot turns through a third party. But his books are read and reread by intelligent people in every country until the covers disintegrate. Owen Wister and Walter Van Tilburg Clark are held in awe; Zane Grey is loved.


Riders of the Purple Sage makes full use of Grey's poetic genius. Through his eyes, the Utah plain erupts into startling color and hidden valleys become paradises of virgin, aching beauty:

Around the red perpendicular walls, except under the great arc of stone, ran a terrace fringed at the cliff-base by silver spruces; below that first terrace sloped another wide one densely overgrown with aspens, and the center of the valley was a level circle of oaks and alders, with the glittering green line of willows and cottonwood dividing it in half. Venters saw a number and variety of birds flitting among the trees. To his left, facing the stone bridge, an enormous cavern opened into the wall; and low down, just above the tree-tops, he made out a long shelf of cliff-dwellings.... The few cliff dwellings he had seen—all ruins—had left him with haunting memory of age and solitude and of something past. He had come, in a way, to be a cliff-dweller himself, and those silent eyes would look down upon him, as if in surprise that after thousands of years a man had invaded the valley.

The narrative is divided between two heroes: Lassiter, a Mormon-baiting gunman whose determination to avenge his dead sister comprises the worst fears of nineteenth-century Gentiles regarding the polygamous sect; and Venters, a naïve former ranch hand who has dared to involve himself with a Mormon woman. The woman, Jane Withersteen, is a refreshing mix of subservience and sand, one of those plucky heroines who came so easily to Grey and who actually represent frontier womanhood far more accurately than the cursing feminists encountered in much of today's backlash western fiction.

None of these characters is the same by the story's close, events having softened Lassiter, hardened Venters, and shaken Jane from the Hamletlike indecision that keeps her vacillating between her conscience and her Mormon teachings. Only the villains, Elder Tull with his greedy eye on the Withersteen ranch and Bishop Dyer, the fanatical "proselytizer," go unreconstructed to their fates.

Riders knows many moments of unintentional humor. Lassiter's pursuit of Jane lacks the sharp philosophical seasoning of the Virginian's courtship, and Jane's attempt to woo the gunman into giving her his weapons, as she had done to Venters before him, would drive a Freudian whooping to his writing desk:

Jane slipped her hands down to the swinging gun-sheaths, and when she had locked her fingers around the huge, cold handles of the guns, she trembled as with a chilling ripple over all her body. "May I take your guns?"

Horses kneel camel-fashion for Jane to mount them. Lassiter heads off a stampede astride a blind stallion. Venters refuses a wounded young woman's request for food, asserting that it would be dangerous for her shoulder injury. And it is a rare reader who can swallow sweet little Fay's dialogue ("Muvver sended for oo ... an' oo never tome") without retching. But the pace allows little time to dwell on these inadequacies, and for every fumble Grey provides at least two circus catches. "Oldrin's an honest thief," declares Lassiter at one point, surprising appreciative mirth out of his audience. The wry homily is a Grey trademark.

Readers in search of Grey at his most even-handed should sample his grittily detailed study of the buffalo hunter's day-to-day existence in The Thundering Herd (1925) or experience the muted power of The U.P. Trail (1918), about the construction of the transcontinental railroad. But in neither of these comparatively disciplined efforts does he soar to the poetic heights of the descriptions in Riders.

Beyond them, what makes the story a classic despite its shortcomings is his sure use of familiar stereotypes amid fairy-tale surroundings and his flair for pulse-pounding action. The last third of the book crackles with explosive climaxes, none more gripping than Venters' mountain race to catch Jerry Card, Tull's right bower:

Cruelly he struck his spurs into Wrangle's flanks. A light touch of spur was sufficient to make Wrangle plunge. And now, with a ringing, wild snort, he seemed to double up in muscular convulsions and to shoot forward with an impetus that almost unseated Venters. The sage blurred by, the trail flashed by, and the wind robbed him of breath and hearing.... The giant sorrel thundered on—and on—and on. In every yard he gained a foot. He was whistling through his nostrils, wringing wet, flying later, and hot as fire.

Riders has been filmed five times, in 1918, 1925, 1931, 1941, and 1996, but never well. Stripped of its narrative poetry, it devolves into a simplistic tale of good vs. evil, predictable from the first scene. The same can be said of much of Rudyard Kipling and all of Thomas Wolfe; it's no comment on their talent and skill. Some stories are destined to be read, not watched.

Zane Grey never fails to deliver on a promise—one reason for his fans' fierce loyalty. They know that the villain will be punished, the hero will claim the heroine, and that in the process the storyteller will shed all artistic pretentions and go for the gut. Life should be so dependable and satisfying.


There are no eloquent Judge Henrys to speak for lynching in The Ox-Bow Incident, just the neanderthalic Deputy Sheriff Mapes and the sadistic Major Tetley, and thereby hangs Walter Van Tilburg Clark's grim tale of mob rule and the dark side of human nature.

Van Tilburg Clark draws a straighter, more predictable line than Wister, and yet, like Tetley himself, alternately extends and withdraws hope so that the reader is torn between faith in the accused rustlers' salvation and resignation to their fate. The narrative self-consciously avoids heroes. Davies, the most vocal opponent of the atrocity, is old and frail, symbolizing the impotence of reason amid high emotion. In an overlong soliloquy dominating the anticlimax, he confesses cowardice. Gerald Tetley, the major's son and another wet blanket, whines and snivels throughout the story and hangs himself after the lynching. Even Gil Carter and Art Croft, the observers through whose eyes we follow the action, are guilty of noninvolvement.

A talky book, Ox-Bow moves slowly, choking on undigested lumps of unrealistic dialogue that make it resemble not so much the Old Testament tract it has often been compared to as Greek allegory. Intones Gerald Tetley: "Yes, we've got them scared all right, all of them, except the tame things we've taken the souls out of. We're the cocks of the dungheap, all right; the bullies of the globe."

Intended as the book's conscience, young Tetley is Lear's hyperperceptive Fool without the latter's sense of irony. But he is just one inhabitant of a remote community seemingly blessed with the gift of articulation. Everyone is an orator. Even Monty Smith, the drunken lout who personifies the worst emotions of the party, experiences remarkably little difficulty with his vocabulary and syntax. Van Tilburg Clark's tin ear is the book's major flaw.

Its one formidable strength is an explosive admixture of stick-figure characters, laid with the skill of a demolitions expert to go off in places and times where it will wreak the most havoc on the reader's sensibilities. Published the year France fell to Hitler's Wehrmacht, its concern with modern fascism overwhelms its token nod to period, and from the presence of an unjustly accused trio to its progressive, suffocating sense of doom the book bears a suspicious resemblance to Humphrey Cobb's World War I classic, Paths of Glory. In spite of this and the burden of an undeveloped subplot involving a gossip-ruined woman come back with a new husband (the author's indecision over which psychological cancer-spots to expose is at its most irritating here), Ox-Bow climbs inexorably down an ever-darkening shaft and reveals its worst truth in a blinding flash at the bottom. Lamar Trotti junked the unnecessary subplot from his script for William Wellman's superb 1943 film, pared down the soliloquies, and included the text of the letter that would seem to make the case for the defense. The novel spared us that, but in so doing spared us nothing.

When Davies in his desperation to prove Martin's innocence approaches Art with the condemned man's letter to his wife, neither Art nor the reader wants to know what it says. Van Tilburg Clark has pointed his finger, and it isn't at the guy standing behind us.


Excerpted from The Wister Trace by Loren D. Estleman. Copyright © 2014 Loren D. Estleman. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Preface to the Second Edition: Resurrection, American-Style,
Acknowledgments to the Second Edition,
Preface to the First Edition,
Introduction to the First Edition: American Genesis,
Chapter 1. The Man with No Name—The Virginian (1902),
Chapter 2. The Poet and the Pulpit—Riders of the Purple Sage (1912); The Ox-Bow Incident (1940),
Chapter 3. Three Consecutive Knights—Shane (1949); Hondo (1953); The Shootist (1975),
Chapter 4. Beef—The Sea of Grass (1936); Monte Walsh (1963); Sam Chance (1965); The Day the Cowboys Quit (1971); The Hi Lo Country (1961),
Chapter 5. The Greasy Grass—No Survivors (1950); Little Big Man (1964); The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer (1976); Flashman and the Redskins (1982),
Chapter 6. The People—The Searchers (1954); Hombre (1961); Arrest Sitting Bull (1977); Ride the Wind (1982); Four Souls (2005),
Chapter 7. More Than Brokeback: The Stories of Annie Proulx,
Chapter 8. Mile High—The Big Sky (1947); Mountain Man (1965); The Untamed Breed (1981); The Medicine Calf (1981),
Chapter 9. Hot Irons—Warlock (1958); True Grit (1968); The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales (1973); Wild Times (1978); Desperadoes (1979),
Chapter 10. Greed and Gods—Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927); The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1935); The White Buff alo (1975); Under the Fifth Sun (1980),
Chapter 11. A Woman Apart: The Stories of Dorothy M. Johnson,
Chapter 12. Only the Rocks Live Forever—Angle of Repose (1971); Centennial (1974); The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (1984),
Chapter 13. Darkest America—Lonesome Dove (1985); Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West (1985),
Postscript: The Second Century,
Appendix A. Film Adaptations: A Select List,
Appendix B. Other Notable Books,

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