Out West

Writer of the Purple Sage

Russell Martin's book Cowboy

Russell Martin’s 1983 book COWBOY: The Enduring Myth of the Wild West looked at the American cowboy’s broad cultural influence, and continues to educate and entertain.

On more than one occasion, we have celebrated those who participated in, or helped create, the “cowboy renaissance” of the late 1970s and ‘80s. Back in 1983, acclaimed author and writer Russell Martin was one of those contributors. His book, COWBOY: The Enduring Myth of the Wild West was a 432-page volume and is still one of the most intriguing deep-dives into the cowboy mystique and culture. Equally as intriguing is how the project got started, involving the New York Times and Martha Stewart – both decidedly non-Western. I recently asked Martin to tell me how he, a fourth generation writer of acclaimed U.S. best sellers, got this cowboy assignment.

Rodeo cowboys photographed for Russell Martin's book
Rodeo cowboys remove their hats during the playing of the National Anthem. Photo by Martin Schreiber.

“I wrote a piece for the New York Times Magazine in December of 1981 called “New Writers of the Purple Sage,” Martin says. “It was about the emergence of writers like Tom McGuane, Ivan Doig and others who were beginning to look at the West and its people in new ways. These were writers who were becoming big deals in the new literature of the West – besides McGuane and Doig, their ranks included Rudolfo Anaya, William Kitteredge, N. Scott Momaday, John Nichols, Leslie Marmon Silko, Wallace Stegner, Jim Harrison, Russell Chatham and others. They were writing more anti-mythological stuff, not cowboy and Indian stuff, but compelling, contemporary literature that was set in the American West and focused on the real people of the region.”

“When the piece came out in the Times, it was read by a woman named Martha Stewart, who, at the time, was not yet the celebrity she became,” Martin says. “Her then-husband, Andy Stewart, who was a former executive at the art book publisher Abrams, had a new company that was publishing oversized coffee table books. Andy knew he wanted to do a cowboy book of some kind and Martha recommended me. Andy called me in January of 1982. I was young and hungry, and you bet I wanted to write a cowboy book. We met and he told me he didn’t have anything in mind other than he wanted it to be about the cowboy. I knew enough to be dangerous having just finished the story for the Times, and had a pretty compelling rationale about the draw to the West. Andy liked the idea, and we were off.”

“The historical, fictional and contemporary cowboys are characteristically those who know what they wanted out of life, and who are mighty glad they are cowboys.”

Russel Martin

In Martin’s Times story about the new growing group of emerging Western writers, he quoted McGuane regarding why Westerners are so passionate about where they live.

”You would have to care about the country,” McGuane says. “Terrain, vacant spaces and that sense of human relation to land that, at times, becomes oddly sacramental, have been featured prominently in nearly everything that has ever been written about the West, beginning with those first venerable old tales of cowboys and Indians, prospectors and settlers. Perhaps the Western land holds such power because it shelters so much beauty; maybe the sweeping landscape’s haughty indifference to human concerns is what fills it with nagging mystery.”

James Walker painting in the book Cowboy: The Enduring Myth of the Wild West
The first Spanish cattle arrived in the New World in 1494. James Walker’s painting, Charros at the Round Up, shows the vaqueros at work.

To hash out what the book would cover, Stewart headed West and met Martin on his home turf.

“Andy came out to Denver to meet me,” Martin says. “He told me, ‘We’ve got a huge job ahead of us in terms of finding images for this, no matter what you write about.’ I told him I thought I knew the right person, and he was right here in Denver. So, we went to see Hans Teensma, the renowned art director and designer who did the first designs for Outside magazine, and Rocky Mountain Magazine. Hans jumped at the chance to design his first book.

Photo from Russell Martin's book Cowboy: The Enduring Myth of the Wild West
Photo by Susan Felter.

“Andy liked the idea of a significant manuscript, not just a lot of pretty or interesting pictures, but a significant manuscript, too,” Martin continues. “That appealed to me. I remember I wrote Cowboy in longhand, so I don’t know how long it was, but it was probably, even without illustrations, a significant text – like 70,000 to 80,000 words. I had a lot of studying to do, of course, and configured the chapter divisions by various categories, as nothing like this had ever been done before.”

The book examines the cowboy world through various aspects of the culture itself and how it is, and was, perceived and utilized, in most cases by a non-horseback, civilian world. The book is divided into thirteen chapters with titles such as “Cowboys and Images,” “Darlin’ Outlaws” and “Cowboys at Large” that speak to how the imagery of the cowboy culture permeated America through advertising as well as television, books, magazines and movies. Like McGuane, Martin first introduces us to the West and its people by looking at the land and its attraction.

Photo of a woman riding through the rain on a pack trip
A cowgirl endures a rainstorm while packing a string of horses into the Rockies. Photo by Paul Chesley/Photographers Aspen.

There is a dry and bedeviled corner of the American West that has seen a lot of cowboys in its time. It is a high rocky triangle of terrain bounded roughly by the brown waters of the Colorado, Dolores and Escalante rivers, and it straddles the states of Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. It is a haughty kind of country – ugly and enticing, beautiful and forbidding. It nurtures a little grass, and it engenders a perplexing loyalty.

“You know we never really dressed like cowboys ‘till we saw those Tom Mix movies.”

Teddy Blue Abbott, cowboy (1860 – 1939)

Great writers are craftsmen, and can stitch together stories and narratives that grab the reader and pull them in. But a great cowboy book needed great images, so designer Teensma was tasked with finding the best, which he did, in spades. The book contains over four hundred illustrations and images. Teensma rounded up the best of the time and many emerging ones that would become among the best including photographers like Kurt Markus, Jay Dusard, John Running, William Albert Allard, Timothy Eagan, Douglas Kent Hall, Darrell Winfield and Ernst Haas – who shot the book’s cover photo of “The Marlboro Man,” – a total of seventy-eight photographers along with countless historical images from public & private collections and museums.

Remote ranch covered in frost.
Even in the most remote reaches of the continent, the presence of the cowman has altered the look of the empty land. Photo by Bill Ellzey.

Timing matters in everything, but nothing like how it matters in publishing. Before Martin was assigned the project, a few years earlier in 1978, Esquire magazine published a feature story in their September issue by writer Aaron Latham. His story titled, “The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy: America’s Search for True Grit” went on to become the basis for the 1980 release, Urban Cowboy, starring John Travolta and Debra Winger.  Martin’s book hit the bookstores perfectly timed in 1983. The culture was already bubbling with authentic Western like Ian Tyson’s Old Corrals and Sagebrush and big photo books from Jay Dusard and Kurt Markus. Martin’s book was the literary capstone that gave meaning to the visual and emotional success of the era’s newfound awareness of those who worked horseback, mostly out of sight in the West.

The bottom line for Martin was in the full light of day, the cowboy is an ordinary person with extraordinary values, as he explained.

Photo from Russell Martin's book Cowboy: The Enduring Myth of the Wild West
Apart from the prominent placement of steer horns, few cow-centered symbols have become a larger part of cowboy mystique. Photo by Lucinda Lewis

“They may be regular types, but they operate on a unique loyalty and honor,” Martin says. “It’s the idea that you can be trusted – that your handshake matters and what you say can be believed. Of course, we’re in a moment now that we’re kind of living the opposite of that politically. I think that there was something about this figure – across cultures – that was immensely appealing. And it remains immensely appealing. It mattered that this was us. This was not something that came from Europe or Asia. It was pretty much homegrown here. There have been horse people throughout the world, of course. But it happened here, in a glorious land, witnessed from horseback. In that pre-1900 world, racing headlong towards mechanization, the visual and ethical essence of this horseback figure gave the cowboy a power and a presence that he wouldn’t have otherwise had ­– and still has today.

COWBOY: The Enduring Myth of the Wild West was published in a single edition in 1983. It is a masterwork and while out of print, copies may still be found. Russell Martin’s December 1981 New York Times Magazine article may be found here:  WRITERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

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