Sunday, October 19, 2014


I’ve been an avid reader of western fiction for most of my life. My shelves sag with books by the usual suspect authors. (You know the names so I won’t bother listing them.) I would become enamored of one author’s prosey style, dripping with adjectives, for a while. Then I’d fall in love with another’s stark, restrained realism. I’m a sucker for a stylist and still appreciate any style that’s well-executed.

When I decided to write westerns rather than just read them, I approached it a little more scientifically. Just how did this genre evolve? Who spun the first yarns that led to a literary world of laconic cowboys, stage coach heists and arrows of flame raining down on covered wagons? 

Of course, the experts disagree. The first dime western was supposedly Charles Frey’s MALAESKA, THE INDIAN WIFE OF THE WHITE HUNTER, published in 1860. Oh, but James Fennimore Cooper wrote his LEATHERSTOCKING TALES featuring protagonist Natty Bumppo beginning in the 1820’s. You know, back when the Appalachians constituted the Frontier. Throughout the latter 1800’s, there were stories of fictional adventures based on living “celebrities” like Buffalo Bill Cody, the James Brothers, Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp. Later came Wister, then Grey, eventually L’Amour. Then we lost count.

If I’d read and dissected every one of these, I would never have gotten around to writing anything of my own. I took the hummingbird approach, sampling a little of all.

One of the first accounts of the Old West that I decided to study was Bret Harte’s THE LUCK OF ROARING CAMP, the story of a baby boy who is born to a mining camp’s resident prostitute, Cherokee Sal. Harte’s characters are so comically portrayed that it’s easy to overlook the grimness of the plot twists (a couple of the principals are killed off).

I also had fun reading Mark Twain’s ROUGHING IT, a travelogue – greatly embellished, no doubt – of his first trip to the West. The Twain humor is there, albeit less polished than in his later writings.

I discovered quite by accident that Bret Harte and Mark Twain were actually good friends in San Francisco. Harte was editor of the Overland Monthly and the freshly-pseudonymed Twain hit town in 1864 and found work as a freelance journalist. Ironically, Bret Harte became Twain’s mentor, guiding him through the writing of the INNOCENTS ABROAD manuscript.

In a letter to the editor Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Twain wrote: “Bret Harte trimmed and trained and schooled me patiently until he changed me from an awkward utterer of coarse grotesqueness to a writer of paragraphs and chapters that have found a certain favor in the eyes of even some of the very decentest people in the land.”

The admiration was mutual. Harte wrote of Twain: “I think I recognize a new star rising in this western horizon.”

They remained friends for several years but, alas, the bromance was not to last. As the two became more widely known, a rivalry developed, possibly because they had similar writing styles and audiences at the time. Twain became increasingly cranky in his discussions of Harte. They wrote a play together which was ultimately a commercial failure. Years later, Twain suggested that Harte owed him money. 

By 1878, Mark Twain’s admiration for the man who was once his mentor had crossed into total disdain. He wrote to their mutual friend, William Dean Howells: “Harte is a liar, a thief, a swindler, a snob, a sot, a sponge, a coward, a Jeremy Diddler, he is brim full of treachery, and he conceals his Jewish birth as if he considered it a disgrace.”

In my opinion, it would have been almost worth ticking off Twain just for the splendid insult that followed!
Mark Twain & Bret Harte at work on a play
at Hartford House, Connecticut

It’s hard to say why their great friendship fell apart. Maybe the things they held in common dwindled over time. Certainly when Bret Harte and Mark Twain met in the rowdy town of San Francisco, they were kindred souls. They were a couple of intellectual young satirists who lived in a remarkable time and world. Nothing escaped the stab of their sharp pens. They wrote of frogs and slaves and kings and cowboys, usually with some seed of political opinion buried within.

Wives and children, cross-country moves, career successes and flops – all may have contributed to their parting of ways. Maybe they were too much alike and could never have existed in the same spheres for long. That’s often true of highly creative types. Both might be amused – or not – if they knew there is a California town named for them (TwainHarte) located near where each of them lived.

So, an interesting thing happened on the way to my western writing career. I discovered that the talent pool is very old and VERY deep. I will never again stay up half the night talking with my rowdy friends at a writing conference without remembering guys like Bret Harte and Mark Twain. Oh, to stay young and full of fire. Oh, to have fine companions with the same flame in their souls. 

I guess that’s what we’re doing here. Right, friends?

(That said, make plans to attend the first ever WESTERN FICTIONEERS CONVENTION in 2015! Details coming soon!)

All the best,


  1. I enjoyed your post but have to say Mark Twain's 'Jeremy Diddler' was my favourite bit because it made me titter, even though (or maybe because) I have no idea what it means. Off now to look it up on the Internet and hoping it's not really rude. Thanks.

    1. Joanne,

      I know! Call me a liar, a thief and a sot...but a Jeremy Diddler??? Ha.

  2. You live and learn...Jeremy Diddler is a fictional character in James Kenney's 1803 farce Raising the Wind. A needy, artful swindler, Jeremy Diddler has become a stock farce character, and the word "diddle" may be derived from him.

  3. The pool of knowledge in this group runs deep. I keep learning things in these blogs. Thanks for this one, Micki.

    1. Frank,

      Glad you enjoyed it. Yes, there are some fascinating folks in this group. That's one reason I look forward to meeting up with all of you at the 2015 convention!

  4. Vonn,

    This is truly a remarkable article. Like you I love books and at several times in my life, especially as a young man, places where I lived looked much like that book cave picture you show in your piece. In Berlin, I lived in a schloss, and deliberately picked rooms in the basement, knowing I would fill the place with books---and I did.

    Wonderful research and information about Harte and Twain, very enlightening!

    When talking about the start of Westerns and the genre, (oh how I hate that word and its invention), my research puts the massive interest and success to Zane Grey, who effectively and overwhelming took the country by storm with his novels, short stories, and later movies, based on his books.

    Great stuff Vonn, keep it coming.

    Charlie Steel

    1. Charlie,

      I could have included more stories about these two titans but didn't want to risk losing readers.

      My friend Dr. Cindy Lovell at the Mark Twain Home and Museum in Hartford SWEARS that "Roughing It" was the first western novel. She's a little biased, of course!

      Cindy also said that the creator of Wile E. Coyote based the character solely on Twain's description of a coyote in Chapter 5 of "Roughing It." The things you learn!

  5. I guess the animosity was not heavy enough for a duel between the two. Barbs were enough.

    1. You're so right, Oscar. I wonder if Twain even owned a weapon? He hardly needed one outside of his own tongue.

  6. Love this post, Micki! One can only imagine the heartache of having such a good friend that turned to enemy. I watched a documentary on Mark Twain not long ago--it seemed he alienated a good many people, friends and family alike--even his own daughter. Makes you think he might have been a bit unbalanced.

  7. I do confess to a partiality to Twain, but I grew up in Twain country, but both were on my reading list when young.

    This type of discussion and post are what I love about this group. Wonderful information and lively discussions afterwards. I think after the loss of his wife, Twain lost his anchor and his dissent into anger from satire was somewhat inevitable. Doris

  8. Bet it was the collaboration of the play!! great post, Vonn, and definitely interesting. Twain is better known than Harte, probably due to all his touring, and that also could have been the loosening of the linchpin. As for the convention -- WHEN?? WHERE???? yeehaw!

  9. I think that, ultimately, Twain's extraordinary talent and rock-star charisma separated him from many of his peers. He didn't approve of some of Harte's moral decisions. That doesn't diminish the importance of Harte's writings, in my opinion. Twain just outgrew the relationship.

    Yes, the loss of Livy (and daughters Susy and Jean) changed everything for Twain.

    Convention details will be announced soon! Watch your inboxes!

  10. Great post, Vonn. I am just catching up on the blog posts and this one jumped out at me. I love the idea of the dime novels. Over here we had the penny dreadfuls, generally about sensational Victorian creme and adventures of derring-do. I am also researching all about Ned Buntline.

  11. Thanks for chiming in, Keith. You Brits have such adorable words like "penny dreadfuls" and "derring-do" that we totally forgive you for the shooting at us while wearing red coats thing.

    Have you considered that Ned Buntline and Natty Bumppo might be the same person??? Ha. Trivia: Buntline was the pseudonym of Edward Judson, Sr., whose middle name was ZANE. He was born 50 years before Pearl Zane Grey.