Monday, September 21, 2015

Striking gold out west

Writers like Zane Grey, Louis L'Amour, Matt Braun, Charles H. West and Richard S Wheeler have focused primarily on the western novel. (I expect to have something to say about one of Wheeler's novels later this week.) Yet it occurs to me that many of the best and most significant western novels have been written by first-timers or even one-timers, writers known for others kinds of writing who drove their picks into the Old West and struck gold the first time.

Take Charles Portis as an example. He wrote a number of contemporary novels such as Norwood and Masters of Atlantis. Yet he will always be remembered mostly for True Grit, a great western tale that has been made into not one but two excellent movies.

Walter Van Tilburg Clark was a poet before, in 1940, he published The Ox-Bow Incident, one of the great novels of the West. Robert Lewis Taylor build his reputation as a biographer of  W.C. Fields and as a writer for The New Yorker, yet it was his novel The Travels of Jamie McPheeters that won the Pulitzer Prize.

Thomas Berger wrote a great number of modern novels, but it was Little Big Man that drew his biggest audience. So successful was it that years later he penned a sequel, The Return of Little Big Man.

Larry McMurtry, who hails from Texas, wrote mostly novels set in the modern West before Lonesome Dove, another western novel that won a Pulitzer. Since then he has written a number of other westerns.

Another novelist we could name is Jane Smiley, author of quite a variety of books. Yet her western novel The All True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton ranks among her most popular. We might also mention Robert S. Parker, who won fame and fortune as a writer of mysteries before trying his hand at the western, and succeeding in that genre, as well.

Elmore Leonard traveled in the opposite direction. He began writing western stories, then secured his reputation with his modern crime novels.

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