Capt. Mayne Reid and the beginnings of the modern idea of the American West

January 16, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, writers, writing.

“Go West!” has been the clarion call for Americans since the days of the early Republic.

West across the Alleghenies, west across the Mississippi River, west across Texas and the Great Plains — whatever is west of where we are has represented openness, wonder, opportunity, and adventure. In more modern times, writers like Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour took advantage of these ideas to build an image of the American West that was akin to life itself.

But before there was Louis L’Amour or Zane Grey, there was Thomas Mayne Reid — more popularly known as Capt. Reid.

Reid (1818-1883) was an Irish immigrant who first settled in Pittsburgh and later in Philadelphia, and graced the newspapers of both cities with his stories, reviews, essays, and poems. In Philadelphia, he was a drinking companion of Edgar Allan Poe. When the war with Mexico broke out in 1846, Reid joined a New York infantry unit and found himself at the battle of Chapultepec, where he fought courageously and was badly wounded. He was promoted to the rank of lieutenant. (There is no evidence he was ever a captain, the rank he adopted as the author of his later adventure books.)

In 1849, Reid sailed back to Europe intending the participate in the Bavarian revolution, but he changed his mind and instead returned to Ireland. Then he moved to London and in 1850 published his first novel, The Rifle Rangers, which was soon followed by another, The Scalp Hunters. In these novels and many that followed, he vividly described the landscape that he had viewed while traveling through Texas and Mexico and constructed exciting and adventuresome stories of the people there.

His books were highly popular with boys with the ear — one of whom was Theodore Roosevelt, a sickly, asthmatic child, who in his autobiography credits Reid with sparking his desire to be part of the adventures of the American West. Another of Reid’s young readers was Arthur Conan Doyle

Reid’s adventure novels were much in the genre of Robert Louis Stevenson. Indeed, Reid did not confine himself to the American West but also wrote books set in South Africa, Jamaica, and the Himalayas.

Reid’s works were popular into the 1860s, but that popularity faded. He returned to America in 1867 and tried to restart his career as a writer, but he could never capture the magic of his early work. He returned to England and lived the last decade of his life wracked with melancholia and poverty. He died in London in 1883.

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