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Guide to Life and Literature
of the Southwest

Subjects for Themes

THE OBJECT OF THEME-WRITING is to make a student observe, to become aware, to evaluate, to enrich himself. Any phase of life or literature named or suggested in the foregoing chapters could be taken as a subject for an essay. The most immature essay must be more than a summary; a mere summary is never an essay. The writer must synthesize, make his own combination of thoughts, facts, incidents, characteristics, anecdotes, interpretations, illustrations, according to his own pattern. A writer is a weaver, weaving various threads of various hues and textures into a design that is his own.

"Look into thy heart and write." "Write what you know about." All this is good advice in a way -- but students have to write themes whether they have anything to write or not. The way to get full of a subject, to generate a conveyable interest, is to fill up on the subject. As clouds are but transient forms of matter that "change but cannot die," so most writing, even the best, is but a variation in form of experiences, ideas, observations, emotions that have been recorded over and over.

In general, the materials a student weaves are derived from three sources: what he has read, what he has heard, what he has observed and experienced himself. If he chooses to sketch an interesting character, he will make his sketch richer and more interesting if he reads all he can find that illuminates his subject's background. If he sets out to tell a legend or a series of related folk tales or anecdotes, he will improve his telling by reading what he can on the subjects that his proposed narratives treat of and by reading similar narratives already written by others. If he wishes to tell what he knows about rattlesnakes, buzzards, pet coyotes, Brahma cattle, prickly pear, cottonwoods, Caddo Lake, the Brazos River, Santa Fe adobes, or other features of the land, let him bolster and put into perspective his own knowledge by reading what others have said on the matter. Knowledge fosters originality. Reading gives ideas.

The list of subjects that follows is meant to be suggestive, and must not be regarded as inclusive. The best subject for any writer is one that he is interested in. A single name or category may afford scores of subjects. For example, take Andy Adams, the writer about cowboys and range life. His campfire yarns, the attitude of his cowboys toward their horses, what he has to say about cows, the metaphor of the range as he has recorded it, the placidity of his cowboys as opposed to Zane Grey sensationalism, etc., are a few of the subjects to be derived from a study of his books. Or take a category like "How the Early Settlers Lived." Pioneer food, transportation, sociables, houses, neighborliness, loneliness, living on game meat, etc., make subjects. Almost every subject listed below will suggest either variations or associated subjects.

The Humor of the Southwest

Similes from Nature (Crockett is rich in them)

The Code of Individualism

The Code of the Range

Six-shooter Ethics

The Right to Kill

The Tradition of Cowboy Gallantry (read Owen Wister's The Virginian and A Journey in Search of Christmas; also novels by Eugene Manlove Rhodes)

Frontier Hospitality

Amusements (shooting matches, tournaments, play parties, dances, poker, horse races, quiltings, house-raisings)

The Western Gambler (Bret Harte and Alfred Henry Lewis have idealized him in fiction; he might be contrasted with the Mississippi River gambler)

Indian Captives

The Age of Horse Culture (Spanish, Indian, Anglo-American; the horse was important enough to any one of these classes to warrant extended study)

The Cowboy's Horse

The Cowboy Myth (Mody Boatright is writing a book on the subject)

Evolution of the Frontier Criminal Lawyer

The Frontier Intellect in the Atomic Age

British Chroniclers of the West

Civilized Perspective in Writings on the Old West

The Indian in Fiction

Fictional Betrayal of the West

The West in Reality and the West on the Screen

Around the Chuck Wagon: Cowboy Yarns

Stretching the Blanket

Authentic Liars

Recent Fiction of the Southwest (any writer worth writing about)

Literary Magazines of the Southwest

Ranch Women

Mexican Labor (on ranch, farm, or in town)

Mexican Folk Tales

Backwoods Life in Frederick Gerstaecker

"The Old Catdeman" in Alfred

Henry Lewis' Wolfville Books

Mayne Reid as an Exponent of the Southwest (see estimate of him in Mesa, Canon and Pueblo, by Charles F. Lummis)

The Gunman in Fiction and Reality (O. Henry, Bret Harte, Alfred Henry Lewis; The Saga of Billy the Kid, by Walter Noble Burns; Gillett's Six Years with the Texas Rangers; Webb's The Texas Rangers; Lake's Wyatt Earp)

Character of the Trail Drivers

Cowboy's Life as Reflected in His Songs

"Wrathy to Kill a Bear" (the frontiersman as a destroyer of wild life)

"I Thought I Might See Something to Shoot at"

Anecdotes of the Stump Speaker

Exempla of Revivalists and Campmeeting Preachers

The Campmeeting


Life on the Santa Fe Trail

The Rendezvous of the Mountain Men

In the Covered Wagon

Squatter Life

No Shade

From Grass to Wheat

From Wheat to Dust

Brush (a special study of prickly pear, the mesquite, or some other form of flora could be made)

Cotton (whole books are suggested here, the tenant farmer being one of the subjects)

Oil Booms


Coyote Stories

Deer Nature, or Whitetails and Their Hunters

Rattlesnakes, or Rattlesnake Stories

Panther Stories

Tarantula Lore

Grasshopper Plagues

The Javelina in Fact and in Folk Tale

The Roadrunner (Paisano)

Wild Turkeys

The Poisoned-Out Prairie Dog


Vanishing Sheep Herders

The Bee Hunter

Pot Hunters

Buffalo Hunters

The Bar Hunter and Bar Stories

Indian Fighter

Indian Hater


Squaw Men

Mountain Men and Grizzlies

Scouts and Guides

Stage Drivers

Fiddlers and Fiddle Tunes

Frontier Justices of the Peace (Roy Bean set the example)

Horse Traders

Horse Racers


Frontier Schoolteacher

Circuit Rider

Pony Express Rider

Folk Tales of My Community

Flavorsome Characters of My Community

Stanley Vestal

Harvey Fergusson

Kansas Cow Towns

Drought and Thirst

Washington Irving on the West

Witty Repartee in Eugene Manlove Rhodes

Bigfoot Wallace's Humor

Charles M. Russell as Artist of the West (or any other western artist)

Learning to See Life Around Me

Features of My Own Cultural Inheritance

I Heard It Back Home

Family Traditions

My Family's Interesting Character

Doodlebugs in the Sand


Blue Quail

Coachwhips and Other Good Snakes

Mockingbird Habits

Jack Rabbit Lore

Catfish Lore

Herb Remedies

"Criticism of Life" in Southwestern Fiction

Intellectual Integrity in______________ (Name of writer or writers or some locally prominent newspaper to be supplied)

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