By Doug Hare EBS Staff
When the Western Writers of America voted on the best Western short stories of the 20th century, four of the top five selections were written by Dorothy M. Johnson. Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” came in third.
Johnson was quite simply a genius of short fiction. Growing up in Whitefish, Montana, she began writing for the local paper in high school after her father’s death to help with the family’s finances. Her tenacity and self-sufficiency helped her become a trailblazer in a genre dominated by male authors.
After earning a degree in English from the University of Montana, she moved to New York City but her fondness for the mythology, history and allure of the West only grew stronger. She spent significant time in New York libraries reading histories about the place where she grew up, taking whatever writing and editing jobs she could find to make ends meet.
Shortly after World War II, she moved to Missoula, began teaching, and penned three of her most celebrated short stories: “A Man Called Horse”(1950), “The Hanging Tree” (1957), and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” (1962), all of which were adapted into popular films.
Her writing about Native American lore was recognized as being so authentic that she became an honorary member of the Blackfeet tribe. Johnson was also awarded the Spur Award from the Western Writers Association for her contributions to fiction.
Johnson’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” might be her most iconic work. On full display is her talent to hook the reader within a few lines. She had an uncanny ability to get narratives off the ground without preamble. Like many of her stories, it begins in the midst of things with a tenderfoot named Ranse Foster beaten, broken and crawling around on the prairie near a fictional backwater town called Twotrees, being reluctantly rescued by the iconic Bert Barricune.
“Barricune rode off, scowling, with the memory of his good deed irritating him like lice,” Johnson writes.
It is a classic tale of heroes and villains, innocence lost and manhood found set against the backdrop of the lawless frontier. Similar to other 1950s short fiction about the West, the plot follows a typical formula: a foolhardy Easterner heads West and has to reckon with a nefarious outlaw, along with a little help from an old gun slinging cowboy and a beautiful lady.
“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” is at once a period piece and a timeless tale of revenge, love and honor redeemed that culminates in a shootout. Johnson’s prose is effortless, and while her short stories might be formulaic, they’re also always gripping and nuanced, with subtle forms of irony at each turn. Eventually turned into a classic film directed by John Ford, starring John Wayne and James Stewart, this is one short story that has stood the test of time.
Doug Hare is the Distribution Coordinator for Outlaw Partners. He studied philosophy and American literature at Princeton and Harvard universities.