In literature as in film, the 1940s and 1950s were a high-water mark for the Western as a genre. In this landmark Library of America volume novelist Ron Hansen collects four unforgettable masterpieces from the period.
Set in Nevada in 1885, The Ox-Bow Incident is a gripping story about the perils of lynch law and the fragility of civilized norms in the West. Outraged by reports of the murder of a rancher and the theft of cattle, a posse of vigilantes sets out to find the culprits but instead targets three strangers who are innocent of the crime. Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s novel, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for 1940, offers a powerful exploration of group psychology and the authoritarian impulse.
The newspaper editor Jack Schaefer made his unforgettable fiction debut with a tale meant to encapsulate, in his words, “the basic legend of the West.” In Shane (1949), Schaefer’s narrator looks back at his boyhood fascination with a taciturn, charismatic ranch hand. Inspired by the Johnson County War in late-nineteenth-century Wyoming, Shane, Ron Hansen writes, “mythologizes those deadly skirmishes” into a story “that has the grandness of chapters in The Iliad.”
The Searchers (1954), written by Alan Le May at the height of his career as a novelist and Hollywood screenwriter, is a story of dogged fortitude that embodies the quintessential Western qualities of endurance, persistence, and, as Le May writes in the book’s epigraph, “the courage of those who simply keep on, and on.” Embarking on a mission to rescue a girl captured in a Comanche raid, Amos Edwards and Martin Pauley spend six years wandering across Texas on a quest to deliver young Debbie Edwards from captivity.
In Warlock (1958), a bloody saga that anticipates the novels of Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy, Oakley Hall shows himself in complete command of the Western genre even as he upends its conventions. The southwestern mining town of Warlock has been plagued with lawlessness and brutality at the hands of cattle rustlers led by the vicious Abe McQuown. The local Citizens’ Committee enlists Clay Blaisedell, renowned for his prowess with a six-shooter, to serve as Marshal. The story unfolds in scenes of tough-minded realism interspersed with the diary entries of Henry Holmes Goodpasture, a thoughtful citizen who quotes Shakespeare and the Bible as he laments Warlock’s descent into violence and chaos.
Ron Hansen, editor, is the author of two story collections, two volumes of essays, and nine novels, including most recently The Kid, as well as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which was made into an Oscar-nominated film. His novel Atticus was a finalist for the National Book Award. He teaches at Santa Clara University.
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