The Pulitzer Bookshelf: The American West

Many Pulitzer Prize-winning novelists have used the American West as an integral setting for their prose. These writers have examined the unique themes of rugged independence, the arid and vast wilderness, the subjugation and mistreatment of native peoples, and the West’s sometimes tenuous relationship with the civilized, cultured, urban east. The following Pulitzer Prize-winning books all focus on the people, the places, and the spirit of the West.

A.B. Guthrie’s The Way West brings the reader along as a wagon train departs Missouri and traverses west along the Oregon Trail. The novel helped develop the popular view of Western progress in the 1950s and after the novel (part of a six book series) won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, it was adapted into a 1967 film starring Kirk Douglass, Robert Mitchum, and Richard Widmark. 

Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday won the 1969 fiction prize for his short novel House Made of Dawn focusing on the life of Abel, a Pueblo from New Mexico that is torn between the traditional ways of his tribe, and modern American life.  The book made Momaday an important Native American literary voice that was able to blend a modernist structure with themes of cultural appropriation, assimilation, and the reclaiming of Native identity. Momaday also helped work on the screenplay adaptation of the book for a film version that was released in 1972.

The epic love story between mining engineer Oliver Ward and his wife Susan, an accomplished illustrator and artist from the east’s Hudson River School creates the narrative spine of Wallace Stegner’s 1972 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Angle of Repose. Oliver and Susan’s story, which takes place between 1868 and 1891, is discovered by their grandson Lyman, and the narrative structure alternates between the settling of the West and present day Grass Valley, California. Stegner based the work of fiction on the journals of accomplished illustrator Mary Hallock Foote, the basis for the Susan Ward character. 

Larry McMurtry’s characters, former Texas Rangers Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call, have become part of modern Western mythology. The two men drive a herd of cattle from Texas to Montana in McMurtry’s tome Lonesome Dove. The novel, winner of the 1985 Pulitzer Prize, tells a far-reaching story of an immense and untamed land through a close focus on the detailed and fully-realized characters. McMurtry originally envisioned the story as a film script (it was slated to star Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne and Henry Fonda). After the novel won the Pulitzer, McMurtry adapted it into the iconic miniseries starring Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, and Robert Urich in the roles that had originally been intended for the giants of Hollywood’s golden age of the Western.

 

Further down the shelf:

Many other Pulitzer Prize-winning novelists have explored the themes and characters of the American West in some of their other works. Cormac McCarthy (who won the 2007 Fiction award for his post-apocalyptic The Road) explored the dark side of the men who settled the Southwestern frontier in his epic and disturbing Blood Meridian, and further delved into the myth of the modern West in the novels All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain (collectively known as “The Border Trilogy”) and No Country for Old Men which examines the violent world of drug cartels on the Texas/Mexico border. Annie Proulx, who won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her  Newfoundland-set novel The Shipping News also penned the excellent short story collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories which included the love story “Brokeback Mountain” which challenged the myth of the American cowboy and was later adapted into a film of the same name (and for which Larry McMurtry wrote the screenplay, along with Diana Ossana.) Novelist Richard Ford won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel Independence Day, the second of his four novel series featuring retired New Jersey sportswriter Frank Bascome. Ford has explored the modern West in his gritty story collection Rock Springs as well as the Montana and Alberta-set novel Canada, both of which explore the rough, stoic, and independent characters of the Northwest.