It used to be that the best way for a Westerner, male or female, to get mentioned in the papers was to shoot up a town. A certain volume of gunplay, even if ineffective, usually brought instant celebrity, as many an entry in this big reference book attests. Wordplay, on the other hand—particularly serious wordplay—has not been as warmly welcomed. The world public has always wanted to read about the American West, but, from at least the time of Ned Buntline (Edward Z.C. Judson), its overwhelming preference has been to read the colorful if bizarre fictions that the pulp writers of many countries have so voluminously supplied.
Some readers may recall James Thurber’s amusing essay “The French Far West,” in which he discusses the French westerns he liked to relax with, in one of which a character named Wild Bird Hickok manages to liberate Pittsburgh, which was under heavy siege by les peaux-rouges. One of the more illuminating entries in this encyclopedia is the one headed “western novelists, European,” which makes clear that our home-grown pulpers, industrious though they have been (Zane Grey 78 books, Louis L’Amour 108 at last count, Max Brand—real name Frederick Schiller Faust—a life work estimated at 30 million words), are slackers compared to the Europeans. The Norwegian Rudolph Muus has written over 500 westerns, the Frenchman George Fronval more than 600; in the nineteenth century Friedrich Gerstäcker rambled through 150, H.B. Mollausen managed 178, and Karl May produced the immensely popular Winnetou novels, providing the source, in the 1960s, for an amusing series of Euro-westerns starring Lex Barker as May’s hero, Old Shatterhand.
The fact that for more than 150 years millions of readers have been willing to refresh themselves by diving eagerly and repeatedly into this Niagara of froth should give any writer or scholar proposing to write something at least nominally truthful about the West a handsome opportunity for reflection. Is a public that will happily subscribe to the sumptuous leatherette edition of the principal works of Louis L’Amour (in 120 volumes, several of which are compilations of the Master’s aphorisms, scrapbooks, and chance remarks) really likely to care about the intricacies of land-use legislation, or the struggle over water rights in the Great Basin, or the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, or indeed any of the 2,400 subjects this encyclopedia attempts to address?
The answer is no, and it’s been no since Lewis and Clark returned in triumph to St. Louis in 1806; and yet a lot of honest scholars and serious writers grit their teeth and soldier on, well aware that lies about the West—lies that are being projected every day in vivid color on a big screen somewhere—have a potency with the public that their modest truths can rarely match.
The first edition of The Reader’s Encyclopedia of the American West was published by Thomas Y. Crowell in 1977, in a smaller, considerably less stately format. Before the 1970s Western Studies—if that’s an appropriate term—had been a kind of ragbag…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.