Southwestern Classics On-Line | Lone Star Junction
Previous Chapter | Guide to Life and Literature of the Southwest | Next Chapter

Guide to Life and Literature
of the Southwest

Fiction -- Including Folk Tales

FROM THE DAYS of the first innocent sensations in Beadle's Dime Novel series, on through Zane Grey's mass production and up to any present-day newsstand's crowded shelf of Ace High and Flaming Guns magazines, the Southwest, along with all the rest of the West, has been represented in a fictional output quantitatively stupendous. Most of it has betrayed rather than revealed life, though not with the contemptible contempt for both audience and subject that characterizes most of Hollywood's pictures on the same times, people, and places. Certain historical aspects of the fictional betrayal of the West may be found in E. Douglas Branch's The Cowboy and His Interpreters, in The House of Beadle and Adams and Its Dime and Nickel Novels, by Albert Johannsen in two magnificent volumes, and in Jay Monaghan's The Great Rascal: The Life and Adventures of Ned Buntline Buntline having been perhaps the most prolific of all Wild West fictionists.

Some "Westerns" have a kind of validity. If a serious reader went through the hundreds of titles produced by William McLeod Raine, Dane Coolidge, Eugene Cunningham,. B. M. Bower, the late Ernest Haycox, and other manufacturers of range novels who have known their West at firsthand, he would find, spottedly, a surprising amount of truth about land and men, a fluency in genuine cowboy lingo, and a respect for the code of conduct. Yet even these novels have added to the difficulty that serious writing in the Western field has in getting a hearing on literary, rather than merely Western, grounds. Any writer of Westerns must, like all other creators, be judged on his own intellectual development. "The Western and Ernest Haycox," by James Fargo, in Prairie Schooner, XXVI (Summer, 1952) has something on this subject.

Actualities in the Southwest seem to have stifled fictional creation. No historical novel dealing with Texas history has achieved the drama of the fall of the Alamo or the drawing of the black beans, has presented a character with half the reality of Sam Houston, Jim Bowie, or Sallie Skull, or has captured the flavor inherent in the talk on many a ranch gallery.

Historical fiction dealing with early day Texas is, however, distinctly maturing. As a dramatization of Jim Bowie and the bowie knife, The Iron Mistress, by Paul Wellman (Doubleday, Garden City, New York, 1951), is the best novel published so far dealing with a figure of the Texas revolution. In Divine Average (Little, Brown, Boston, 1952), Elithe Hamilton Kirkland weaves from her seasoned knowledge of life and from "realities of those violent years in Texas history between 1838 and 1858" a story of human destiny. She reveals the essential nature of Range Templeton more distinctly, more mordantly, than history has revealed the essential nature of Sam Houston or any of his contemporaries. The wife and daughter of Range Templeton are the most plausible women in any historical novel of Texas that I have read. The created world here is more real than the actual.

Among the early tale-tellers of the Southwest are Jeremiah Clemens, who wrote Mustang Gray, Mollie E. Moore Davis, of plantation tradition, Mayne Reid, who dared convey real information in his romances, Charles W. Webber, a naturalist, and T. B. Thorpe, creator of "The Big Bear of Arkansas."

Fiction that appeared before World War I can hardly be called modern. No fiction is likely to appear, however, that will do better by certain types of western character and certain stages of development in western society than that produced by Bret Harte, with his gamblers; stage drivers, and mining camps; O. Henry with his "Heart of the West" types; Alfred Henry Lewis with his "Wolfville" anecdotes and characters; Owen Wister, whose Virginian remains the classic of cowboy novels without cows; and Andy Adams, whose Log of a Cowboy will be read as long as people want a narrative of cowboys sweating with herds.

The authors listed below are in alphabetical order. Those who seem to me to have a chance to survive are not exactly in that order.


Frank Applegate (died 1932) wrote only two books, Native Tales of New Mexico and Indian Stories from the Pueblos, but as a delighted and delightful teller of folk tales his place is secure.


Mary Austin seems to be settling down as primarily an expositor. Her novels are no longer read, but the simple tales in One-Smoke Stories (her last book, 1934) and in some nonfiction collections, notably Lost Borders and The Flock, do not recede with time.


While the Southwest can hardly claim Willa Cather, of Nebraska, her Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), which is made out of New Mexican life, is not only the best-known novel concerned with the Southwest but one of the finest of America.


Despite the fact that it is not on the literary map, Will Levington Comfort's Apache (1931) remains for me the most moving and incisive piece of writing on Indians of the Southwest that I have found.


If a teller of folk tales and plotless narratives belongs in this chapter, then J. Frank Dobie should be mentioned for the folk tales in Coronado's Children, Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver, and Tongues of the Monte, also for some of his animal tales in The Voice of the Coyote, outlaw and maverick narratives in The Longhorns, and "The Pacing White Steed of the Prairies" and other horse stories in The Mustangs.


The characters in Harvey Fergusson's Wolf Song (1927) are the Mountain Men of Kit Carson's time, and the city of their soul is rollicky Taos. It is a lusty, swift song of the pristine earth. Fergusson's The Blood of the Conquerors (1931) tackles the juxtaposition of Spanish-Mexican and Anglo-American elements in New Mexico, of which state he is a native. Grant of Kingdom (1850) is strong in wisdom life, vitality of character, and historical values.


Fred Gipson's Hound-Dog Man and The Home Place lack the critical attitude toward life present in great fiction but they are as honest and tonic as creek bottom soil and the people in them are genuine.


Frank Goodwyn's The Magic of Limping John (New York, 1944, OP) is a coherence of Mexican characters, folk tales, beliefs, and ways in the ranch country of South Texas. There is something of magic in the telling, but Frank Goodwyn has not achieved objective control over imagination or sufficiently stressed the art of writing.


Paul Horgan of New Mexico has in The Return of the Weed (short stories), Far from Cibola, and other fiction coped with modern life in the past-haunted New Mexico.


Oliver Lafarge's Laughing Boy (1929) grew out of the author's ethnological knowledge of the Navajo Indians. He achieves character.


Tom Lea's The Brave Bulls (1949) has, although it is a sublimation of the Mexican bullfighting world, Death and Fear of Death for its dominant theme. It may be compared in theme with Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage. It is written with the utmost of economy, and is beautiful in its power. The Wonderful Country (1952), a historical novel of the frontier, but emphatically not a "Western," recognizes more complexities of society. Its economy and directness parallel the style of Tom Lea's drawings and paintings, with which both books are illustrated


Sundown, by John Joseph Mathews (1934), goes more profoundly than Laughing Boy into the soul of a young Indian (an Osage) and his people. Its translation of the "long, long thoughts" of the boy and then of "shades of the prison house" closing down upon him is superb writing. The "shades of the prison house" come from oil, with all of the world's coarse thumbs that go with oil.


George Sessions Perry's Hold Autumn in Your Hand (1941) incarnates a Texas farm hand too poor "to flag a gut-wagon," but with the good nature, dignity, and independence of the earth itself. Walls Rise Up (1939) is a kind of Crock of Gold, both whimsical and earthy, laid on the Brazos River.


Katherine Anne Porter is as dedicated to artistic perfection as was A. E. Housman. Her output has, therefore, been limited: Flowering Judas (1930, enlarged 1935); Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), The Leaning Tower (1944). Her stories penetrate psychology, especially the psychology of a Mexican hacienda, with rare finesse. Her small canvases sublimate the inner realities of men and women. She appeals only to cultivated taste, and to some tastes no other fiction writer in America today is her peer in subtlety.


Eugene Manlove Rhodes died in 1934. Most of his novels -- distinguished by intricate plots and bright dialogue -- had appeared in the Saturday Evening Post. His finest story is "Paso Por Aqui," published in the volume entitled Once in the Saddle (1927). Gene Rhodes, who has a canyon -- on which he ranched -- named for him in New Mexico, was an artist; at the same time, he was a man akin to his land and its men. He is the only writer of the range country who has been accorded a biography -- The Hired Man on Horseback, by May D. Rhodes, his wife. See under "Range Life."


Conrad Richter's The Sea of Grass (1937) is a kind of prose poem, beautiful and tragic. Lutie, wife of the owner of the grass, is perhaps the most successful creation of a ranch woman that fiction has so far achieved.


Dorothy Scarborough's The Wind (1925) excited the wrath of chambers of commerce and other boosters in West Texas -- a tribute to its realism.


The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck (1939), made Okies a word in the American language. Although dated by the Great Depression, its humanity and realism are beyond date. It is among the few good novels produced by America in the first half of the twentieth century.


John W. Thomason, after fighting as a marine in World War I, wrote Fix Bayonets (1926), followed by Jeb Stuart (1930). A native Texan, he followed the southern tradition rather than the western. Lone Star Preacher (1941) is a strong and sympathetic characterization of Confederate fighting men woven into fictional form.


In High John the Conqueror (Macmillan, 1948) John W. Wilson conveys real feeling for the tragic life of Negro sharecroppers in the Brazos bottoms. He represents the critical awareness of life that has come to modern fiction of the Southwest, in contrast to the sterile action, without creation of character, in most older fiction of the region.

Previous Chapter | Guide to Life and Literature of the Southwest | Next Chapter
Southwest Classics On-Line | Lone Star Junction

Online Edition Copyright © 1997 Lone Star Junction. All rights reserved.