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W I L L I A M T. P I L K I N G T O N Southwest Texas State College Aspects of the Western Comic Novel Criticism — of society, of human foibles, of man himself —is implicit in the comic spirit, and criticism, especially self-citicism, demands as a minimum requirement a certain amount of leisure and perspectve. Undoubtedly, this accounts for the fact that satire, and to a large extent comedy itself, thrives only in societies which have ripened and reached maturity. Chaucer, for example, though in modern times viewed as the earliest major figure in English liter­ ature, actually appeared at the close of an important era — the Middle Ages —and his Canterbury Tales are full of parodies of and jokes about literary conventions that had been in force for centuries. And to cite some more recent instances, such English comic novel­ ists as, say, George Meredith in the nineteenth century and, in our own day, Evelyn Waugh and Henry Green are quite obviously the products of a highly sophisticated and traditional literature. Even so depressing a phenomenon as the so-called “black humor” has been attributed to a tolerant maturity —some might say decay — lately evident in American culture. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Western novel, and indeed Western literature in general, is not notable for its advance­ ment of the comic spirit, for Western literature, like the region itself, is still in the developing stage. The rigors of subduing and adapting to human purposes an often hostile physical environment have not been conducive to the kind of settled atmosphere that comedy re­ quires. Keeping this basic reservation in mind, however, one can still see, particularly within just the past few years, signs that the Western novel is at last attempting to branch out and encompass the 210 Western American Literature comic aspects of regional history. This, in turn, is an indication that Western fiction, after decades of being dismissed as American lit­ erature’s unwanted orphan, is finally in the process of coming of age. I want to make clear at the beginning that, for the purposes of this article, the term “Western novel” applies only to the Western historical novel —to those works of fiction set in the trans-Mississippi West of the nineteenth century. If novels about the contemporary West were to be included, the field would be considerably broad­ ened; one would have to consider, for instance, Steinbeck’s classic comic novel, Tortilla Flat, as well as such recent efforts as Richard Gardner’s Scandalous John and Glendon Swarthout’s The Cadillac Cowboys, and certainly one would have to account for the fiction of William Eastlake, who is perhaps the most interesting and accom­ plished comic novelist the West has yet produced. My purpose here, however, is simply to offer a few remarks (by no means defin­ itive ) on a somewhat restricted subject, which, so far as I am aware, has provoked virtually no comment, but one which I feel sure will soon engage the interest of those concerned with Western literature. My topic, then, is the “Western” and the extent to which there has developed a comic variant of the Western. The Western in its crudest form is, of course, a highly stylized genre, and as such is par­ ticularly vulnerable to parody, which is literary criticism in its brash­ est and most effective guise; the Western, with its many weaknesses as literature, has been such a tempting target that, not surpris­ ingly, it has been unable to evade all of the parodic punches aimed its way. There may well have been, even in the nineteenth cen­ tury, published parodies of the Beadle Dime Novel, so obvious were its flaws; the twentieth century, in any case, has seen a number of clever and devastating parodies of the dime novel’s lineal descen­ dant. Now my reading in this genre is sketchy as best (reading anything approaching a large percentage of all the Westerns ever published would no doubt be an unbearable strain on an ordinary person’s mental and emotional capacities —perhaps it is a suitable task for an unemployed computer). But I am convinced that there is...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 209-217
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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