By Vikas Datta (10:00)
It is a typically American genre unable to be transplanted anywhere outside its home but still immensely popular through the world with its regular depiction in books, films and comics. Set in a period spanning a few decades of the 19th century when the interior of the North American continent was explored, the wilderness tamed, made inhabitable and law-abiding, Westerns, or tales of the Wild West with cowboys, gunslingers and Red Indians have become an established part of global culture.
Written by a number of American and non-American authors, their eager readers included the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler and Yuri Andropov. One well-known and prolific author was Louis L’Amour, best known for his Sackett family chronicles.
Mirroring the development of the US as we know it today, the genre began as frontier tales of the time when the Europeans (mostly English), who settled on the continent’s eastern seaboard after their arrival in the early 17th century and gradually moved inward. Among the first such was James Fenimoore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking Tales” quintet.
“The Deerslayer”, “Last of the Mohicans” (a particular favourite of Andropov), “The Pathfinder” and “The Pioneers” deal with the first tentative explorations of the interior in the mid-18th century, while “The Prairie” takes up the story after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase doubled the new independent country’s size and made the mighty Mississippi the new western frontier.
Throughout the 19th century, the genre, appearing as ‘penny dreadfuls’ and ‘dime novels’, drew on historical events – the Red Indian wars, the Manifest Destiny which sought an America stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the California Gold Rush, the American Civil War, and fictionalised stories of the explorers, outlaws and lawmen in the frontier region like Davy Crockett, Kit Carson, Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickok, Jesse James and Wyatt Earp, not to mention Crazy Horse, Geronimo, and other braves of Sioux, Comanche, Apache, Cherokee, and the like.
The genre’s first recognised writer was German Karl May, who wrote a series of full-length novels set in the Wild West (without even having put foot in the US) but was immensely popular among his countrymen
(including a young Hitler). In English, Owen Wister whose “The Virginian” (a favourite read of then US President Theodore Roosevelt) is considered the first Western and laid the tropes that would form a staple of the genre – the laconic, stoical hero, gunfights, damsels in distress, gamblers, harsh life – including summary trials and executions of horse and cattle thieves. He was followed by Zane Grey (“Raiders of the Purple Sage”), the “Hopalong Cassidy” series of Clarence Mulford, Max Brand and many more.
But it was Louis Dearborn L’Amour (1908-1988) who gave Westerns enduring fame. Deemed one of the world’s most popular writers, he has 89 novels, 14 short-story collections, and two nonfiction works to his credit.
The novels include historical and science fiction and adventure stories, many dealing with war or nautical life, but the overwhelming number are Westerns – and many of them have been made into films.
It is the Sackett clan that dominates his Westerns. Their series, all with first-person narration, has 17 novels, while they figure in at least seven others. The saga of the Sacketts (a name taken from a desert watering hole commemorating a 19th century US cavalry officer) deals with the family’s prominent members as they move across the Atlantic from England during the last years of Queen Elizabeth I, settle in the Appalachians, and then in the next nearly three centuries, move west to the Great Plains, the Rockies and California.
“Daybreakers” (1960) was the first to be published, though not first in chronological order. It introduces brothers Orrin and Tyrel Sackett as they travel west from their home in Tennessee in the 1870s to make a new life, and face Red Indians, bandits, scheming politicians seeking to grab estates of old Spanish families, the problems of love, race relations and the most poignant – a friend turned implacable foe.
The top billing however goes to their eldest brother William Tell or Tell Sackett, who is hero of “Sackett”, “Mojave Crossing”, “The Sackett Brand”, “The Lonely Men”, “Lonely on the Mountain” and “Treasure Mountain”. Of this, “The Sackett Brand” is the most gripping where almost the whole clan turns out to his help when he is in the crosshairs of a psychotic ranchboss who has murdered his newly-wedded wife and seeks to eliminate him too.
Others deal with the clan’s founder Barnabas Sackett, who emigrates from England in the first years of the 17th century, his progeny Kin Ring and Jublain, and Tell’s contemporaries, the twins Nolan and Logan, brothers Flagan and Galloway, the lawyer Parmalee and his aunt Echo, the only female Sackett to be the primary protagonist.
High-adrenalin adventure throughout, the saga is a most accessible account of how America was settled, and storytelling at its most inspired!
(19.10.2014 – Vikas Datta is a senior assistant editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at email@example.com)