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Impressions of the West: D.H. Lawrence


LeConte Stewart, Private Collection

"In a cold like this, the stars snap like distant coyotes, beyond the moon. And you'll see the shadow of actual coyotes, going across the alfalfa field. And the pine trees make little noises, sudden and stealthy, as if they were walking about. And the place heaves with ghosts. That place, the ranch, heaves with ghosts. But when one has got used to one's own home-ghosts, be they never so many, and so potent, they are like one's own family, but nearer than the blood. It is the ghosts one misses most, the ghosts there, of the Rocky Mountains, that never go beyond the timber and that linger, like the animals, round the water-spring. I know them, they know me: we go well together. But they reproach me for going away. They are resentful too."

From D.H. Lawrence, Mornings in Mexico, 1927        

D.H. Lawrence Ranch. Credit:

Perhaps the snow is in tufts on the greasewood bushes. Perhaps the blue jay falls in a blue metallic cloud out of the pine trees in front of the house, at dawn, in the terrific cold, when the dangerous light comes watchful over the mountains, and touches the desert far-off, far-off, beyond the Rio Grande.

Mornings in Mexico by D.H. Lawrence. First published 1927. Credit:


Impressions of the West: Thomas Pynchon

(Note: For a long while we had a photo at the beginning of this post that had been identified on several sites as Thomas Pynchon. However, a reader recently alerted us to the fact that the photo probably was not of Thomas Pynchon. Consequently, we've removed it. If anyone has a photo that has been verified as being of Pynchon, who is well-known for his desire for privacy, please contact us. Thank you.)

Grand Canyon, Thomas Moran. Credit:

‘This is the kind of sunset you hardly see any more, a 19th-century wilderness sunset, a few of which got set down, approximated, on canvas, landscapes of the American West by artists nobody ever heard of, when the land was still free and the eye innocent, and the presence of the Creator much more direct. … of course Empire took its way westward, what other way was there but into those virgin sunsets to penetrate and to foul?”

Gravity’s Rainbow, p. 214.      

Sunset in Yosemite Valley, Albert Bierstadt. Credit:

After the Storm, Gilbert Munger. Credit: The Paintings of Gilbert Munger (Michael D. Schroeder)

Sunset at Black Rock, Paul Fjellboe. Credit: The Springville Museum of Art

Moonrise in the Canyon, Moab, Utah, Birger Sandzen. Credit: Springville Museum of Art

Wingate Cliffs, Ed Mell. Credit: Painters of Utah's Canyons and Deserts


Impressions of the West: Walt Whitman

Photo couertesy of

Walt Whitman originally wrote ‘Passage to India’ in 1870, and first published it in the 1871 edition of Leaves of Grass. There are many possible readings of the poem – one is about the flight of the soul toward transcendent wisdom:

I, turning, call to thee, O soul, thou actual Me, 
And lo! thou gently masterest the orbs,
Thou matest Time, smilest content at Death, 
And fillest, swellest full, the vastnesses of Space.

But on his way toward ‘all the seas of God,’ Whitman also follows a down-to-earth path, one that takes him into the territory of the American West, newly opened by the transcontinental railroad:

I see over my own continent the Pacific Railroad, surmounting every barrier; 
I see continual trains of cars winding along the Platte, carrying freight and passengers; 
I hear the locomotives rushing and roaring, and the shrill steam-whistle, 
I hear the echoes reverberate through the grandest scenery in the world; 
I cross the Laramie plains—I note the rocks in grotesque shapes—the buttes; 
I see the plentiful larkspur and wild onions—the barren, colorless, sage-deserts; 
I see in glimpses afar, or towering immediately above me, the great mountains—I see the
Wind River and the Wahsatch mountains; 
I see the Monument mountain and the Eagle’s Nest—I pass the Promontory—I ascend the Nevadas; 
I scan the noble Elk mountain, and wind around its base; 
I see the Humboldt range—I thread the valley and cross the river, 
I see the clear waters of Lake Tahoe—I see forests of majestic pines,
Or, crossing the great desert, the alkaline plains, I behold enchanting mirages of waters and meadows; 
Marking through these, and after all, in duplicate slender lines, 
Bridging the three or four thousand miles of land travel, 
Tying the Eastern to the Western sea, 
The road between Europe and Asia.

Photo courtesy of


Impressions of the West: Mark Twain

Photo courtesy of Encyclopedia Britanica Blog

In 1861, at the tender age of 26, Mark Twain embarked on several years of 'variegated vagabondizing' - via an overland stage coach - in the Far West. The original purpose for the journey was to work as private secretary to his brother, who had just been appointed the Secretary of Nevada Territory. Twain envied his brother because:

"Pretty soon he would be hundreds and hundreds of miles away on the great plains and deserts, and among the mountains of the Far West, and would see buffaloes and Indians, and prairie dogs, and antelopes, and have all kinds of adventures, and may be get hanged or scalped, and have ever such a fine time, and write home and tell us all about it, and be a hero."

Roughing It, Mark Twain, Chapter I         

And so Twain made the journey that would yield Roughing It, still one of the best, and most fun to read, books on the American West.

The South Pass, from Roughing It

Here is Twain's description of South Pass, Wyoming:

"And now, at last, we were fairly in the renowned SOUTH PASS, and whirling gayly along high above the common world. We were perched upon the extreme summit of the great range of the Rocky Mountains, toward which we had been climbing, patiently climbing, ceaselessly climbing, for days and nights together—and about us was gathered a convention of Nature's kings that stood ten, twelve, and even thirteen thousand feet high—grand old fellows who would have to stoop to see Mount Washington, in the twilight. We were in such an airy elevation above the creeping populations of the earth, that now and then when the obstructing crags stood out of the way it seemed that we could look around and abroad and contemplate the whole great globe, with its dissolving views of mountains, seas and continents stretching away through the mystery of the summer haze."

Roughing It, Mark Twain, Chapter 12         

 Near South Pass, Wyoming. Photo courtesy of tomwestbrook

First edition of Roughing It, by Mark Twain


Impressions of the West: James Joyce

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James Joyce isn't the first name that leaps to mind among authors who have written about the American West. But he spoke about it at least once, in his collection of short stories, Dubliners - first published in 1914, although under development since 1905. In the autobiographical short story, An Encounter, Joyce describes how he and his friends used to play:

"It was Joe Dillon who introduced the Wild West to us. He had a little library made up of old numbers of The Union Jack, Pluck and The Halfpenny Marvel. Every evening after school we met in his back garden and arranged Indian battles. He and his fat young brother Leo, the idler, held the loft of the stable while we tried to carry it by storm; or we fought a pitched battle on the grass. But, however well we fought, we never won siege or battle and all our bouts ended with Joe Dillon's war dance of victory. His parents went to eight o'clock mass every morning in Gardiner Street and the peaceful odour of Mrs. Dillon was prevalent in the hall of the home. But he played too fiercely for us who were younger and more timid. He looked like some kind of an Indian when he capered round the garden, an oid tea-cosy on his head, beating a tin with his fist and yelling:

'Ya! yaka, yaka, yaka!'

Everyone was increduluous when it was reported that he had a vocation for the priesthood. Nevertheless it was true.'

Dubliners, (p. 11-12; Norton Critical Edition), James Joyce         

The Union Jack, Pluck and The Halfpenny Marvel, by the way, were boys' magazines published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Alfred Harmsworth (aka Lord Northcliffe). Stories in each tended to focus on westerns, especially once Harmsworth allowed his readers to vote on which were their favorites.

Here's a cover of the The Halfpenny Marvel in 1896:

Photo courtesy of

And here's a cover of another Harmsworth publication at around the same time, The Boys' Friend:

Photo courtesy of