The Lie at the Heart of the WesternBreaking News
tags: literature, western history, westerns
Agentleman comes from the East Coast to make his fortune. When the train lets him off in a dusty Wyoming town, he encounters an array of cowpunchers, card sharps, and ne’er-do-wells, whose coarse manners shock and intrigue him. At the saloon, he’s treated to their opinions on the local women, as well as one man’s boast that he never forgets a face—so long as that face is white. A game of cards nearly turns into a shootout when one man calls the newcomer a “son-of-a—,” causing him to lay his pistol on the table and utter what will become the story’s catchphrase: “When you call me that, smile.”
So begins Owen Wister’s The Virginian, considered by some to be the first Western novel. Published in 1902, it became a mega–best seller, made Wister rich, and helped popularize an international genre of literature and film. The Virginian doesn’t get a lot of attention anymore, but its basic tropes are still what many readers think of when they picture a Western: a bunch of white men shooting at one another, or at Indigenous people, who enter the story as faceless antagonists if they enter it at all.
But the past several years have seen the rise of a different kind of Western novel. The genre has been evolving for some time, with TV shows like Deadwood and films like No Country for Old Men and Hell or High Water offering a twist on the usual formula. And recently, a number of authors have upended it further, in the process sweeping away some of its most calcified myths.
The protagonist of Hernán Diaz’s 2017 novel, In the Distance, for example, takes the opposite of a traditional hero’s journey; instead of trying to conquer Western land, he seeks to disappear into it. In Téa Obreht’s 2019, Inland, cowboys and outlaws are replaced by a camel driver, an exasperated mother, and visitors from the afterlife. And in How Much of These Hills Is Gold, C Pam Zhang’s 2020 debut novel, a Chinese American prospector’s daughter forges her own path across California after her family is kicked off their claim.
These novels preserve some aspects of the old Westerns: the parched vistas, the isolation, the high-stakes emotion of characters running afoul of the law. But they also call into question the genre’s basic premise: the idea of the frontier as a place to be mastered and overcome. Instead, the Western becomes a way of thinking about humans’ relationship to land, the past, and the idea of home.