Is the Traditional American Western Dead?

Mike Torreano author photoRelevant History welcomes Mike Torreano, who has a military background and is a student of the American West. He fell in love with Zane Grey’s novels in the fifth grade. He has taught University English and Journalism and is a member of The Historical Novel Society and Western Writers of America. He brings his readers back in time as he recreates western life in the late nineteenth century. For more information about him and his books, visit his web site, and follow him on Facebook.


South Park ColoradoMy western mystery, The Reckoning, was released last year by The Wild Rose Press. It’s set in 1868 and follows Ike McAlister, a Union soldier who returns from the Civil War to his hometown of Lawrence, Kansas to find his parents have been killed by Quantrill’s raiders. He sets out on a single-minded hunt to find the murderers, a search which takes him to the high plains of Colorado.

I’ve heard some people say the traditional American western is dead—all of which prompts the question, ‘If that’s so, why write a western?’ Well, it’s true the golden age of westerns was some time back. Since then, there’s been a bit of a dry spell until recently when several big box office westerns have been released.

Are they’re coming back? I don’t know, but I hope so. Why would they be mounting a return? Perhaps because westerns and the Old West embody timeless values, places where right triumphs over wrong. Not always, certainly, but you get the idea. The American West in the nineteenth century was a black and white society with clear-cut rules—there were things you were supposed to do as well as things you weren’t. And if you did wrong, there were consequences, oftentimes immediate.

Code of the West
There was a code of the West, even among the bad guys. Simple rules for simpler times. Unwritten, but adhered to nonetheless. The Code drew its strength from the underlying character of westerners, both men and women alike. Life back then was hard, but it was also simple. Things that needed to get done got done. Whining wasn’t tolerated. Complainers were ignored. You weren’t a victim; you just played the hand you were dealt.

If you’re getting the idea I like that kind of culture, I guess you’re right.

The world we live in today sometimes baffles me. Everything seems to be different shades of gray. Honor and fidelity seem to be out of fashion. Our culture is filled with victims. People are entitled. The media are advocates, not observers.

While the Code of the West was unwritten and existed in various forms, there were certain common elements everyone—from the hard-working sodbuster, to the law-abiding citizen, to the hardened criminal—typically abided by. Granted, there were exceptions, but generally that held true.

In 2004, Jim Owens synthesized the Code into ten guiding principles in his book, Cowboy Ethics-What Wall Street Can Learn from the Code of the West.

  • 1. Live each day with courage.
  • 2. Take pride in your work.
  • 3. Always finish what you start.
  • 4. Do what has to be done.
  • 5. Be tough, but fair.
  • 6. Keep your promises.
  • 7. Ride for the brand.
  • 8. Talk less and say more.
  • 9. Some things aren’t for sale.
  • 10. Know where to draw the line.

Let’s look at three of these.

How about number seven—Ride for the brand. It means be loyal to the people in your life—from family and friends, to those you work for. It’s the idea when you’re involved with someone, you should be loyal to them.

Take a look at number four—Do what has to be done. Life is oftentimes messy. Our days are filled with ups and downs, and we make choices all the time. This is about choosing to get done what has to be done, then getting on with something else.

Next, there’s number nine—Some things aren’t for sale. The Code gave westerners a guide to live by that they broke at their own peril. Are there still things today that aren’t for sale? What are they for you? They might be different for each of us, but at the end of the day I’d wager we all still have values that are non-negotiable. After all, values don’t really change—only times, circumstances, and people do. So, if that’s true, then nineteenth century America is still relevant to today’s America.

Out where the West begins
Out Where the West BeginsThe good news is the values the Code embodied haven’t vanished, but more often than not they seem to have been marginalized. Popular culture tends to look down on old-time values, or should I say the timeless values of nineteenth century America. We’re an instant gratification society that focuses on the here and now, and too often disregards the lessons of the past. Imagine a world where you sat with your family for dinner at night, sometimes even talking with each other. A novel concept. Imagine a world where a man’s word, and a woman’s, was their bond. Where handshakes took the place of fifty-page contracts. These principles were captured by Arthur Chapman in “Out Where the West Begins,” a poem he wrote in 1917.

Where there’s more of singing and less of sighing,
Where there’s more of giving and less of buying,
And a man makes friends without half trying—
That where the West begins.

So, yes, occasionally I yearn for those simpler times amid the hustle and bustle of our world. We’re inundated with various media from morning to night. Sometimes Ike’s and Lorraine’s, my main characters, simple, straightforward lives look pretty appealing. Especially now.

Westerns serve to remind us of our solid roots, and that’s why they will never die.


The Reckoning book cover imageA big thanks to Mike Torreano. He’ll give away a trade paperback copy of The Reckoning to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available in the U.S. only.


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Is the Traditional American Western Dead? — 28 Comments

  1. What a great perspective, Mike. Thanks for sharing about “Cowboy Ethics,” and summing up the Code of the West so well. You’ve reminded me of the rich western history and values — things to be thankful for and not be taken for granted.

  2. Great post, Mike! You would’ve liked my father-in-law as he had a similar philosophy and was a huge fan of westerns. Oh, and a very astute comment re: the media’s role now as advocate versus observer. Best of luck on the series!

  3. I loved reading this post, Mike. The parallels you put to the reader between the Code of the West and today’s world is definitely something to think about, especially the similarities. I treasure family values more than what is posted on social media; I like sitting at the dinner table and being able to talk to one another. I know I’ve learned from the many Westerns I’ve seen or read. I wish everyone could do the same if they took the time…

  4. Really interesting article. I grew up on the high plains in Colorado and have heard some really interesting stories about the past there.

  5. Hi Mike !
    I enjoy reading books about Civil War veterans and their lives after the war. Their lives must have been deeply affected by it. It wouldn’t be surprising if they would want to start out with a clean slate and start a new life–the West would be a great place to do that. Your character has a particular reason for going West, but I can imagine that the life there would appeal to him.To be able to live by a code of principles after going through a war in which many principles were thrown out the window, might be just the way for a veteran to start over. Your book sounds like the perfect vehicle for a young Clint Eastwood !

    • Thanks Gail! You’re right about the starting over part. Lots of veterans came west after the war-most to make a new start. It helped that the Code gave them some structure to live by. All in all, a great time in our history.
      Who would play Clint today? I’ve given that some thought but haven’t come up with a name yet. :)

      • Chris Pine, indeed! You must have seen the (contemporary) Western “Hell or High Water.” EXCELLENT movie & should have won more awards. Excellent cast (to include Chris Pine) Of course I enjoy “old” Clint Eastwood, who is still awesome in Westerns (think “Unforgiven” which thankfully *did* win a ton of awards, including Best Director for Clint, who also starred in the movie) I also love to watch all of Clint’s old spaghetti Westerns–especially those scored by Ennio Morricone. Just doesn’t get much better than that!

  6. I have loved Westerns my entire life. My beloved Gramps sucked me into this as a child. We watched ALL the old Western series & movies. When I was old enough, I read all of his Zane Grey (the NYC dentist! But hey–his books are a common “gateway drug” to more historically accurate Westerns) My love of Westerns cursed me, because instead of becoming a professional rider (show jumping) for which I could have made $$$, after I got out of the Army, I became a working Cowgirl & worked 12-16 (sometimes more!) days 7 days a week for a pittance. Oh well…I got to the live the life out here in the West.

      • After I retire, I’ll get back to writing Westerns again (I do have a couple of “contemporary” Westerns–my literary mainstream the agent took along with my historical Western was one, as well as my series mysteries) But for now, I’m busy trying to find an agent for my upmarket Historicals set in early 6th century Scandinavia.

  7. Good thoughts, Mike! I have always loved westerns. My favorite book of all time is Lonesome Dove. Such hard times, but as you say, everyone knew where they stood. When I was a girl, I wrote to Warner Brothers Studios requesting a picture of Sugarfoot. I got a photo in the mail of all the popular TV cowboys….I was in heaven! Just watched FORSAKEN last night with Kiefer and Donald Sutherland. It has all those lovely, simple old west values. I would love to read your book.

    • Isn’t it fun to like something so much? You can find The Reckoning on Amazon under my name. Getting great reviews. Sequel is at my publisher’s now, waiting to hear.

  8. I would say no. I also don’t think they ever went away to be making a comeback now. I do think the traditional western tends to get buried a bit on FB and elsewhere by the romantic westerns.

  9. Glad to hear your answer to Kevin. I write western romances set in from 1873-1890. Your post was excellent. I believe the reason westerns/western romances will always be popular is that people yearn for those qualities of the Code of the West. Although I love my modern appliances and air-conditioning and wouldn’t want to live in the 19th century, I do enjoy reading about and immersing myself in that time period. So glad Suzanne had you on her blog today! Best wishes for continued success!