Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Spring 1981


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 1, No. 2, Spring 1981, pp. 95-104.


Copyright 1981 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


With the exception of commentary on Owen Wister and The Virginian (1902), surprisingly little has been written about popular western novels published before world War I.1 Yet it was writers following in the wake of The Virginian's popularity who really developed and defined the mass-audience western of commercial prospects and formulaic content. B. M. Bower, Clarence Mulford, William McCleod Raine, and Charles Alden Seltzer prepared the way for the later and greater popularity of Zane Grey, whose books first became best-sellers between 1912 and 1917; for the prolific productions of pulp writers like Max Brand after 1918; and for the rise of the western film industry. Although the early 1920s may be the first period when American interest in the popular western reached obsessive proportions (Grey was then a regular feature on best-seller charts, pulp publications like Western Story Magazine were in full flower, and W. S. Hart was a box-office staple), the Progressive Era was the breeding ground of the western.

To understand the western in its early period of development, we should direct our attention away from Wister's high-toned novel, the end product of fifteen years' work with western materials, and restrain our urges to leap into the purple landscapes and raging passions of Zane Grey. Two other writers, among the first to capitalize on the market Wister created, will serve our purposes better. These are Clarence Edward Mulford, who created Hopalong Cassidy, and B. M. (Bertha Muzzey) Bower, the only woman to become an important writer of westerns. Beginning from quite different points -Mulford's stories born out of his juvenile fascination with dime novels and Bower's out of her own experience in the West-the two writers developed large readerships and produced essentially formulaic novels with considerable speed and facility. When Douglas Branch wrote The Cowboy and His Interpreters in 1926, he named both Mulford and Bower (along with Rame and Seltzer) as "aristocrats of cow-country fiction" on "the seventy-five cent shelves."2

Both common and contrasting features of Mulford and Bower are the subject of this essay. In their exploitation of the western as a source of comedy and their emphasis on themes of community rather than true individualism, they share qualities of innocence and nostalgia reflecting the optimism of the Progressive Era. Beyond these shared qualities, Mulford and Bower demonstrate an essential choice between myth and history, a fork in the road of American popular culture, that faced the western during its first decade and has shown up frequently in the later landscapes of the literary West.


Especially when paired together, Mulford and Bower serve well to illustrate the development and themes of the popular western between The Virginian and world War I. To begin with, both were prolific writers. Mulford published six novels between 1906 and 1913, Bower fourteen between 1904 and 1916. Each continued to write after these years-Mulford publishing his last novel in 1941 and Bower active until her death in 1940-but their essential styles and audiences were established long before world War 1.3 Furthermore, between 1902 and 1916, both published western fiction almost exclusively, and both used the same characters and setting for different novels. Mulford invented Hopalong Cassidy and the Bar-20 Ranch in West Texas; Bower's fame grew out of her Flying U Ranch in northcentral Montana and its "Happy Family" of cowboys. In other words, Mulford and Bower were formula writers, users of conventions rather than literary innovators, who had a clear understanding of what their readers most appreciated. That Mulford was a man who believed in the values of male companionship and Bower was a woman who felt some identity with her female characters may be an added reason for paying attention to this pair of popular writers.

Although it is the differences between Mulford and Bower that finally stand out, their stories, taken together, indicate the general appeal of early westerns. Many of the similarities are what we would expect: an interest in ranch life, the use of working cowboys as main characters (even in romantic plots), the occasional appearance of eastern types for the sake of contrast, a sense of western geography as simultaneously harsh and grand, and a good deal of factual attention to such matters as cattle branding and bronc busting. Somewhat unlike The Virginian, novels by Mulford and Bower feature not only cowboys but also cows. Yet as William Savage points out in his study of the cowboy hero, no one has ever portrayed the cowboy both "accurately and interestingly at the same time."4 Evidence for this fact in Mulford and Bower lies in their most significant similarities: a perception of the West as a stage for comic action and an emphasis on collective rather than individualistic social order in the West. It took style and theme, of rather specific kinds, to make the cowboy a regular feature of popular adult fiction.