There are so many incredible things to be inspired by in the American West, but the literature of the American West is a true hallmark of the genre. The American West is still a harsh land of the unknown where characters are forced to deal with a powerful, often hostile, landscape. In many cases this basic struggle is what drives the narrative or allows the characters to fully realize themselves. The particular realities of the American West environment is at the very core of what separates a Western from a New York novel. There are many authors who were inspired by the American West and went on to study and write about the wonder of the desert, but there are some who stand out among the rest. Here is a list of our favorite authors who were truly above and beyond inspired by the American West.
Born in North Dakota in 1908, Louis L’Amour published several short stories, but it was his first Western novel, Hondo (1953), that gained him instant success. While L’Amour later wrote works in different genres, it was his many Westerns that gained him great popularity among readers. L’Amour died on June 10, 1988, in Los Angeles, California. Having written more than 100 books and 400 short stories, he remains one of the most prolific and popular authors in the world. Although L’Amour later wrote a non-fiction book about the frontier, and numerous film and television scripts, it was his many Westerns that gained him great popularity among a wide spectrum of readers. His most popular books include 1960’s Flint, 1963’s Catlow and 1968’s Down the Long Hills, along with the Sackett Family series, which was adapted for a television miniseries in 1979.
One day I was speeding along at the typewriter, and my daughter – who was a child at the time – asked me, ‘Daddy, why are you writing so fast?’ And I replied, ‘Because I want to see how the story turns out!’ – Louis L’Amour
Having written more than 100 books and 400 short stories, L’Amour remains one of the most prolific and popular authors in the world. There are more than 200 million copies of his books in print and more than 45 of his novels were adapted into Hollywood films. L’Amour defined the West for millions of his loyal readers, but Durango was partly defined by his larger-than-life presence, validation that the Old West remains a fixture in the heart of the San Juans. Many of his stories were made into films and John Wayne once made the dubious assertion that L’Amour was the most interesting man in the world. Love his work? Check out our Tombstone Day Tour for a day right out of your favorite L’Amour novel!
Karl May is an adventure writer from the late nineteenth century whom most Americans have never heard of but whose stories of the American West are to this day better known to Germans than the works of Thomas Mann. Though May never visited the American West, he told everyone that he had, and he wore a necklace of bear teeth, as if in proof. All his life, he was a confabulator, even when it was of no benefit to him and his books have sold more than a hundred million copies. May’s most beloved characters are a noble Apache leader named Winnetou and his blood brother, Old Shatterhand, a German immigrant to the United States. The good friends feature in fifteen of May’s eighty-odd works and are central in a series of films from the nineteen-sixties which were so successful that they are said, with only some exaggeration, to have saved the West German film industry. If you love the stories of Karl May, you’ll love our National Parks & Native Lands multi-day tour!
May wrote about the strong, silent man of the western plains and the Rocky Mountains. May’s stories are modern mythologies; the good man encounters evil men with whom he must struggle, good always prevailing in the end. His hero is a knight errant on a crusade against crime and wickedness. – Walther Ilmer
Tony Hillerman was born in 1925, in Sacred Heart, Oklahoma. Although he was raised among the Pottawatomie and Seminole Indians and studied at an Indian boarding school, Tony Hillerman is not Native American. He attended Oklahoma State University (1943), the University of Oklahoma (B.A. 1946), and the University of New Mexico (M.A. 1966). He worked as a journalist in Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico (1948-63), lived in Albuquerque, and taught journalism at the University of New Mexico (1976-85). He has written numerous mystery novels drawing on Native American culture, the most successful featuring Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Tribal Police. His many bestselling novels include Sacred Clowns, Coyote Waits, and A Thief of Time.
I know what I write about seems exotic to a lot of people, but not for me. I pulled up to an old trading post and saw a few elderly Navajos sitting on a bench. I felt right at home. – Tony Hillerman
Tony Hillerman’s 18 mystery novels, set in the Navajo lands of south-west America, earned him first a cult following and later best-seller status. But for Hillerman, the greatest honor was being named in 1987 a special friend of the Dineh, this being the Navajo’s word for the people, or themselves. The strength of his books lies in their sympathy with the culture they detail. Hillerman’s stories often feature conflicts between the American legal system and traditional Navajo definitions of crimes or criminals. Concepts of tribal harmony often transcend the law, and the Navajo are often far more sensitive to moral weakness than the white society that surrounds them. “I’d like people to see the strength and dignity of a culture I admire,” said Hillerman, who was especially concerned in his later books with the “negative value” Navajo culture places on greed, or acquiring more of anything than you need. Interested in Native American culture like Mr. Hillerman? You’ll love our Navajo & Hopi Nations Tour!
Christine K. Bailey
While the American West of the past came to life in the pages of these classic Western novels, Arizona travel writer Christine K. Bailey is exploring the American West of today and helping others discover the West with books like the popular 100 Things to do in Phoenix Before You Die. When she moved from Chicago to Arizona, Christine had big dreams of roaming the world, but with her family life and full-time job as an event planner, she started out exploring her own backyard instead, and fell in love with the American West. Bailey has chronicled her modern explorations in numerous print and online publications, such as Arizona Highroads and AZ Wine Lifestyle Magazine, and written several books documenting her discoveries and helping fellow Southwest adventurers navigate the best attractions, food, experiences, and hidden gems of Arizona.
If you’re interested in following in Christine’s footsteps, join us on our Apache Trail Tour, which she recommends in 100 Things to Do in Phoenix Before You Die. And, if you’re interested in a more eclectic side of Phoenix, check out Christine’s newly-released book, Secret Phoenix: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure. Whether you’re a first-time visitor or a long-time resident, Christine’s collection of stories, travel tips, and must-see’s is sure to teach you something new and interesting about Arizona culture. Also, be sure to stop by Four Peaks in Tempe on September 6th from 5pm-7pm to meet Christine and snag your signed copy of Secret Phoenix!
Have a favorite book or author that you don’t see on our list? Share your favorite American West inspired authors below!