Many years ago, I was briefly hospitalized with deafening ringing in my ears and frequent, completely world-stopping attacks of vertigo (only people who’ve never experienced such attacks refer to them as ‘feeling dizzy’ – ‘feeling dizzy’ is what happens when you stand up too fast; this was the absence of any intuitive feeling of ‘up’ and ‘down’ – or even ‘stationary’ and ‘moving’ … as debilitatingly bewildering as anything I’ve experienced). I went to the hospital unexpectedly, and for the two days I was there, as I recovered, I found myself cut off from my books – always a disorienting feeling. I told this to the young friends I had at the time, and they promptly obliged me … by going to one of our little town’s used bookstores and buying me a random old pulp magazine they were certain I’d hate (they were wags, the lot of them). It was Zane Grey’s Western Magazine, dated March 1956.
In that musty old square-bound issue, I found the last thing I was expecting: romance-stories as pure and straight-laced as any Regency. Despite the ultra-masculine cover-illustration and black-and-white line-drawings inside, the actual stories were nothing of the kind. Oh, they contained the requisite gun-play and fisticuffs – but their main point always was love, stumbled across and reluctantly embraced out beyond the frontiers of East or West Coast refinement. That issue contained half a dozen stories of varying lengths, but they all had three things in common: the writers were uniformly more talented than the venue would suggest to those owlhoots unfamiliar with the genre; the male protagonists were almost always very young (early 20ts was the norm); and the whole point of the tale wasn’t that young hero facing down desperadoes or horse thieves but rather that young hero finding a spunky, spirited wife. It wasn’t How the West Was Won – it was How the West Got Married.
I was soon better (that’s a sign of how much time has passed – then, what I had was referred to as a “syndrome” and I recovered; now, four PDRs and the rise of Big Pharmacy later, it’s classified as a ‘disease’ from which you don’t recover – but which you can manage with the aid of a lifetime re-supply of Drug X, Y, or Z), and I came to know the Wild West genre – and the gigantically fantastic works that regularly transcended it … books like True Grit, Where Is My Wandering Boy Tonight?, Warlock, the great westerns of Loren Estleman and Elmore Leonard, and most of all, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.
But I reserved a warm spot in my heart for the far cheesier pulp-style western yarns of that old magazine. So you can imagine my smile when I came across a whole bunch of them at my beloved Brattle Book Shop a while back. Some of them were in excellent condition (they obviously hadn’t been ridden hard and put away wet), well able to withstand my nostalgic page-turning on the subway.
I found their world unchanged from that hospital sample of years ago: dozens and dozens of stories (the western short story market boomed in the post-war years, but the 21st Century presides over the last spasms of its long, slow death) of mysterious strangers, desperate loners, smug cattle-barons and their brutal minions, and innocent women-folk sprouting up all over the prairie like baby’s-breath-in-bloom. I found the same tone-deafness for the obsessions of later decades – American Indians are mostly villains here, or else pidgin-talking stooges (to be fair, this is mostly the case even in such modern masters as McMurtry, although it’s a pattern as often as not disregarded by the genre’s reigning king, Louis L’Amour), prostitutes are mostly both smart and virtuous, and for plot-convenience, everybody just plain forgets what everybody elselooks like after, say, two years apart – so surprise identity-revelations are as common as mattress-ticks.
There’s still plenty of corn-dog lyricism, as in “The Ways of Men,” chapter 8 of L. P. Holmes’ “The Fight for Bunchgrass Basin”:
It was saddle work from dawn to dark. The trails of men and cattle crossing and re-crossing. The range, as Cleve Fraser had put it, being tidied up. Brands being hazed back to their proper range after the scattering effect of the big winter drift. Long days and sunny ones, with spring heat giving promise of the summer’s fierceness to come. Earth drying out and dust’s amber haze lifting wherever men and cattle travelled.
But in virtually every case, things still come down to flirtin’, sassin’, courtin’, and woo-in’ … the ending of Philip Ketchum’s “His Brother’s Gun Hand” is a case in point:
“In just about another minute,” Nels said, “I’m going to dismount, pull you down from that horse and kiss you.”
“I think you should,” Callie said. “I’ve been wondering why you waited so long.”
It’s easy to dismiss this stuff for the silly nonsense it almost entirely is – especially from the vantage point of our modern America, with its more complicated views of what constitutes masculinity, its (generally) more respectful attitudes toward women and minorities, and of course it’s sobered geography – most of the sprawling Wild West territories being fought over and died over in these stories is now emptied of people and wholly owned by the U.S. government for its own nefarious purposes. These stories are as lost to the current American world as the stories of King Arthur and his knights are to the England of the European Union – in fact, gawd help us, maybe these stories are the American Arthurian legends, with their dry gullies and long cattle-drives and dusty saloons providing the stage for an entirely lower-rent assemblage of knights, whose only armor is slung on their hips, but whose hearts are just as pure as Galahad’s when it comes to rescuing damsels in distress.
And of course they wouldn’t put up with having no king.