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Western Novels

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Western Novels

The Western novel - think cowboys, lawlessness and the wild, Wild West. The region that western novels are set in is also known as the American frontier, the Old West and the Wild West. Western novels are an exhilarating genre as they explore the action and danger of the era of the American frontier.

American frontier: The American frontier describes the region that European settlers were based in up until the 19th Century. It is also known as the Old West or the Wild West.

Western novel

A western novel is a novel that is set in the United States in the 19th Century (1865-1895). It commonly features cowboys, crime and society in the Wild West. The West of the United States at the time was considered areas west of the Mississippi River.

Many people migrated to the West due to the 1848 California Gold Rush. The precious materials found there contributed to industrial and agricultural advancements in the United States. However, the wave of migration due to people in search of these precious materials meant increased lawlessness. Hence, the ‘Wild’ West.

Western Novel, Sunset and a horse, StudySmarterCowboys are one of the best-known components of the western novel. They often travelled across territories in search of work. PIxabay.

The first western novel

The Virginian (1902) by Owen Wister is considered the first western novel. The protagonist of the novel is the Virginian and the novel details his travels in the West. The Virginian is accompanied by Tenderfoot, the narrator, and their travels are filled with events that inspire violence, revenge and friendship. The Virginian becomes accustomed to life in the West and he navigates events that show the lawlessness in society and the government’s failure to implement rules in the area.

What makes a western novel?

Here's how to recognise a western novel!

Features of a western novel

The western novel is often considered a mixture of many genres. From fantasy to action to crime, it is composed of many elements which make for a variety of interesting stories.

Common features of the western novel are:

Cowboys

Cowboys in the Wild West were young men who travelled for work. Their tasks were mostly in the field. This could include herding cattle or making physical improvements on the field.

Action

Action is an essential part of the western novel. When people act lawlessly this results in either physical resistance from the victims of such lawlessness or from law enforcement officials.

Lawlessness & morality

Territories in the West were mostly lawless because governments were not prepared for the mass migration that occurred as a result of the Gold Rush. The government was far less involved in people’s lives. This meant that many people had free reign in the West - it was a 'dog eat dog' world and only the fiercest would come out on top.

Morality is a theme that goes hand-in-hand with lawlessness. Lawlessness was largely seen as immoral because it included actions like theft, violence and murder. In Western novels, the protagonist could be condemned for their lawless actions, but they could also be celebrated for their chivalrous deeds.

Society

Western novels can feature small towns with an established community. This community could live under laws set by the sheriff or the law enforcement officials in the town. Themes of love, friendship and community can be explored in western novels.

Western Novel, Collage on white background with black icons of guns and other weapons, cowboy hats, horses, cards and trains, StudySmarterWestern novels typically feature violence, action and cowboys. These elements make for a riveting tale. Pixabay.

The western genre

The two main types of tales that can be applied to the western genre are a cautionary tale and a prescriptive tale.

A cationary tale is a tale that serves as a warning of the dangers in a society. Cautionary tales often end negatively, with the archetypal ‘bad’ characters prevailing over the ‘good’ characters. A prescriptive tale is a tale that shows how those with good intent can prevail over those with bad intent. A western novel can be either one of these tales.

Now we will look at the different subgenres of the western novel:

Historical western novel

A historical western novel is a novel that has elements that are true to the history from the era of approximately 1865 to 1895. These elements could be the social customs or attitudes that were prevalent at the time. The historical western novel could feature real-life events and be inspired by the lives of people who existed during this time.

Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers (2011) is an example of a historical western novel. It follows the Sisters brothers, Eli and Charlie, and their adventures in Oregon and California during the California Gold Rush of 1848-1855. They are assassins who have been hired for a hit job in California. The historical element of this novel is that it is set during the California Gold Rush and it depicts the conflicts that could occur during this time. For example, the dangers of nature in the West, as the brothers are confronted by a bear in the novel. Another example is the moral conflict the brothers have when they meet their target, Warm, who is a gold rush inspector.

Western romance novel

The western romance novel has elements that are characteristic of a western novel, like action, cowboys and lawlessness. Just like in a typical romance novel, the protagonist, typically a man, tries to seduce their love, typically a woman. This trope involves the depiction of the difficulties of living in the West - the lawlessness and danger. This contrasts the development of the love story between the two lovers.

Johanna Lindsey’s Brave the Wild Wind (1984) is an example of a western romance. It is set in Wyoming and features Chase Summers, a ‘drifter’, who tries to seduce and marry Jessie Blair. Chase is confronted with Jessie’s troubles with the men who murdered her father. The novel explores this danger but also incorporates the romance element into the adventure.

Drifter: A young man who had not yet settled down in an area. He was most likely a cowboy or a cowhand, who assisted with any farm-based jobs he could acquire.

Best western authors and books

So, who is the best western novel writer? This is a subjective question, however, there are famous western authors whose works are well-known and admired.

Louis L’Amour

Louis L’Amour is one of the best-known western authors.

The Quick And The Dead (1973)

The Quick And The Dead (1973) is known as a classic western novel. It follows protagonist Duncan McKasel who relocates his family to the Wild West. McKasel is confronted with bandits and rogues as he tries to protect his family from the dangers of the West. One of his encounters in the West introduces him to Con Vallian. Con Vallian initially leads the family as they are trying to settle in this new territory and he teaches them essential survival skills. However, he soon sets his sights on McKasel’s wife, Susanna. L’Amour explores the challenges of living in the West and the importance of comradeship, as the family is guided by Con Vallian through the perils of the territory.

Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy is another well-known western author.

Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West (1985)

Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West (1985) is one of McCarthy’s best-known western genre novels. It details the story of ‘the kid’ (later known as ‘the man’), who is part of the Glanton gang, originally founded by John Joel Glanton. Another crucial character, Judge Holden, is also part of the Glanton gang and becomes the leader of the gang. In the novel, the Glanton gang is responsible for organised robbery feats through the West. The gang collaborates with the Quechan tribe to carry out these robberies, but the Quechan tribe betrays them. Only a few of the gang members survive, including the kid. Judge Holden is left behind and his condition is unknown to the remaining survivors. At the end of the novel, the kid is reacquainted with Judge Holden and they reminisce on their life of violence and action.

Western Novel, Gan member with a gun, StudySmarterMcCarthy's novel follows the Glanton gang. Gangs made up of men who were formerly lone travellers were very dangerous. One of their lawless acts was organised robbery. Pixabay.

Larry McMurty

Larry McMurty is a renowned western author who is best known for his novel Lonesome Dove (1985). McMurty’s Lonesome Dove (1985) received a Pulitzer Prize in 1985.

Lonesome Dove (1985)

Lonesome Dove (1985) by Larry McMurty is the first novel of the Lonesome Dove trilogy. Set in the Wild West towards the end of the 1870s, Lonesome Dove (1985) follows the adventures of retired law enforcement officers Captain Call and Captain McCrae. They were part of the Texas Rangers but now work in the small town called Lonesome Dove. The captains work in a team with a few former members of the Texas Rangers and a few members of the community who volunteer to be part of the team. Lonesome Dove (1985) details the characters’ experiences in the town, some of whom make journeys away from Lonesome Dove to try to achieve personal fulfilment. This novel depicts the realities of life in the West. It is full of action, violent conflict and intimate struggles as characters navigate their relationships.

How do you write a western novel?

To write your own western novel, the first thing you should do is research!

  • Research what life was like in the West and the adventures and struggles and opportunity that people had at the time.

  • Focus on the themes you want to explore- you can pick several. E.g. friendship, lawlessness, love, danger and humanity in society.

  • Will your novel be a cautionary tale or a prescriptive tale?

  • What do you want readers to gain from the novel? Is there a lesson you want to teach? Or is your western purely written for the excitement of action and adventure?

Western Novels - Key takeaways

  • A western novel is a novel that is set in the United States in the 19th Century (1865-1895).
  • The West of the United States at the time was considered areas west of the Mississippi River.
  • Common features of a western novel are cowboys, action, lawlessness and morality, and society.
  • The western genre can either be a cautionary tale or a prescriptive tale.
  • Some of the best-known authors of the western genre novel are Louis L'Amour, Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurty.

Frequently Asked Questions about Western Novels


  • Research what life was like in the West and the adventures and struggles and opportunity that people had at the time. 

  • Focus on the themes you want to explore- you can pick several.

  • Will your novel be a cautionary tale or a prescriptive tale?

  • What do you want readers to gain from the novel? Is there a lesson you want to teach? Or is your western purely written for the excitement of action and adventure?

Owen Wister is considered to have written the first western novel, The Virginian (1902). 

This is a subjective question, however, these are some of the best western authors: Louis L'Amour, Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurty. 

Common features of a western novel are: cowboys, action, lawlessness and mortality, and an insight into the society of the time. 

This is a subjective question. One of the best western novels ever written is considered to be Louis L'Amour's The Quick And The Dead (1973).

Final Western Novels Quiz

Question

How do you write a western novel? 

Show answer

Answer

  • Research what life was like in the territory and era.
  • Pick the themes you want to explore.
  • Decide if your novel will be a cautionary or prescriptive tale.
  • Consider if there is a lesson you wish to teach in the novel.

Show question

Question

Who wrote the first western novel? 

Show answer

Answer

Owen Wister is considered to have written the first western novel. The novel is The Virginian (1902). 

Show question

Question

Who is the best western novel writer?


Show answer

Answer

There is no definitive answer for who the best western novel writer is. Some of the best-known western novel writers are Louis L'Amour, Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurty. 

Show question

Question

What makes a western novel?


Show answer

Answer

Common features of a western novel are cowboys, action, lawlessness & morality and society.


Show question

Question

What is a historical western novel?

Show answer

Answer

A historical western novel is a novel that has elements that are true to the history from the era of approximately 1865 to 1895. It could feature real-life events and be inspired by the lives of people who existed during this time.  

Show question

Question

What are the two main types of tales in the western genre?

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Answer

A cautionary tale:  a tale that serves as a warning of the dangers in a society. 


A prescriptive tale: a tale that shows how those with good intent can prevail over those with bad intent.  

Show question

Question

What is a western romance novel?

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Answer

The western romance novel has elements that are characteristic of a western novel, like action, cowboys and lawlessness.  It also features a romance story between characters. 

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Question

What is considered 'the West' in western novels?

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Answer

In western novels, the West is considered areas west of the Mississippi River in the 19th Century.

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Question

What are some alternative names for 'the West' in reference to western novels?

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Answer

'American frontier', 'the Old West' and 'the Wild West' are alternative names.

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Question

What is Owen Wister's novel The Virginian (1902) about?

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Answer

The novel is about the protagonist, the Virginian's travels in the West. He embarks on a journey that involves violence, revenge and explores friendship.

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