Mark Twain is one of my favorite Western authors. Whenever I tell someone that, their immediate reaction is that Twain was not a Western writer. When I point out that his nineteenth-century stories take place on the frontier, skeptics usually make some comment about the lack of six-guns, cowboy hats, and black-hearted desperados. I suggest they revisit the books. Injun Joe wasn’t sitting in the pew next to Tom on Sunday mornings, and poor Tom got shot in the leg in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Mark Twain knew the real West as few other authors. His memoir, Roughing It, tells about his experiences as a newspaper reporter in Virginia City when it was as rough as any cow town and six-guns were always at the ready. Twain actually lived the Wild West and wrote about the American frontier. That makes him a Western writer in my book.
Owen Wister was another great author who experienced the real western frontier. In fact, many scenes in The Virginian come directly from his notes taken during his summer sojourns to Wyoming in the late 1880s. Currently, I’m reading An Editor on the Comstock Lode by Wells Drury. Drury was a newspaper editor in Virginia City after Mark Twain had departed, but the hillside town was still wildly fun and dangerous as hell.
What struck me is the common cultural trait that permeates the writing of Twain, Wister, and Drury. It appears the most common characteristic of the real Old West was not gun fights, but practical jokes. All three authors relate yarns about hijinks and pranks, some of which required the participation of a large number of people—sometimes almost the entire town against one or two people not in on the joke. Westerners evidently loved practical jokes; the more elaborate the better.
Thinking on this brought to mind the Earps. They are often criticized by their detractors as small-time swindlers. Besides some more serious accusations, the Earps supposedly rigged bets to determine who would pay for drinks. Some biographers use these accusations to illustrate an unsavory aspect of their character. Perhaps. On the other hand, maybe these authors didn't understand the culture of the real Old West.