In the aftermath of Brokeback Mountain there’s a lot of talk at the moment about the future of the Western in film and literature. The genre has been declared dead or dying more times than John Wayne stepped down from a horse and brushed off his pants with his hat. This article (click-through ads) in Salon argues that novels about the West in the twentieth century have until quite recently more often been inspired and influenced by Hollywood movies than the real frontier. Exceptions include Willa Cather’s Oh Pioneers! (etext available here) and the novels of Larry McMurtry, but recent re-examination of the realities of frontier life has mostly taken place in the movies and, in the case of Deadwood, on TV.

I’m not sure why that should be. It’s true that there seems to be an appetite for gore and grit among TV and film audiences that is absent among readers, but that doesn’t explain tough crime novels by writers such as Dashiell Hammett or Mickey Spillane. Those novels have done a lot to mythologize twentieth century American urban life and have created an image of darkness, danger, and corruption. The classic Western on the other hand presents a frontier of around 1870 explained in terms of heroism, honest toil, and optimism. All the elements of the American myth in fact. The Salon article argues that it took four generations for the finest novels of the West to be written, from around the time of Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (1964). Could it be I wonder that the move to realism is as much a reflection of America’s doubts about itself as it used to be–in the mid-twentieth century–about its confidence?

Here’s the opening of Willa Cather’s novel anyway, to show that whatever we’re doing with the Western now is a reclamation of what was possible a century ago. Hollywood has a lot to answer for:

“One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away. A mist of fine snowflakes was curling and eddying about the cluster of low drab buildings huddled on the gray prairie, under a gray sky. The dwelling-houses were set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves,headed straight for the open plain. None of them had any appearance of permanence, and the howling wind blew under them as well as over them. The main street was a deeply rutted road, now frozen hard, which ran from the squat red railway station and the grain “elevator” at the north end of the town to the lumber yard and the horse pond at the south end. On either side of this road straggled two uneven rows of wooden buildings; the general merchandise stores, the two banks, the drug store, the feed store, the saloon, the post-office. The board sidewalks were gray with trampled snow, but at two o’clock in the afternoon the shopkeepers, having come back from dinner, were keeping well behind their frosty windows. The children were all in school, and there was nobody abroad in the streets but a few rough-looking countrymen in coarse overcoats, with their long caps pulled down to their noses. Some of them had brought their wives to town, and now and then a red or a plaid shawl flashed out of one store into the shelter of another. At the hitch-bars along the street a few heavy work-horses, harnessed to farm wagons, shivered under their blankets. About the station everything was quiet, for there would not be another train in until night.”

--text from the Project Gutenberg edition.