This one of those novels that got talked up in a number of graduate classes I took in American literature, American studies, and other similar courses. I should mention from the start it’s neither an especially good or especially bad novel. Instead, it’s reputation, especially in those classes, comes from it’s kind of “first-ness” and it’s prototypical sense of especially 20th century myths about the West. This book came out in 1902 and the West, as we have it, had already been “closed” by various events in the 19th century that took the frontier spirit out of the frontier. There were the actual physical events like the expansion of the railroad and the development of West coast cities. There was the statehood initiatives in various former territories. There was the creation of reservations for various Native American tribes. And theoretically and academically, the closing of the West was at least articulated by the Frontier thesis of Frederick Jackson Turner in the early 1890s. Now we enter back into the American consciousness, the “Idea of the American West” which includes foreign expansion of American frontiers into Cuba, Central America, the Philippines, Hawaii, Japan, and other places over various decades, and the ways in which this would morph into other foreign policy ideologies.
This book is one of those books that helps transition the stereotypes of the West (lampooned in great other texts like Stephen Crane’s “The Blue Hotel” and various Mark Twain books) into the mythic re-visioning of the West — leading especially to the early film industry’s role. It’s a novel about a man’s man who does what’s right by the world even if it’s not right by the law —- about morals shaped by larger things, not just the limits of man, where problems are solved by masculine violence, not suspect thinking and talking. You get it.