Though set in the American West, Montana 1948 is far from your typical Western novel. In interviews Larry Watson himself rejects the “Western” label, afraid of limiting himself to a distinct style of writing. He does however acknowledge that much of his writing deals with disrupting the American West myth and examining the dissonance between myth and reality (Vaughn 2017). For this reason Watson’s writing seems to belong in the Revisionist Western genre more than the Western genre. A description of each is provided below.
The literary genre of Western fiction is set in the American West typically from the late 18th to the late 19th century. The first “westerners” were stories about the American frontier published in the early 1800s. The most popular of these works was James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales series, which The Last of the Mohicans belongs to. From these frontier novels the classic Western novel as we know it today was born. A story named Malaeska; the Indian Wife of the White Hunter published in June 1860 is widely considered one of the first published Western novels.
As a genre, Western novels often feature a nomadic cowboy or gunfighter who is tasked with some mission, whether it be seeking revenge, tracking down a quarry, protecting innocents, or defending territory against a Native American attack. Another common characteristic is the depiction of nature as a vast, harsh, and desolate landscape. This feeds into a major theme of Western novels, which is the conquest and subordination of that landscape in the name of civilization, often at the expense of its original Native American owners. This almost always results in conflict between the conquering cowboy and Native Americans, who in the earliest Westerners are depicted as dishonorable villains. In recent years, Western novels have begun to paint Native Americans in a more sympathetic light. A final key characteristic of the Western novel is “frontier justice,” or a society organized by the individual codes of honor, and personal, direct, and subjective justice. This frontier justice is contrasted with universal rules of law that are established by governments, maintained via impersonal methods like the court system, and found only in cities.
The Revisionist Western genre is a subgenre of the broader Western genre. This genre gained traction in the mid-1960s and early-1970s, when post-World War II Western novels and films began to question the ideals and style of traditional Westerners. One of these ideals was the classic depictions of cowboys and Native Americans as, respectively, the good guys and bad guys. Instead of the typical, simple hero vs. villain dualism, Revisionist Westerners depict a world where heroes and villains actually resemble each other. In this way ethics ceased being black and white, and instead occupied a morally gray area. Besides simply troubling the cowboys vs. Indians dualism, Revisionist Western media reconfigured the representation of Native Americans entirely, humanizing them in a way that previously hadn’t been done. Another key trait of the Revisionist Western genre is the analysis and critique of American society and values. The image of the dangerous yet idealistic American West is shattered, and it’s revealed to have many of the same problems the “civilized” parts of the United States grapple with.