By Bill Pronzini
When some people first learn about my extensive collection of Western fiction, they wrinkle their noses and ask me why I collect that sort of thing. As if Westerns were a kind of inferior and alien art form.
These scoffers and sneerers, these snooty types who look down their snouts at Westerns, all seem to have one thing in common: None of them has ever read one. Nor do they know anything about Western fiction.
As far as I’m concerned, such ignorance is not bliss. So I sit them down and educate them.
In the first place I tell then, the Western story is a uniquely American art—one of the relative few this country can call its own. It was born more than a hundred years ago with the dime novels of such writers as Ned Buntline and Colonel Prentiss Ingraham, and was later refined and given permanent literary stature by Mark Twain, Bret Harte, and O. Henry, among others. During this century, Western fiction has functioned as a symbol of all that America stands for: freedom, justice, self-reliance, the pioneer spirit. And in a century that has produced two world wars, dozens of localized wars and “police actions,” the Great Depression, and other tragedies large and small, Americans have needed— still need—that spirit to sustain them.
In the second place, I tell these unenlightened folk, the popular image of the Western as mindless horse opera, as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry juvenilia, is so much bunkum. There are as many good, intelligent Western novels, or mysteries, or any other type of fiction. And the best of them not only have high literary and entertainment value; they are rich in authentic history, providing the reader with little known facts about, and insights into the lives and accomplishments of, the men and women who settled the western half of these United States.
In the third place, I say, speaking from a collector’s point of view, Westerns are scarce arid getting scarcer. Relatively few copies were printed of 99 percent of all hardcover Westerns, and nearly all of any title’s print run was (and still is) sold to the public and lending libraries. Therefore, copies in good condition, and in dust jacket, are difficult to obtain—a challenge for any serious book collector. But more than that, as a collector of Westerns I am performing something of a public service by rescuing fragile old titles from secondhand bookshops or junk dealers. If it weren’t for collectors many titles would be lost or destroyed. And eventually certain ones, certain little segments of American popular culture, would be lost forever.
In the fourth place, I tell those poor ignorant souls, again speaking from a collector’s point of view, the dust jacket art on old Western hardcovers is marvelously colorful and evocative of their times. These dust jackets are mini art forms in the own right, and it would be just as much of a shame if some of them, too, were to be forever lost through neglect and ridicule.
By this time, the more intelligent and perceptive among my listeners have begun to look thoughtful, if not downright enthusiastic. To these folk I give reading copies (I never allow first editions out of my house) of books by A. B. Guthrie, Jr., Jack Schaefer, Dorothy Johnson, Ernest Haycox, and others, and send them on their way. Those who read just one good Western usually stop being skeptics; and those who read more than one usually become converts.
So if you other Western-fiction collectors have the same sort of problem with the people you know, you might try my approach. It works so well that I’ve even invented a slogan for it:
Don’t apologize, don’t temporize—proselytize!
–Reprinted by permission of the author from the
Western Writers of America Roundup