Ask most critics, and they'll tell you Jack Schaefer was robbed. Ask most readers and they'll say: "who?" Although he authored one of the top Western novels of all time, Jack Schaefer remains largely unknown. Upon his death, he faded away into cursed "regional writer" status, and has remained there, lost among the pariah of literature, the Westerns. Even after the success of the movie version, Shane is rarely recognized for the classic it is.
Jack Warren Schaefer was born in Cleveland, Ohio, one of four children of Carl and Minnie Schaefer. The family moved to Lakewood when Jack was three years old. Both his parents were avid readers, and his father was good friends with poet/author Carl Sandburg. Besides playing piano and editing the yearbook, Schaefer's main hobby was reading. Early on he went through his favorites (Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Tarzan" stories and Alexander Dumas' historical novels) and then began reading Charles Dickens, Zane Grey, and other authors. He later wrote that he was becoming just like his older sister Dorothy, a "literary nut."
After graduating from Lakewood High School, Schaefer attended nearby Oberlin College, concentrating in Greek and Latin classics, as well as Creative Writing. In 1929 he moved on to Columbia University for graduate school, where he delved into his studies of eighteenth century English literature. But after fifteen years of schooling, Schaefer finally grew restless. "All that piling up of detail!" he lamented. "And for what purpose?" A new genre was brewing, and Schaefer wanted to explore it. He set his studies on the development of motion pictures and appealed to the thesis committee at Columbia for approval. They rejected him, mocking his interest in "cheap reproductions of stage plays." Frustrated, he abandoned the idea of becoming a professional scholar and left graduate school after one year.
If the university was going to ignore the world around them, Schaefer, most decidedly, was not. He entered journalism, first at the United Press news service in New Haven, Connecticut. A year later he left his job as a rewrite man to serve as the assistant director of education at the Connecticut Reformatory, though he returned to journalism in 1932. Among his many positions, Schaefer worked at the New Haven Journal-Courier (editor), Baltimore Sun (editorial writer), and the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot (associate editor). In over twenty years in the field he wrote innumerable news stories, feature articles, and opinion columns and thousands of book/film/play reviews and editorials. Schaefer was married twice, first to Eugenia Ives in 1931, and then to Louise Deans in 1949; both marriages produced three children.
In 1945, Schaefer was on the staff of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot when he started writing fiction to calm down in the evenings. His newspaper work had taught him work ethic and a simple, direct prose style, both of which he used in his new pastime. Now a full-grown "literary nut," Schaefer resolved "to try to write well, be literate and direct and concise, express firm conviction based on thorough research and honest reasoning and supported by sound arguments," a tall order for a few short stories. But that same year, "Rider from Nowhere" appeared in serial form in adventure magazine Argosy. A mere four years later, Shane was published, as a revised and expanded form of the original story.
Schaefer's most popular work starts "He rode into our valley in the summer of '89. I was a kid then, barely topping the backboard of father's old chuck-wagon…." The boy narrator watches as Shane, the typical gunslinger of the West, befriends his family and himself. A deadly conflict with another rancher escalates to include Shane, and the hero has no choice but to act. With subtle direction, Schaefer explores the bond between Shane and the boy and the role of the Lone Hero in the American West; many critics have noted the story's similarity to ancient Greek parables, like Schaefer studied in college. Shane remains a treasured classic to many of its first readers: western-historian Marc Simmons wrote in the novel's foreword: "Shane has been an almost lifelong companion. I return to it whenever I need a bit of inspiration or a boost of energy."
Almost immediately after its publication, work began on the movie version of Shane. It came out in 1953, with Alan Ladd as the title character. Schaefer once admitted his disappointment with the casting; at a 1989 ceremony to receive an honorary doctorate from Oberlin, he said Shane was supposed to be "a dark, deadly, person." Nevertheless, he was happy with the final film, as were audiences. Simmons explained the novel's appeal and complexity, "From the beginning, Shane was classed as a psychological western. The novel's theme is man's search for himself, of his efforts to tap his latent potentialities, and his struggle to master the chaotic inner forces that threaten him with personal disintegration."
Schaefer continued writing after Shane, turning out two short novels, First Blood and Canyon. He next tried children's literature with Old Ramon, a book that was later awarded the Newbery Honor Roll. Old Ramon also won the Ohioana Book Award in 1961, and was chosen as an American Library Association Notable book.
Monte Walsh and Mavericks were two other prominent later novels. However, by 1961, Schaefer himself had deemed the Western novel dead, and he began to write conservationist novels, spurred by his move to Albuquerque, New Mexico. He acknowledged that many of his later works were labors of love, especially Canyon, saying "I sat down at my old portable and wrote it in the serene assurance that it would have no commercial success, but it would be a book I wanted to write." Jack Schaefer died of heart failure on January 24, 1991.
Fifty years after its publication, Shane had sold over 12 million copies and been translated into thirty foreign languages. In 1985, the Western Writers of America named it the best Western novel ever written, a decade after the Western Literature Association gave Schaefer its Distinguished Achievement award. Though ideas of the Old West hold little relevance to today's America, readers still turn to Westerns for themes of friendship, adventure, and honor. Jack Schaefer knew the pull of the mythical gunslinger; he knew that readers would forever be drawn to the Lone Heroes of the world. Readers today, finding the story of Shane, will no doubt feel the same mystery as they read about him: "All trace of newness was long since gone….The dust distance was beaten into [his clothes]. They were worn stained and several neat patches showed on the shirt. Yet a kind of magnificence remained and with it a hint of men and manners alien to my limited…experience."