New Perspectives on THE WEST
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Making Myths: The West in Public and Private Writings

Grade level: 7-12

In this lesson, students will read selections from the works of Bret Harte, Owen Wister, Zane Grey, and Willa Cather. They will place them on a time line of writers about the West and select elements in their works that demonstrate a distinctly Western voice. They will determine how these works came to typify a western mythic image, and contrast these versions of the West with the diaries and letters of the pioneers who documented their own travails. Finally, each student will select a work from contemporary Western literature to read and analyze in depth. In their final assignment they will compare the perspective of the author of their work with the writers read in the first part of the lesson.

Estimated Time
Necessary Materials
Teaching Procedure
Assessment Recommendations
Recommended Resources
Relevant National Standards


Students will:

  • see how popular writing about the West has shaped and continues to influence readers' perceptions and public images of life on the frontier,
  • contrast the fictional West with the true West in the private writings of participants in the rigors of the migration and settlement process, and
  • help students analyze the role of voice and style in a work of literature.

Estimated Time
4-8 50-minute class periods, plus time outside of class for reading.

Necessary Materials

  • Copies of the following texts
    (all texts are available online from the Gutenberg Project at
    • "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" and "Brown of Calaveras" by Bret Harte
    • the first four chapters of The Virginian by Owen Wister
    • "Chapter XIII Solitude and Storm" from Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey
    • Chapters 1 and 2 of O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
  • Computers with Internet Access
  • A printer
  • A copy of the PBS Video The West, Episodes 3, 4, 6, 8
  • Student log books

Teaching Procedure

  1. Begin this lesson by discussing with students the term, "historical fiction." Ask them to provide examples from their own reading of books that exemplify the genre. How do writers of historical fiction get their information? What is factually true and what is truly fictional about these works?

  2. Also ask them to define the genre "romance." Ask students to name works that can be characterized as "regional" writing and works that include "dialect" or attempts to reproduce regional speech patterns. Have them make charts or webs of these different literary genres and examples.

  3. For homework, have them bring to class a current fiction best-seller list to analyze and categorize according to the types they have discussed and others they may discover. Ask them what makes "popular" fiction popular? How do people learn about new works? What makes them best sellers?

  4. Discuss the influence of publicity and advertising in promoting the sale and reading of new books. Discuss historical fiction they know about that has been made into film. Tell students that in the following classes they will read selections of historical fiction that once made the best-seller list; students will then compare those works of fiction with non-fiction writings, unintended for publication, that were written during the settlement of the West. Let them know that they will be viewing portions of the PBS documentary The West to better understand the sources of both kinds of writing, and to see where the accounts of the historical events originate and where they diverge.

  5. Extension
    Have students write a short story using vernacular speech they are familiar with. How easy or hard is this task? What does colloquial dialogue add to a work of fiction? Do the thoughts of the characters need to be written in the same dialect? How do other writers handle this issue?

Activity 1

  1. Have students watch Episode 3, "Speck of the Future" from the beginning through the first 7 minutes. Continue viewing segments detailing the life and writings of pioneer/adventurer, William Swain (beginning at 15:00, 26:50, and 45:35). See also the segments, "My Share of the Rocks," "Stay at Home," and The Days of Forty-nine."

  2. Distribute copies of the Bret Harte selections; have students review biographical information on Harte ( Provide students with a vocabulary list for "The Outcasts of Poker Flat":


  3. Ask students as they read to write their impressions of the characters as they are described or named by Harte. Have students look up the definition of "irony" and then discuss with them the term "dramatic irony." Ask them to record in their reading logs examples of its use in the story. Call students' attention to Harte's use of elevated language to describe his stereotypical characters, most of whom exemplify types on the margins of society.

  4. In his 1869 preface to his collection of stories Harte tells the reader his intent is "to illustrate an era of which California history has preserved the incidents more often than the character of the actors." He also describes the period of the Gold Rush as "an era replete with a certain heroic Greek poetry, of which perhaps none were more unconscious than the heroes themselves."

  5. Do the events of the story bear this out? The "outcasts" of the title include a gambler, a robber and drunkard, a prostitute, and an old woman of dubious occupation. They are joined by "The Innocent," Tom Simson, and his beloved, Piney. When Uncle Billy steals off with the horses and mules, leaving the rest of the party marooned in a blizzard, the remaining characters are entertained by retelling of The Iliad in Tom's Western twang.

  6. Why do students think Harte has chosen this particular story to be shared? Have them discuss briefly the events of the Trojan War. What is the symbolism of the snowstorm? What part does sacrifice play in the tale? The gambler, Mr. Oakhurst, is described at the end as "he who was at once the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts...." Do students agree with this view? In what ways does Oakhurst typify a romantic picture of the Western hero? Have students consider how by readers in the East would have received the characters and events of the story.

  7. For a writing assignment, have students write monologues in the persona of one of the characters, filling in the missing details of their lives. Where do they come from? What were their hopes in coming to California? Have students elaborate missing biographical details for their character, adding chronological information based on researching the Interactive Timeline. These may be shared in class.

  8. Have students recreate, in a dramatization, a meeting of the "respectable" citizens of Poker Flats, discussing what to do about the lawless elements in their midst. Have them include their hopes and plans for their town.

  9. When students have read "Brown of Calaveras," have them note how Harte again uses references to Greek mythology. Jack Hamlin, another professional gambler, and the hero of the tale, is described as having a "pale Greek face" and " Homeric gravity." He also describes Hamlin's "Indian stoicism," an "inheritance from his maternal ancestor." Later he is referred to as "Comanche Jack," a gallant with a pack of cards in his pocket and a revolver at his back. How do these descriptions help to create the prototypical Western hero? In contrast, Brown, although handsome is described as weak and dissipated, often befuddled by alcohol. His wife, left behind in the East for three years, unexpectedly joins him, but has wordlessly fallen in love with Hamlin. At the story's end, after receiving an unsigned note from Mrs. Brown, arranging for her to run off with Hamlin, the gambler uses the note as a taper to light Brown's cigar and then rides off alone "against the rosy sunrise."

  10. Ask students to compare Jack Hamlin with Western heroes they may have seen in films or on television. The image of the lone rider, having done his good deed and departed is familiar from the days of Gary Cooper to Clint Eastwood. Remind them that this cliché was being glorified and promoted as long ago as the 1860's. In their writing, have students focus on the shadowy character of Mrs. Brown, whom we hear about only through narration. Ask students to write dialogue for her, after a close reading of her activities in the town of Wingdam. Ask them to write vignettes based on the reactions of the womenfolk of the town, and of such admirers as Judge Boompointer and Colonel Starbottle.

  11. Discuss with students the effects of the choice of names authors give characters. Harte combines serious and satirical names in his stories. If students have read Dickens, they might be reminded of how he also uses character's names to broadly delineate them. You might want to contrast this use of names with the importance of names to the American Indians. See Episode 1, "The People" (34:16), where M. Scott Momaday so eloquently discusses the subject.

  12. Have students compare Harte's images of Gold Rush California with William Swain's letters. How does the tone differ? What details does the private correspondence provide that are ignored by the writer for a mass audience? How does the depiction of the landscape compare?

  13. Extension:
    Have students write an original work of fiction, first with "serious names," then changing them to satirical ones. Have them give one group of readers one version, the other group the other. Students should read and critique each other's pieces, observing the differences in tone when only the names of characters have been changed.

Activity 2

  1. Have students view the first 5 minutes of Episode 1, "The People," and ask them to pay special attention the landscape and its mythic proportions. Before assigning Chapters 1 through 4 of Owen Wister's novel The Virginian, discuss with them his own observations to the reader. He says, "For Wyoming between 1874 and 1890 was a colony as wild as was Virginia one hundred years earlier.... It is a vanished world. ...The mountains are there, far and shining, and the sunlight, and the infinite earth...but where is the buffalo, and the wild antelope, and where the horseman with his pasturing thousands?" In 1902, his preface reverberates with nostalgia for a paradise lost. He mourns, "What is become of the horseman, the cow-puncher, the last romantic figure upon our soil?" Wister, a Harvard classmate of Theodore Roosevelt, recreates in fiction, the cowboy he never really was.

  2. Have students watch Episode 5, "The Grandest Enterprise Under God," (beginning at 28:44), which follows the career of Charles Goodnight and the cowboys who escorted the herds north before the railroads took over the transportation of cattle to markets. Students will find background information on Wister and a discussion of the novel at Cowboy Poetry: Featured at the Bar-D Ranch (

  3. Assign the four chapters as homework. Ask students to note in their log the point of view of the narrator (the outsider from the East, nick-named "The Prince of Wales"), as well as details that characterize The Virginian, the transients in Medicine Bow, and the unsavory Trampas. Ask them to mark passages that describe or allude to the vastness and emptiness of the terrain. How successfully does Wister evoke the Western landscape?

  4. In class, ask students to discuss the dialogue and dialects and to compare and contrast them with Bret Harte's use of Western speech patterns. Western heroes are laconic, their actions generally speak louder than their words. Why is the Virginian's famous refrain, "When you call me that, smile!", the epitome of the Western hero's style?

  5. Extensions:
    As an extra credit assignment some students might like to try their hand at writing their own Chapter 5 in the style of the novel. Others may wish to complete the novel and write a critique. Still others might choose to rent one of the videos available of film versions of The Virginian to review for the class.

Activity 3

  1. Provide students with a copy of "Solitude and Storm", Chapter XIII, of Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage. This novel, first published in 1912 and still in print, takes place in Utah in 1871, is replete with action, including cattle rustlers, sharpshooters, and brave heroines. In this chapter Venters and Bess explore the "kivas" of ancient cliff dwellers and are exposed to a violent thunderstorm, which becomes at the end of the chapter a symbol of "a storm of real love." The chapter includes several descriptive passages that are parallels for the romantic paintings of the West that were popular in the East, and gives a sense of the awe and mystery of a place where long extinct tribes once lived.

  2. Have students discuss attitudes towards Native Americans discernible in the works they have read so far. The book is notable for its anti-Mormon bias, and could be read in its entirety and compared with Episode 5, "The Grandest Enterprise Under God," where it takes up the story of Brigham Young, "The Woman's Exponent" (around 40:23). Students could compare Emmeline Wells, using her narration ("Is It Ignorance"), to Grey's Jane Withersteen, contrasting the former's point of view of Mormon marriage with the fictional character's. Assign one group of students the chapter entitled "Deception Pass" and another group "The Masked Rider" and have them search for and report on stereotypes of Western romance.

Activity 4

  1. For homework, have the class read Chapters 1 and 2 of Willa Cather's O Pioneers!, the story of an intrepid immigrant Swedish farm family in Nebraska. Cather gives a strong picture of the bleakness of prairie farm life in these opening passages of the book; compare these with the accounts of the Sager family and with Julia Lovejoy's letters (see ) about the Kansas frontier a generation earlier.

  2. Ask students to imagine what life would have been like for a small child as member of a pioneer family. Have them look at photographs from the Archives and write a scene based on an incident in one of the diarists or letter-writer's descriptions in a child's voice. How does one's age affect one's perceptions, and how does a writer convey this quality? In Chapter 2, Cather describes the dying John Bergson. What perspective would an older emigrant to the West have? Some students may wish to try the same assignment, but from the perspective of a person at the end of his or her lifetime.

Activity 5

  1. To conclude this lesson have students create a literary timeline of writers who have treated Western themes, placing the locales they wrote about on a map of the United States. They could refer to Literary Maps included in the Library of Congress (

  2. In addition, have each student select a contemporary work either from William Kittredge's Portable Western Reader or the anthology, The Literary West, edited by Thomas Lyon. They should write a critical essay comparing the modern work of fiction with those they have read earlier in this lesson, as to attitude toward the West, description of its landscape, and tone of voice. They should consider whether the icons of the West remain the same or have been replaced or have essentially disappeared.

  3. Extension:
    A student might choose to read a series of contemporary Native American novels and compare their viewpoint, style and tone with examples of Native American eloquence of an earlier time period.

    Another choice, suitable for younger students, would be to rent videos of two movie versions of The Virginian to critique and then compare with the book and with actual cowboy life as evidenced by Ken Burns' The West.

Assessment Recommendations
Student work may be assessed using the following criteria:

  1. research was comprehensive and accurate;
  2. writing assignments — including journals/log books, essays, and creative writings — are thorough, accurate, and demonstrate knowledge of the themes and ideas significant to nineteenth-century westward expansion and knowledge of the themes, topics, and literary conventions of fiction and non-fiction writings about westward expansion; and,
  3. writing assignments are coherent, focused, thorough, and free of grammatical and stylistic errors.

Recommended Resources

Web Site Name

Print Resource

  • Cather, Willa. O Pioneers!. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.
  • Grey, Zane. Riders of the Purple Sage. New York: Book-of-the-Month Club, 1992.
  • Harte, Bret. The Luck of Roaring Camp. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Riverside Library, n.d.
  • Kittredge, William, ed. The Portable Western Reader. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.
  • Lyon, Thomas J.,ed. The Literary West. New York: Oxford, 1999.
  • Wister, Owen. The Virginian. New York: Penguin, 1988.

Relevant National Standards

This lesson addresses the following national curriculum standards established by the Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning.

    Language Arts
  • 1. Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process
  • 2. Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing
  • 3. Uses grammatical and mechanical conventions in written compositions
  • 4. Gathers and uses information for research purposes Reading
  • 6. Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of literary texts

About the Author
Sari Grossman has taught at the Village Community School in New York City since its founding in 1970. Prior to that she taught at the Bank Street School for Children, where she received her professional training in education, and served as a social studies consultant to Follow Through and Head Start programs in Boulder, Philadelphia, Cambridge, and Brooklyn, among other locations. She has co-authored an innovative fraction workbook called, "Show Me one Half," and with Joan, an anthology on immigrant experiences published by NTC. Over the years, she's also offered numerous workshops in math, literature, and social studies at teachers' conferences in various states. She is currently finding the Internet a new stimulus for creating curriculum.

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