By Celeste Hoover
Runaway cattle-rustlers, saloon shoot-outs, and frontier posses—these tropes and countless others of the American Wild West have achieved immortality through the dime western novel. Originally written as one-off serials or pamphlets in the late 19th century, the plots of dime westerns center on easily recognizable clichés: the ranger new in town, the lady in distress, and sheriffs forever chasing after outlaws. At face value, the dime western is an entertaining and amusing collection of tropes meant to distract the reader with idyllic visions of pioneer living. However, the genre is also a study of American history and culture. Its tropes reveal an underlying system of justice and righteousness. For generations, these mass production paperbacks and their cowboy protagonists have embodied a unique morality for American readers. For better or worse, the cowboy and his tropes have grown into an iconic part of the American character.
His virtuous intentions are praised and rewarded with a wife and land—yet his dangerous methods remain unaddressed.
The Dime Western Cowboy Defined
The dime novel churns out the quintessential, cowboy protagonist through formulaic plots and casts. Persistent tropes include some of the western cowboy’s most enduring and hilariously exaggerated characteristics. A loner by nature, the cowboy enters town as a mysterious stranger. Only the occasional love interest is able to pierce his toughened exterior. Despite a lack of education, he possesses a kind of country intellectualism; he is able to comprehend the old town and its customs almost immediately. Where his intellect fails, his other nearly supernatural abilities of gun-slinging, horse-taming, and seduction are more than enough to help the cowboy escape any close scrapes. And scrapes are never too far away. A strong sense of moral justice, despite the law, places him in the role of vigilante, fighting against the tyrannical authority of the town. This character and the tropes that surround him have created a persistent literary iconography around the cowboy.
Cowboy Morality and American Identity
The Cattle Queen of Montana, written by Elizabeth Collins in 1894, further builds on this ideal frontier hero. The novel conforms to almost all the clichés of the genre mentioned above, yet it is worth examining for the fact that almost a century later, Ronald Regan would play the protagonist in its movie adaptation. Voters were without a doubt influenced by Reagan’s performance. He even purposely appealed to the popularity of the cowboy character in his famous 1984 campaign poster, which pictured him wearing a classic Stetson hat. The fact that a U.S. president was able to capitalize on the American idealization of the dime cowboy is a testament to how deeply rooted admiration of the character is in our social and political culture.
Reagan is cast as Farrell, the hired gun with a heart of gold, who ultimately falls for the heiress Cattle Queen. Swayed by her kindness and charity, he gives up a sordid career to help reclaim her family’s land. Farrell’s shift in priorities illustrates the self-determined morality of the western. He goes outside the law and engages in violent shoot-outs, all in the name of protecting the innocent lady in distress. His virtuous intentions are praised and rewarded with a wife and land—yet his dangerous methods remain unaddressed. The morality idolized by the dime novel is bloody and unrepentant.
In 1872, after the completion of the Pacific Railroad and ‘settling’ of the West, Mark Twain published his great western, semi-autobiographical novel, Roughing It. Twain’s contribution to the dime elevated the genre from cheap popular literature into the American literary canon. Often called the Father of American Literature, his contribution to the dime western places the cowboy alongside other iconically American characters like Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Twain’s legendary status in American history has made his dignified cowboy with a set of morals an integral part of our national identity.
Mark Twain once called the genre “bloodthirstly interesting”.
However, it is important to examine those morals and their basis. Twain’s cowboy takes the form of a ‘civilized’ eastern student thrown into the rough-and-tumble chaos of the Wild West. In confronting murderous prospectors, stage-coach robbers, and other outlaws, Twain’s protagonist must rely on an inner sense of morality to find his place among Western villains. His cowboy justifies the actions of some, based on what he alone judges as their noble intentions, yet insists on delivering others unto the law. He develops a sense of self-respect and ‘manly’ dignity through this entirely arbitrary moral code. Once again, the dime praises a sense of morality based on nothing but inner conviction, without regard for the bloody effects of the cowboy’s actions.
The Dangerous Legacy of Cowboy Clichés
Mark Twain once called the genre “bloodthirstly interesting”. Dime authors often appealed to gorey plotlines to increase sales, making the cowboy protagonist a ruthless deliverer of his own justice. This violence also often involved racial violence directed towards Native American characters, who were repeatedly caricatured and abused by the cowboy to display his own sense of justice in white society. Even Ronald Reagan’s cowboy character is originally hired to drive Native Americans off white homesteader’s land claims.
Similarly, dimes often presented glorified depictions of the Antebellum South. Plot lines and protagonists often have strong ties to the old Confederacy. Mark Twain’s dime cowboy is a prime example of the Southern ‘war hero’ who has since turned to western adventure. Discussion on the ethics of slavery or acknowledgement of the existence of black cowboys is almost non-existent. The dime western and its racially-coded sense of morality treat these conflicts in a deeply problematic way that is barely addressed today.
The Modern Cowboy
The dime cowboy and his paradoxical morality are still widely popular in modern media. ‘Western’ streaming shows, video games, and movies successfully draw on many of the dime’s tropes to entice an American audience. For example, the HBO show Westworld places the typical Western plot and characters into a dystopian setting. Wealthy customers are invited to live out their cowboy fantasies in a fictional and technologically advanced Wild West amusement park. The popular and critically acclaimed show has been nominated for 54 emmys and won nine of them. Clearly, something of the cowboy still appeals to American audiences. Yet, the premise of the show also participates in the dime’s dubious sense of morality. The park is originally designed to allow customers to live out their wildest, and often violent, Western fantasties without fear of retaliation. With this power, they attempt to recreate the glorified actions of the American cowboy, gun fights and massacres galore, without moral repercussions. Moreover, though the show’s cast is diverse, its audience demographics are 76% white. Like the dimes novels before it, Westworld appeals to a mostly white audience, and the cowboy’s ambiguous morality persists alongside his reputation of racial violence.
The future of the genre depends on a thorough understanding of exactly what the cowboy glorifies.
The popular video game Red Dead Redemption takes a different approach to dime morals. It places the player directly into the role of the cowboy, trekking through the historical Wild West to find justice for their family. While players complete objectives and interact with characters, they are bound to an ‘Honor Code’ based upon their actions. Actions like saving civilians or aiding lawmen will earn the player ‘honor points.’ Other actions, like aiding thieves or violence against civilians, will deduct from their ‘honor points.’ The game describes this honor code as a “system that serves to measure the social acceptability of the protagonists’ actions.” Morality is not based in the player’s own sense of right and wrong, but in strict law. Through this, Red Dead Redemption attempts to redefine cowboy morality, basing it more closely on what is acceptable today, but still allowing the bloodiness that seems to be inseparable from the genre.
The Future of the Cowboy
Despite its problematic history and arbitrary and racially biased sense of justice, cowboy narratives continue to draw large American audiences. The future of the genre depends on a thorough understanding of exactly what the cowboy glorifies, his dangerous tropes, and the dime western’s lasting effects on American culture.