North America's western frontier has been the locus of a literary tradition that stretches from Cooper to Cather to McCarthy, from Whitman to Harte to Silko. But the genre of the "Western" traces its origins to the publication in 1902 of Owen Wister's The Virginian. As it was established by Wister and institutionalized by writers such as Zane Grey and Max Brand, the genre features straightforward plotting and even more straightforwardly drawn characters. The genre quickly established an enormous popularity: Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) remains one of the most widely read books in the history of North American literature. By the end of the twenties, the conventions of the genre were well established; and pulp Western magazines such as Western Story had achieved wide circulation. Given the stylization of this action-adventure genre, there was little room for nuance or complication in the early Westerns; and certainly its representations of women, Native Americans, and any non-Anglo Westerner are deeply problematic.
The early fiction of Ernest Haycox, which also appeared in Western Story, conforms to the often formulaic conventions of the Western. But Haycox is widely regarded as the first writer of the genre to extend and even challenge many of its conventions. From the early thirties until his death in 1950, Haycox made significant stylistic and thematic innovations to the Western. He is credited, for instance, with the introduction of the historical Western, a kind of hybrid of historical fiction and action-adventure story that gives his work a deepened sense of realism. One finds in a Haycox novel or story of the thirties or forties an attention to geographical and historical detail that distinguishes his fiction from that of his predecessors. Whether he was writing about West Texas or the Willamette Valley, Haycox's textured historical sense and his keen eye for geographical description made his work attractive to a new brand of publication: Haycox was the first in the genre to move from the "pulps" to the "slicks," from Western Story to Collier's and Saturday Evening Post. Moreover, Haycox complicated the conventional plot structure of the Western by introducing more prominent women characters, an innovation which lent itself to more subtle and less allegorical depictions of women and which gave to the genre an element of interior conflict largely absent in the conventional Western. Haycox's innovations tended to extend his popularity among both readers and writers of the Western. Richard Etulain insists that if Owen Wister and Zane Grey were the Western's originators, Ernest Haycox was its most imitated.