To most Wofford students, Bonanza is a steak house, Clint Eastwood is the guy in Gran Torino, and the Cowboys are a football team in Dallas.
That is why Ted Monroe is teaching The Wild West, an interim course designed to bring Western fact and fiction to a generation that, unlike the many generations before it, didn’t grow up playing Cowboys and Indians.
“The students are going to write an essay that pertains to one of five events, and the other part is to get away from the history and get into fiction,” says Monroe. “They’re going to write a short story that’s Western based. We have brought two Western fiction writers to campus.”
The two writers are Cameron Judd and Johnny Boggs. The five events are Custer’s Last Stand, The Massacre at Wounded Knee, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, the Lincoln County War, and the Northfield Minnesota Raid.
Sometimes Western fact and fiction are mixed together, a tricky proposition in this age where fans expect plausibility at the very least in their entertainment.
“Most Western writers, at least the ones I know, strive to be as believable as possible,” says Judd, who is a three-time national finalist in the Spur Awards competition of Western Writers of America. “They write about the kinds of things that could have happened, whether they happened or not. I’d say there is more concern about that today than there was, say…50-60 years ago.
“I’m from the same county as Davy Crockett. There are gaps where we don’t really know what he was doing during certain periods of his life. That’s where you’re free to fictionalize and speculate as to what he might have been doing. But even then, you try to keep him tied to the type of activities that we know he did during his life, to keep it plausible.”
In order to compete with other genres in the future, Boggs (a three-time Spur Award winner, pictured above) says the Western is going to have to redefine itself. If future Western fiction writers borrow from other genres, it’s only fair. In fact, it would be returning the favor. Most other genres are loaded with story elements first found in Westerns.
“Westerns were horse operas,” says Boggs. “Now you have space operas. You can see Western elements in just about everything else. I asked some of the students here what their favorite films are. Someone mentioned Gladiator. That is a film loaded with old Western elements such as revenge. I consider No Country for Old Men a Western. It has Western elements in it. It even takes place in the West.
“The future of the genre depends on guys like us reaching out to the younger generation who didn’t grow up with it and really don’t have a clue what it was about. We have a generation that grew up on science fiction. They know more about outer space than they know about their own recent history.”
Sounds good, but how do you reach an audience that prefers laser battles to gunfights?
“Somehow you have to make it relevant to today’s young reader,” said Boggs. “The stories have to be something they can relate to. I think you could remake the old TV show The Rifleman today because of the single parent theme. Westerns were really the only shows back then that dared use a single parent.
Judd was influenced by shows like Bonanza, Gunsmoke, High Chaparal, and Daniel Boone. He says that movies like Tombstone (which centered on the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral) have made historical accuracy much more important for the new generation.
“I never set out to do straight pure history fictionalized into a novel,” he says. “If I do take liberties with the story, I try to do so without damaging the historical integrity. I prefer the term ‘historically plausible’ over ‘historically accurate,’ though, because the latter simply means you are repeating history and not being creative.”
The Western is still alive. The success of movies like Tombstone and shows like HBO’s Deadwood prove that. It may not dominate the landscape of television or the movies any more, but it’s still fertile territory for those who want to explore it in writing.
“To my surprise, I found one student in this class who said he played Cowboys and Indians,” says Judd. “I have kids that are the same age as these students, and I know that westerns are not much a part of their experience.”
“Westerns in the past were more escapism and it didn’t matter how historically accurate they were,” adds Boggs. “Readers today know a lot more. They want history and they want facts and they want everything to be empirically correct. So you have to pay attention to history and to detail. The Western is alive, but we have to keep it alive.”