Thursday, November 14, 2013

Ranger Jim’s Ramblings for November

I’ve decided to take a break from the story of the El Paso Salt War for this month. The reason for this is Rod Miller’s recent post about GENESIS, his favorite Western short story. Rod’s post got me to thinking once again about one of my biggest pet peeves, which will be the subject of my post this month.

GENESIS is a more realistic look at cowboy life than most Western fiction, which of course it will be, since it’s a memoir. And that’s my point. Why is it that so many “literati” complain about how Western fiction romanticizes the West, yet hardly anyone complains about other genres romanticizing the period in which they were set?

We all know that cowboying wasn’t glamorous at all, that it was dirty, lonely, low-paying, and dangerous work. Yet, at the same time, it was that same dirty, lonely, low-paying, dangerous work which formed the basis of the only true original American hero, the cowboy.

The medieval “knight in shining armor” is highly romanticized, yet where are the critics of that genre? You don’t read about the knights, and other people of that era, being filthy, dirty, smelly, lice-covered, and taking a bath maybe once a year if they were lucky. Same goes for the heroes of Greek literature, or the Roman legions. The examples go on and on. Yet most self-described experts on literature seem only to pick on Western novels as being highly romanticized and untrue.

The one theme all critics of Western fiction seem to settle on is that cowboys weren’t the gunfighters so often pictured in Western books. Now matter how true this is, there were plenty of heroes of the old West who did indeed enforce law and order or help bring civilization to a wild land by use of the gun if necessary. The annals of the Texas Rangers alone provide enough true stories of gunfights to fill several history books. There is a mother lode of material to mine for Western fiction that is based on absolute truth. And there were indeed “super” horses that, while they could never duplicate some of the feats attributed to equines in the pages of the pulps, did indeed perform heroically or raced long journeys far beyond normal endurance to help their riders escape trouble or bring help to some far-flung outpost or settlement.

I for one refuse to apologize for writing Western fiction. I love the genre, which is THE ONLY TRUE AMERICAN GENRE in literature, and hope to keep promoting the Western until I’m no longer breathing. To borrow a phrase from Kit Prate in her introduction to her short story, THE REDEMPTION OF CADE BEAUCHARD, in the Western Fictioneers’ anthology THE TRADITIONAL WEST: “… My love affair with the West and things Cowboy continues still; but bear in mind -- I write fiction, not history.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Jim Griffin


  1. Actually, Jim, if you'd like some old England complete with dirt and smells and two-handed swords, read some Bernard Cornwell (not the Sharpe series). Try The Winter King, for example. Cornwell tells it like it probably was. No Camelot for Arthur. I've tried hard to emulate Cornwell's well-researched tales, but fall far short.

  2. I hear ya, Jim. I love reading, researching, and writing the West. Oh, and I love Bernard Cornwell, too. Michael Jecks also does the medieval well.

  3. Jim, I agree with Kit! And I don't understand why, either, that people have to always say, "Well, you know, it wasn't all THAT!" Neither was living in medieval times and eating with your hands and smelling to high heaven! But if we wanted flat history, we'd write it. And you know, the other thing I think that gets lost in this is that people are PEOPLE. They are not just cardboard figures that lived long ago that we can't relate to. I read somewhere one time that kids cannot process the fact that the people they study in history/social studies were REAL until they are 12/13 years old. I got to thinking about THAT, and figured, if that's the case, after thinking that way for the first 12 years of their lives, not only would it be somewhat of a shock to realize that these actually were REAL people, but then you have to also overcome the fact that you've got to readjust your thinking about history and the past in general. It's pretty amazing when you think about it. And it explains a lot about why kids have trouble relating to history--maybe even carries over into adult life for some.

  4. I agree Cheryl, that is why I take on historic characters to tell their story. It does make it real for the listeners. I can still remember school children believing I was Katharine Lee Bates, it is wonderful. This post is right on with the observation. I think because our 'history' is so young it may not be seen as real. Bad idea. Love westerns and love living in the West. Thank you for a great post Jim. Doris

  5. A good story is a good story, no matter when it's set. I agree with Cheryl and Doris about making those characters come alive--it's our responsibility as writers to make that happen, and to break down the barriers of disbelief. And frankly, I think the average city person would be quite educated if they spent a day in southern Owyhee County. Because guess what--the Old West is still there. They don't shoot each other (very often), but there's still cattle rustling, roundups, and the works.

  6. Jacquie,

    I think Chris LeDoux probably made your point best in his song "You Just Can't See it From the Road", about the West still being the West, with ranches, roundups, cowboys, and so forth, but you'd never know it just by driving along the Interstates.

    Friend of mine once took a great picture a few years back of a roundup which he gave to me. Then, a couple of years after that I was driving through eastern Colorado on my way to Colorado Springs when I spotted a bunch of cattle being driven along the roadside, with a cowboy-hatted man behind them. So I pulled the car over quick to get a picture... only to find once the "cowboy" got closer he was on an ATV. I was crushed. But in many places the horse is still king. Check out Wylie and the Wild West's "Where Horses are Heroes"

    Jim Griffin

  7. Jim,

    You asked to stop by and see if we agree with your article.

    I do.

    Good argument, good attitude, well said.


  8. I think when you're writing history you need to set aside the myth. But I think there's a lot to be said for some good fiction of mythic proportions.