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  • "We Ain't a Christian Outfit"Protestantism and Secularism in the Formation of the Popular Western Novel
  • Ben Nadler (bio)

The Spirit of the Pioneers

The February 1918 issue of The English Journal-published at the peak of the nationalist fervor that characterized the United States' year and a half long engagement in World War I—includes a secondary school syllabus designed "as a means for teaching (1) an understanding of American institutions and (2) an appreciation of American ideals" (Penny 129). The syllabus, titled "The American Spirit," contains lists of fiction, poetry, and political speeches assembled by one Edith M. Penny, a Minneapolis high school teacher. Many of the literary works on the lists, such as Whitman's "I Hear America Singing," have maintained their place in the canon; others have drifted into relative obscurity. As a whole, the syllabus provides a window into the way Americans of a century ago were conceptualizing, and being trained to conceptualize, the increasingly internationally powerful American nation-state.

The second of the syllabus's four sections, "The Spirit of the Pioneers," is particularly illuminating in this regard. Many of the works on this unit's suggested reading list are historically facing, seeking to establish the origins and formation of national identity in the mythologized recent past of the nineteenth century. The first title to appear on this list is Edward Eggleston's The Circuit Rider (1874), an evangelical novel depicting the adventures of a young man who gives up his worldly ways to serve as an itinerant Methodist preacher in the early nineteenth century Midwest. Toward the bottom of the chronological list—after works by authors including Bret Harte, Booth Tarkington, and Frank Norris—is Owen Wister's [End Page 405] The Virginian (1902), the bestselling novel about a cowboy that ushered in the genre of the popular Western novel (and would later help establish the genre of the popular Western film as well).

It is not surprising that the two novels appear together here, as The Circuit Rider is in many ways an antecedent to The Virginian. Indeed, Eggleston's realism and historical regionalism should be regarded as an influence on the Western novel's transformation from pulp romance to popular modern novel. Both The Circuit Rider and The Virginian feature a young man defined by his horseback occupation. Each of these men courts and eventually marries a young woman above his station who serves as a schoolmarm prior to her marriage. Both novels make a case—to a largely Eastern readership—that the rough-around-the-edges people of the frontier (which had moved far to the west between the two depicted periods) can hold their own with the people of the settled East in both intellect and morals. More essentially, both novels are largely concerned with codes of correct individual conduct.

At the same time, the novels rest together uneasily. The evangelical novel and the cowboy novel feature divergent understandings of masculinity, violence, and, above all, religion. Converting wrongdoers and shooting them dead in the street are two different things. By the time Penny's syllabus was published in 1918 the cowboy novel had developed further in the path set by Wister, particularly through the many works of Zane Grey. Grey's novels formularized, and helped make culturally ubiquitous, narratives of the heroic Western gunslinger. The students reading the books on Penny's syllabus would very likely also be reading Grey's popular novels, such as The U.P. Trail, which he published in 1918.1

The popular Western novel has received critical reevaluation since the 1970s, particularly in regard to issues of race and gender. However, the role of religion in the genre remains underexamined. In her 1992 book West of Everything, Jane Tompkins writes, "the Western is secular, materialist, antifeminist" (28). While the antifeminism of the genre is unquestionable, the characterization of the genre as secular is perhaps simplistic. More recent work around theories of the secular can help us to consider both the overt and implicit forms of Protestantism at work in the popular [End Page 406] Western genre and its formation. The philosopher Charles Taylor, for one, critiques "subtraction stories" (22)—accepted narratives of modernity...


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pp. 405-438
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