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Eugene Cunningham: Realism and the Action Novel Eugene Cunnigham was a writer of “action” westerns. During his life he produced something in excess of 5,000,000 words, most of them in novels that would be characterized as pulp westerns, and, as such, scorned by the literati and aficionados of the West-That-Was. Cunningham wrote “action”, and his novels are filled with the vio­ lence and gun-play that are the staple of pulp western fiction, but to dismiss them as only escapist heroics and bloodshed ignores the knowledge and integrity ’Gene brought to his craft. Cunningham’s novels merit a reconsideration and re-examination because, through the hail of lead and above the thunder of hooves, the novels possess a vitality and urgency of realism not found in most examples of the genre. The opportunity to view Eugene Cunningham as artist and man was made possible when the occasion arose for me to examine a body of personal correspondence conducted between Cunningham and a fellow writer of the West, who had likewise experienced the life before he sought to interpret it. The result of eleven years (1946-1957) of correspondence between Cunningham and W. H. Hutchinson was graciously made available, providing the basis for some understanding of the man, and considerable insight into his regard for his craft. My purpose here is, initially, to view the background of the man, especially as it is related to his western novels. Further, an analysis of his background yields an understanding of what his ex­ perience imparted to his fiction. The effect of Cunningham’s experi ence shaped the form and development of the novel Riding Gun Not only did Cunningham’s background determine the form, or type, of the novel, but this familiarity with his subject—a first-hand knowledge unknown in almost all other writers of the genre—pro­ vided the authenticity and realism that saved the book from medi­ ocrity. Thus it is important that Eugene Cunningham be estab­ lished as a man of the Southwest. Such a determination is difficult, for there is no biographical information available on Cunningham, Donald G. Pike 225 except what he offers himself in his introductions, correspondence, and a lone article on his craft. Unfortunately, ’Gene possessed a wry sense of humor regarding his own ego, and an abiding dislike of men enthralled with their own accomplishments, both of which combined to prevent him from dwelling too long on himself. Except for the fact that he was born in Arkansas and educated in Dallas-Ft. Worth, little is known of Cunningham until his return in 1918 from convoy escort duty in the Atlantic. He returned briefly to New Mexico, but his writing carried him on again—over the rest of the West as a free-lance writer of almost everything but “the western”, and through Central America, covering the civil turmoil as a correspondent for an English periodical. He settled in El Paso in 1924 as a partner in an advertising agency, and it was here, in 1925, that Cunningham wrote his first western novel: Diamond River Man.1 Cunningham was later to settle in San Francisco, where he spent the greater part of his adult life. Cunningham’s youth remains obscure although it is apparent that he regarded Texas and New Mexico as home when he returned from the war. In his sparse writings on himself, Cunningham left no doubt that he knew his land and many of the people who conrtibuted to its legends and sagas. These people were to become, in many instances, the dramatis personae of his novels and stories. The people who were, or had known, the famous lawmen and out­ laws of the Southwest still recounted and discussed the events that had given the region its romance and notoriety.2 Cunningham worked diligently to make himself aware of the facts of an incident, that he might not misrepresent either the motive or the action. He did this by studying “not only . . . the books, but . . . the first­ hand accounts of witnesses contemporary to the actor, the play and the stage-setting.”3 In discussing historical fiction, that is, fiction which recounts the actions of actual historical figures...


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