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Writers of the 20th Century: William MacLeod Raine, Westerner

Posted by Jack Neulist on

     In a career that spanned half a century, eighty published novels and dozens of short stories, William MacLeod Raine helped define the mythic West of film and fiction fame. Prolific, successful, and beloved, his works remain in print today. While not as well known as some of his contemporaries like Louis L’Amour and Ernest Haycox, Raine nevertheless was one of the greatest western authors of the 20th Century.

Nothing in his early years suggested that the fates had decreed for him a career writing about cowboys and desperados. Born in London, in 1871, Raine lived the first years of his life in the cramped and crowded streets of one of the world’s largest cities. His mother died before he reached the age of ten. His grief stricken father, desperate for a change of scenery, determined to come to America.

By the early 1880s, Raine’s father settled in Arkansas, where he operated a cattle ranch. It was here, amidst the cattle and dust of his father’s spread, that young Raine began his western education. He spent the rest of his childhood on the ranch.     

After graduating from Oberlin College, Raine headed west. It was an era in between eras. The old west was dying, the frontier dead, but the 20th century’s advance was still held up along the east banks of the Mississippi.

He wandered the west for a while, before settling in Denver, Colorado. Working part time as a journalist, Raine made ends meet by writing short stories. Publication followed, and he soon turned his hand to novels. His first attempts were romantic histories reminiscent of his English roots.

Raine had served a stint with the Arizona Rangers, whose endeavors were as dangerous and successful as those of their better known, Texas brethren. Inspired by his adventures, and finding English historicals a hard sell, he set out to write his first full length western.

Published in 1908, Wyoming: A Story of the Outdoor West was met with approval by critics and readers alike. It’s success launched him on a fifty year writing career. From 1909 to his death, he wrote an average of two novels a year. His childhood ranching, the time spent wandering the west, and his interlude with the Rangers made for excellent source material, and lent his stories an authenticity often lacking in Westerns of the period. This verisimilitude, his knack for writing page turners with galloping plots and fast shooting made for a winning combination.

After the rise of Hollywood in the 1920s, Raine’s work made the transition from page to silver screen. His short story, The Yukon Trail: A Tale of the North was adapted and released as a movie, The Grip of the Yukon. Over all, more than twenty of his works would make it to film, including screenplays for episodes of beloved TV western series like Colt .45

Raine died in Denver, July 25, 1954. In 1958, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum posthumously inducted him into the Hall of Great Westerners. It was a well deserved honor. For William Macleod Raine embodied that dictum of great authors: write what you know. And he did. Rancher, wanderer, lawman, his boot heels pounded the same dust as the heroes he wrote.


Photo #1: William MacLeod Raine in his Denver office, circa 1950

Photo #2: Paperback editions of Raine's Westerns

Photo #3: Movie Poster from The Man From Bitter Ridge. The best known Hollywood adaptation of Raine's work.

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