[(essay date 2013) In the following essay, Bischoff and Noçon examine how Grey, Gruber, L’Amour, and other Western writers create their own “signature visions of the West.”]
In choosing such a title for our essay, we are well aware of the fact that the majority of serious Western writers have created their signature visions of the West. Every writer is identifiable by his or her salient features that immediately catch the reader’s attention. Thus, to name but a few pertinent examples: Max Brand does not care about geographical and historical veracity but uses an imaginary West as a stage for the feats of his super-hero straight out of Greek mythology and European fairy tales; Ernest Haycox has his melancholy hero brood on man’s fate in an indifferent universe; Luke Short’s action-packed books are set in a composite, quasi-mythic, yet historically accurate West. Will Henry/Clay Fisher creates a mythopoeic West grounded in historical fact; and Elmer Kelton delimits his West to his home region of West Texas. In this essay, we undertake to examine selected works of three further bestselling authors who created their individually distinctive Wests.
Among the great bulk of works published by Zane Grey, Frank Gruber, and Louis L’Amour, we have singled out those novels that present visions of the West characteristic of each author. As no one else’s, Grey’s name immediately conjures up the desert as “crucible,” in which an Easterner, during his rite of passage, becomes a true Westerner. Where Grey is the poet of the canyoned deserts of the Southwest, Frank Gruber’s fictional cosmos is the Western boom town, which presents itself as a “hell” that has to be purged of its vicious profiteers in order to pave the way for a democratic America in the making. Louis L’Amour goes a step further when he assumes the role of proponent of the Western March of Empire, exemplified by a generational saga chronicling the shifting frontier. For all their differences in presenting the American West, these three authors share a firm belief in the power of the West to establish an American identity.
It is a truism that an American identity, regardless of how it is constructed, is inextricably bound up with the inescapable presence of the American Indian. Where for Gruber the Indian is at best of secondary importance, the “Indian spirit” as D. H. Lawrence defines it, is an indispensable constituent in the works of Grey and L’Amour. It comes as no surprise that the two appear to follow Lawrence’s call for the creation of a spirit of a new America:
It seems there can be no fusion in the flesh. But the spirit can change. The white man’s spirit can never become as the redman’s spirit. It doesn’t want to. But it can cease to be the opposite and the negative of the red man’s spirit. It can open out a new great area of consciousness, in which there is room for the red spirit too.(Studies in Classic American Literature, Harmondsworth:...