AN EPITAPH FOR THE WESTERN
“Wordslingers is a must-read for anyone interested in the pulps or in Western fiction, and it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time.”
Countless books have been written on the Western fiction genre. Almost all trace the development of the genre from its dime-novel roots through Owen Wister’s The Virginian and Zane Grey—the two most influential early frontier novelists—to the present. Many others focus on the Hollywood Western.
Almost completely overlooked is the Western pulp magazine. From about 1920 to 1955, almost every important writer and development in the genre took place in the pages of Western Story Magazine, Dime Western, Cowboy Stories, Wild West Weekly, and scores of others.
Wordslingers is an oral history of the Western pulp fiction magazines, told in the narrative style of a Ken Burns documentary by the writers, editors and agents who fought and struggled to keep the Western myth alive in the face of changing tastes, cultural shifts, Hollywood competition, and a boom-and- bust genre cycle that forced them to reformulate the Western story every five years or so.
Westerns boomed in the early 20s, but the genre virtually collapsed in 1927 when Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight catapulted the airman hero into prominence. Many editors pronounced the Western doomed as a genre. A Hollywood Western revival brought
￼the cowboy hero back to life—until the Depression drove all but the most hardy Western magazines out of business. The cowboy hero rode high, wide and handsome until 1940, when the reading public simply got sick of him. Editors and writers desperately searched for a different kind of Western hero to take his place. They found scores of them in the ordinary blacksmith, frontier doctor and rancher, and the genre was once again redeemed. And so it went until television and the paperback absconded with the Western genre in the 1950s, killing the pulp magazine industry forever.
In the middle of this movement is the unending feud between the realists, cowboy-authors like Arizonan Walt Coburn, who were of the West and burned to write authentic historical fiction, and the fabulists, Eastern writers like Frederick Faust (Max Brand) who lived in an Italian villa and couldn’t care less about authenticity, both schools perpetuating a Western never-never land its prolific practitioners often didn’t believe in themselves.
Then there are the pulp magazine editors. Men like overworked and darkly humorous Frank Blackwell, who edited the pioneer Western Story Magazine, which for its first twenty years was published every week! Action proponent Jack Byrne, who pronounced the Western story dead in 1927—only the eat his words. And visionary genius Rogers Terrill, who single-handedly salvaged the pulp Western from oblivion during the Depression when he launched the revolutionary and cliché-shattering Dime Western. Easterners all, torn by the constant struggle to keep Western fans happy, while simultaneously wrangling writers who had to be retrained every few years as reading tastes changed—all trapped by a romantic myth they helped create and didn’t dare shatter lest the Western go completely bust.
Although author Will Murray traces the genre’s development from its historical origins, through Owen Wister’s landmark works to the early Paperback Revolution, Wordslingers focuses almost ￼entirely on the pulp magazines because no previous study has examined this area in depth. The quotes he’s mined from period writer’s magazines and other obscure sources—people ranging from Walt Coburn to Louis L’Amour—make for fascinating reading and a dramatic immediacy.
Wordslingers explains how this slice of Americana stayed so popular for so long, and why it has declined so steeply without completely fading away. And why the Western may or may not come back.
No one has ever written a book like this, nor investigated the sources used to compile it. Will Murray is the first writer to seriously document this era.
“But this is not really my book,” Murray notes. “It belongs to the many authentic voices who drive the narrative—funny, salty, iconoclastic, inspiring voices who, in telling their personal stories, illuminate a larger one.”
Murray’s more nearly forty years researching and writing about the pulp magazine era gives him a unique background to write this book from a deep knowledge of the field. Photos of prominent authors will put faces to the voices who tell the tale of their times. Wordslingers is a landmark on the history of popular literature. It may be a Pulp masterpiece.