With much recent scholarship polarizing frontier novels into “popular” and “literary” camps, The Word Rides Again challenges the critical orthodoxy that such works have little in common, arguing instead that formulaic Western fictions can subtly (and even subversively) share cultural concerns with more highbrow brethren. Each chapter focuses on a writer who has traditionally been classified as either popular or artistic, reading a representative fictional work against prevailing scholarly trends. In this manner, Bret Harte’s sentimental stories become gender-bending experiments in which women assume male roles and even enjoy lesbian relationships. Owen Wister’s The Virginian is transmuted from a misogynistic diatribe into a complex meditation on the peculiarly American relation of violence to male identity. And even Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, rather than the apotheosis of a religious leader, becomes a somewhat standard version of the popular frontier story.
The Word Rides Again represents a significant departure from more traditional studies of frontier literature. It reaffirms the continuum between popular and literary texts and explores the ways that frontier novels have echoed, endorsed, and extended each other from the inception of the genre.
J. David Stevens is an assistant professor in the English department at Seton Hall University. He has published numerous articles on American and Canadian regional literatures, with a special interest in the West. More info →
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One of the century’s most enduring American writers, Zane Grey left a legacy to our national consciousness that far outstrips the literary contribution of his often predictable plots and recurring themes. How did Grey capture the attention of millions of readers and promote the Western fantasy that continues to occupy many of the world’s leisure hours? This study assesses the Zane Grey phenomenon by examining Grey’s romantic novels in the context of his life and era.
An excerpt from Stories from Mesa Country: "They are coming back from the burial ground. I can see them walking, two abreast, along the narrow track by the wash. Tom has his head down, his hands in the pockets of his black suit. Beside him, Reverend Sherman is talking, waving his arms, trying, I'd guess, to comfort. Behind them come Enid and Faith, square shapes in best blue dresses, and then Seth and Arch, leggy as colts, uncomfortable in Sunday suits, in the shadow of tragedy.