It's no secret that for the last year plus, I've been reading primarily westerns. Western novels, short stories, cowboy poetry, non-fiction, analysis and criticisms. One person has been a constant touchstone as I've interrogated, thought about, and had conversations with the genre.
One of my most heavily thumbed through books has been the Encyclopedia of Frontier & Western Fiction by Jon Tuska and Vicki Piekarski. I often refer to its entries and consult it often.
Because Jon Tuska was likely the greatest western fiction scholar of the last 50 years. There are two traits that are worth mentioning. First, the amount of research, reading, and watching he did was immense and it was obvious he had a love for the genre and loved writing about it. Second, his writings were easily accessible. They weren't locked up in academic or dedicated journals, they were available to readers in readily available books, introductions to anthologies that he edited, talks that he gave.If you thought about westerns at all, there was a good chance you came across his work.
The Encyclopedia is an interesting book. It was published in 1983, a year before Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy and Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry were published. It's interesting, unintentional, timing to say the least. Two atom bombs went off in the genre and this is a book that doesn't deal with them because it can't.
I would have liked to ask Tuska about that timing, and what his opinions were of those two books. It was that stray thought that made me wonder if any contact info was out there for him, and sent me to Google. Which is when I discovered that Jon Tuska died earlier this year.
I don't always agree with some of Jon Tuska's conclusions (I think he was, perhaps, more of a traditionalist than I was), and sometimes he was just wrong ("I seriously doubt that Clint Eastwood will have Duke Wayne's staying power")but I continue to respect his opinion and the work that went into forming it. There have been times when I have formed an opinion or drawn a conclusion, only to discover that Tuska got there first
I'll leave you now with Jon Tuska, in his own words, on the Western.
The story of the American West, truly, has nothing to do with heroes and romance; it is rather a question of human endurance in the face of tragedy and defeat. But in tragedy combined with human endurance, in spiritual resilience in the face of disaster, as writers since Aeschylus and Sophocles have known, there is the potential for human nobility. Most of the best fiction about the American West is about man in nature, not the denatured, mechanical, sterile world that has come increasingly to serve as a backdrop for human activity in other kids of fiction. Indeed, in finding some good in our American past, albeit in these more realistic terms, we might well entertain some hope for the future. In this way the American West remains what the Native Americans always thought it to be; the land beyond the setting sun, the Spiritland. The Delphic γνῶθι σεαυτὸν [know thyself] is deepened and broadened by the new experiences on a new continent; our collective idea of humanity is strengthened through a more truthful understanding and assimilation of our historical past. -- From Jon Tuska's introduction to the Encyclopedia of Frontier & Western Fiction (1983)And finally:
I suppose the Western motion picture symbolizes and compresses a basic view of the changing morality, ideals, ambitions, , aspirations, and the fears, insecurities, doubts, and self-interrogations of the American people. In the end, the Western may indeed propound the American philosophy of life and the manner of confronting adversity amid hostile elements of raw nature and human evil. The conquest of a continent and the conquest of the personality are, to me, the Western's most dominant themes. it isn't reality, nor has it ever generally pretended to be. The Western is a living legend of our frontier history, altered to meet the differing needs of changing times. It frequently represent an innately heroic concept of man and his possibilities. The Western, even in its latest evolutionary forms, captures the game atmosphere, the optimism toward life true of our adventurers, the mythical cowboys of the great Southwest, the easygoing and capable fashion with which frustrations are met and solved, or the anguish with which the self-divisions and despair at the barren futility of an unsympathetic environment threaten, even destroy, but cannot extinguish the integrity of the individual's right to be himself. For me, the Western is the infusing of the human soul with the expanding and always imperiled vision of liberty. -- From Jon Tuska's The Filming of the West (1975)I just wanted to take a moment to point out the passing of a great writer.