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The Art of the Western, or, Judging a Book by its Cover

An exhibition of cover art from Western fiction, 1860-1922
at Boise State University, Albertsons Library
July 1-September 3, 2000


The "Western" has been a popular form of American literature since at least the 1820s. James Fenimore Cooper’s first Western tale, The Pioneers (1823) did much to popularize the genre; Ralph Waldo Emerson called it "our first national novel." Cooper’s next book, The Last of the Mohicans (1826) became an immediate best seller. It has remained a national favorite to this day.

By 1858, so many Westerns were being published--most of them of dubious quality--that the Ohio State Librarian complained that "tomahawks and wigwams, sharp-shooting and hard fights, log cabins, rough speech, dare-devil boldness, bear-hunting and corn-husking, prairie flowers, bandits, lynch-law and no-law-at-all miscellaneously mixed into 25 cents novels...represent the popular idea of Western literature." Today, for many, the term "Western" evokes images of cowboys, gunfights, outlaws, and cattle drives as portrayed in mass-market paperback novels found on the bookracks of supermarkets, drugstores, and airport news stands.

This exhibit, however, examines not the Western as a literary form, but its cover as an art form. A number of themes are evident. Foremost is the geographical setting for the Western. As the nation moved West, so did the Western. The first Westerns were set in the immediate trans-Appalachian West, in upstate New York, western Pennsylvania, the Ohio Valley, and the Davy Crockett-Daniel Boone country of Tennessee and Kentucky. Tales of the Great Plains, Texas, the mountains, and the intermountain West came later.

A second theme is that of a challenge to be overcome: the challenge of taming a "savage land" and the "savages" who inhabited it, be they the original Indian occupants or the lawless riffraff who bedeviled the decent folk coming to settle the land.

And a third theme is the identity of the hero. In the early Westerns he is (and usually it is a he) the backwoodsman and the scout; only as the Western moves West is the heroic role assumed by the cowboy and the lawman.

The earliest covers in this display come from "dime novels," the inexpensive paperback format inaugurated by the Beadle brothers in 1860 with the publication of Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter.  The covers of Beadle’s popular Westerns were not illustrated until 1874, when, in the words of Thomas L. Bonn, "competition from other dime-novel publishers...led to the design of the gaudily colored but eye-catching ‘illuminated’ covers of the New Dime Novel Series." So began the modern era of paperback cover illustration, followed by the illustrated dust jacket for hardbound books.

Are book covers marketing devices or artistic statements of literary themes? Undoubtedly they are both, as this display will illustrate.

A Bibliography of Books Displayed in "The Art of the Western"


Bonn, Thomas L.  Under Cover: an Illustrated History of American Mass-Market Paperbacks.  New York: Penguin Books, 1982.

Davis, Robert Murray.  Playing Cowboys: Low Culture and High Art in the Western.Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

Dinan, John A. The Pulp Western: A Popular History of the Western Fiction Magazine in America.San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1988. 

Jones, Daryl.  The Dime Novel Western. Bowling Green, Ohio: Popular Press,  Bowling Green University, 1978. 

Tuska, Jon. and Vicki Piekerski. Encyclopedia of Frontier and Western Fiction.  New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983.

Avery,  Henry M. Old Bear Paw, the Trapper King, or, The Love of a Blackfoot  Queen. New York: Beadle and Adams, 1873, 1878 (no. 100)

Balch, Glenn.  Grass Greed.  New York: Ace Books, 1959. 

Balch, Glenn.  Indian Paint: the Story of an Indian Pony  New York:  Grosset, 1942. 

Balch, Glenn. Indian Saddle-Up. New York: Crowell, 1953. 

Balch, Glenn. Wild Horse. New York: Crowell, 1947. 

Bowen, James.  The Mohegan Maiden, or, The Stranger of the Settlement: a Story of the King Philip’s War. New York: Beadle and Adams, 1867, 1880 (no. 138)

Bowman, Earl Wayland.  The Ramblin’ Kid.  Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1920. 

Burroughs, Edgar Rice.  Apache Devil.  New York: Grosset, 1933. 

Bush, Kenneth W.  Crown of Terror.  Philadelphia: Dorrance, 1970. 

Clark, Charles Dunning.  The Shawnee’s Foe, or the Hunter of Juniata. New York: Ivers, 1908. 

Crow, Donna Fletcher.  Kathryn: Daughters of Courage.  Chicago: Moody Press, 1992. 

Ellis, Edward Sylvester.  The War Tiger of the Modocs.  New York: Ivers, 1908. 

Fisher, Clay.  Return of the Tall Man.  Toronto, New York: Bantam, 1961, 1972. 

Fisher, Clay.  Warbonnet. Toronto, New York: Bantam, 1970, 1979. 

Gann, Walter.  The Trail Boss.  Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1937. 

Grey, Zane.  Riders of the Purple Sage.  Roslyn, NY : Black, 1940. 

Harman, Fred.  Bronc Peeler: The Lone Cowboy. Racine, Wisconsin:  Whitman Pub., 1937. 

Haycox, Ernest. The Border Trumpet. New York: Pocket Books, 1945. 

Haycox, Ernest.  Guns of Fury; Night Raid.  New York: Tower Publications, 1967. 

Haycox, Ernest.  Head of the Mountain.  New York: Popular Library, 1959. 

Haycox, Ernest.  Rawhide Range.  New York: Popular Library, 1959.         

Haycox, Ernest.  Rim of the Desert. New York: Paperback Library, 1963, 1969. 

Haycox, Ernest. The Silver Desert. New York: Popular Library, 1961. 

Henry, Will.  To Follow a Flag. New York: Random House, 1953. 

Holm, Stef Ann.  Silver Desires.  New York: Leisure Books, 1990. 

Hooker, Forrestine Cooper.  The Long Dim Trail. London: Mills & Boon, 1922. 

Jones, L. Augustus.  The Wooden-Legged Spy.  New York: Ivers, 1909. 

L’Amour, Louis. Comstock Lode.  Toronto, New York: Pocket Books, 1945. 

L’Amour, Louis. The Haunted Mesa. Toronto, New York: Bantam, 1987, 1988. 

L’Amour, Louis.  Hondo. New York: Fawcett, 1953. 

L’Amour, Louis. The Key-Lock Man.  Toronto, New York: Bantam, 1965, 1971. 

L’Amour, Louis. The Outlaws of Mesquite: Frontier Stories. New York: Bantam, 1990. 

Le May, Alan.  Painted Ponies. New York: Doubleday, Doran and Company, 1927. 

Manfred, Frederick. King of Spades.  New York: Pocket Books, 1966, 1968. 

Manfred, Frederick. King of Spades. New York: New American Library, 1966, 1973. 

Overholser, Wayne D.  Buckeroo’s Code.  New York: Macmillan, 1947. 

Short, Luke.  And the Wind Blows Free.  New York: Bantam, 1945, 1965. 

Short, Luke.  King Colt. New York: Dell, 1957. 

Short, Luke. Trigger Country:  a Western. London, Hammond, 1965. 

Stephens, Ann S.  Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter.  New York: Beadle, 1860. 

Wheeler, R. L.  Old Jack’s Frontier Cabin.  New York: Ivers,  1908. 

Wheeler, R. L.  Wild Tom of Wyoming.  New York: Ivers, 1908. 

Whittaker, Frederick. Hawk-eye the Hunter. New York: Ivers, 1908 

Whittaker, Frederick.  Hunters and Redskins.  New York: Ivers, 1909

Whittaker, Frederick. Wapawkaneta, or, The Rangers of the Oneida. New York: Ivers 1908. 

Willett,  Edward.  Black Arrow, the Avenger, or, Judge Lynch on the Border. New York:  Beadle and Adams, 1871, 1878 (no. 91)

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