ORIGINS OF THE WESTERN
- Since Westerns are stories set on the American frontier, they can trace their origins back to stories of the frontier from the earliest days of the North American settlements. Indian captivity narratives such as that by Mary Rowlandson, The Narrative of the Captivity and the Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682), began a trend in popular literature to portray the frontier as exotic yet savage and chaotic. James Fenimore Cooper’s early 19th-century Leatherstocking Tales, set in pre-Colonial upstate New York, developed many of the formulaic features seen in later Westerns: the chase-and-pursuit scene, the gun fight between hero and savage, the restrained violence, and the regenerative power of the wilderness. Late 19th-century dime novel writers discovered a profitable niche in the market for exaggerated tales of action and violence featuring newly discovered Western heroes such as Wild Bill Hickok and Wyatt Earp. Many of the legendary stories of the West depend more on the dime novel tradition than on historical fact. But the first novel that can accurately be called a true Western is Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902), which develops the laconic hero who is abiding by a carefully prescribed masculine code of honor and, after numerous feats of masculine prowess, faces his nemesis in a quick-draw contest that settles all. The Virginian, the source of numerous films, includes perhaps the most famous line in any Western—“When you call me that, smile”—delivered as the hero responds to the evil Trampas’s insult with a whip of the gun. Through the 20th century up to our own time, Western popular fiction has continued to develop from the Wister tradition. Cinema Westerns beginning with The Great Train Robbery(1903) started their own parallel tradition, and while many films have been based on popular Western novels and cinema Westerns share many similarities in narrative, Western fiction must be considered separate from the cinema Western tradition.
Historical Dictionary of Westerns in Cinema. Paul Varner. 2012.
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