Western fiction is a literary genre which exploits the topic of the frontier, which usually refers to the lands west of the Mississippi River, and the conquest of the American West in the 18th and the 19th century. This particularly applies to the period between the 1860s and 1890s, when settlement was at its most intense. The genre developed in the early 20th century and remained popular until the 1970s.
The first writers to make the notion of the frontier and travel a central theme in their work were explorers Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) and William Clarke (1770-1838) at the beginning of the 18th century, which was followed by A Tour of the Prairies (1835), by American author Washington Irving. The genre was broadly popularized by the Western fiction of James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851), whose beloved West was largely idealized and romantic. His Leatherstocking novels (1823-1841) started the trend for depicting the hard battle of people against the wilderness and the power of the human will. In the second half of the century, while thousands of people were undertaking the potentially deadly journey to the West, stories and legends of heroes and villains captured the imagination of the public and this led to a boom in Western fiction publishing.
In the 1860s and 1870s, a new generation of Western writers emerged. Authors like Mark Twain (1835-1910), Ambrose Bierce (1842-1913) and Bret Harte (1836-1902) spent most of their lives in the West and continued to develop the appealing image of the Western states. Harte is credited with the invention of some of the typical stock characters in Westerns, including the charming conman, the brave and honorable outlaw and the virtuous dance-hall girl. At the same time, a large number of the cheap "dime" novels were published. They were not considered serious literature but were hugely successful with the public. Some of them told tales about real Western legends, like Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, Jesse James and Billy The Kid. Malaeska:The Indian Wife of the White Hunter (1860), written by Ann S. Stephens (1810-1886) is considered the first "dime" novel.
A substantially different view on the West is present in Mark Twain's books. Twain, whose real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, takes a much more realistic and documentary approach and the world he depicts is both scary and entertaining. Still, not many authors could afford to write about the real West because the public was simply not interested in detailed descriptions of farming or mining, which were activities occupying the bigger part of the lives of settlers.
At the turn of the 20th century, Western fiction managed to keep its popularity, mainly due to The Virginians (1902), by Owen Wister (1860-1938) and Riders of the Purple Sage (1912), by Zane Grey (1872-1939). The Virginians started a fresh trend in Western literature, described as the "new" Western. It dismissed the idealized lone pioneer who conquers land and introduced the cowboy who synthesized various cultural notions, including the southern chivalry, the eastern civilization and the western primitivism. The new fiction contrasted the lawless West to the orderly East and brought a new scope of characters such as savages and bandits who threatened civilized citizens. In this type of fiction, the hero shares many characteristics with medieval knights, such as his horse, loyal weapon - usually a pistol - and his honor. The hero is led by his own personal code of conduct and justice and by community rules at the same time.
Western fiction reached a peak in its popularity in the 1960s with the large number of Western television shows like Bonanza, which told the story of the Cartwright family. The show lasted for 14 seasons and 431 episodes, which were shown on American television and worldwide. The popularity of Western fiction gradually declined in the 1970s, although the genre remained successful in cinema.
It is difficult to establish the rules that govern the genre due to its diversity in writers and themes. However, there are a few characteristics that tend to recur in Western fiction. First, the setting is almost inevitably west of the frontier, located between Missouri and the Rocky Mountains. Second, the time frame of the story usually spans from 1860 to 1900; and the third factor sees the West itself as a major driving force. The hostility of the landscape makes the people harsh but adaptable and turns them into survivors.