This year, when the Western Writers of America gather in San Antonio (Monday through Thursday) to give their annual Golden Spur awards, they will be celebrating old achievement as well as new. Their magazine, the Roundup, has just published a poll of 100 respected Western writers. Its results: The all-time best Western short story is Dorothy Johnson's "A Man Called Horse"; the all-time best nonfiction book is Dee Brown's "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee"; the all-time best movie is "High Noon," and the all-time best novel is Jack Schaefer's "Shane." Some Western writers may beg to differ with these choices. I hasten to agree, at least with the choice of "Shane."
What is it that makes a work a classic? First of all, it has to be situated in a category. A work cannot be simply a classic. It has to be a classic something. Then it must do all those things that its genre requires so well that no one who ever does them again will be able to avoid its example. "Shane" does all this, but even this is just the beginning. The difference between a mere polished performance and a classic is that the classic reflects a deep understanding of why the genre itself came into existence. "Shane" succeeds on this count too.
The fight scenes in "Shane" are what Western fight scenes are supposed to be-- everything they are supposed to be. The dialogue--on the farm where the mysterious Shane has been taken in--is the perfection of Western innocence. Shane himself, the classic within this classic, is--true to the convention--a man without the polite past of church, school and property; without a family; without even a family name. His past is not the kind that cannot be spoken of or handed on. It is the kind that can only be atoned for. His lethal skill is visible, palpable almost, but beautiful, for he holds it in perfect check. Only for those he loves can he be goaded into employing it, and on that one occasion, his intervention is decisive. He rides off wounded into the night, leaving peace behind him.
In meeting the conventional requirements so well, Schaefer only did what thousands of Western writers before and after him have tried to do. What makes "Shane" different, what makes it a classic among Westerns, is its single, brilliant departure from convention: It is a story told by a boy. Schaefer understood--better, I think, than any of his predecessors, and, in a way, that has marked all of his successors--that the Western is an American boy's dream of the world as it should be. "Shane," as a Western actually told by a boy, intensifies just that aspect of the genre; and it is this emphasis, finally, that makes the work a classic.
Shane, young Bobby notices, is a better companion for his mother, Marian, than his own father is. Marian can talk to Shane in a way she can't talk to Joe. She can talk to Shane even about hats, for Shane has a touch of feminine elegance about him. He doesn't let it show much, but he understands.
For Bobby, Shane is, if not a better father than the one he has, then at least the manly older brother that every boy wishes he had. Shane "knew what goes on in a boy's mind and what can help him stay clean inside through the muddled, dirtied years of growing up." Joe knows the farm, Bobby seems to tell us, but Shane--Shane knows the world. And Joe, who loves Shane too, depends on him to know it.
It is impossible--36 years after the publication of "Shane"--not to read parts of the book as at least mildly homoerotic. But a dreamy attention to Shane's appearance that might embarrass readers were the narrator a grown man does not do so when he is a boy. Bobby, just a kid, can be forgiven his idolatry. He can be allowed to be in love with Shane "cool and competent, facing that room full of men in the simple solitude of his own invincible completeness."
Boys are like that. Schaefer knew why they are; and for knowing why, his "Shane" deserves the votes it got from the Western Writers of America. He knew, in other words, that it is not just nostalgia for a vanished era that gives the Western novel its appeal. It is also the boy's hope still living in many a man's heart for the man who never was but could be, the man every boy wants to be when he grows up.
The ideal of a man "in the simple solitude of his own invincible completeness" may have done America as much harm as good. But we may leave moral judgments for another day. The mythic power of the ideal remains. It is the voice of the boy at the heart of the Western novel, and Jack Schaefer heard it. Whence, perhaps, his 1949 dedication:
for my first son
my first book.