Jack Schaefer has been studied little and remains largely enigmatic for a prolific author, even in literary circles. Schaefer was born in 1907 on Cleveland's East Side. His father was an attorney, and he had three siblings. During high school Schaefer was an accomplished pianist. He then majored in English at Oberlin College and attended Columbia University for graduate school. When Columbia refused to allow Schaefer to write his master's thesis on the development of motion pictures, Schaefer joined the United Press news service. Soon after, he began a career as a journalist, which lasted for twenty years. Schaefer was married twice and had three biological children and three stepchildren.
Schaefer published ten novels, twelve other works (mostly collections of short stories) and a number of non-fiction essays. Eight of his writings were made into movies. Shane was his most famous book and was made into a highly popular and successful movie in 1953, and a number of critics even call Shane the best work of Western fiction ever written. Schaefer gained momentum after publishing the book and published two more critically acclaimed novels in the next four years. In 1960 Schafer published a children's book called Old Ramon, which also won critical acclaim.
Schaefer's fascination with the Old West started at a young age. He read Zane Grey and studied American history, both apparent influences within his stories. He also acquired old diaries and newspapers for a greater insight into life in the Old West. Schaefer did not actually move to the Old West until he was assigned to do research for a magazine on some of the old towns. After that assignment, he sold his farm in Connecticut and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
After having lived in the west for some time, Schafer became concerned that the growing population would spoil the west by changing the landscape and environment and altering the way of life he depicted in his books. After writing his last western in 1967, Schaefer became a conservationist and wrote essays describing conversations with animals (Conversations with a Pocket Gopher).
Schaefer's books are about more than the Old West—they are about childhood and old age, particularly about what it means for a child to have a hero. Schaefer has said that his fiction is intended "to establish a distinct and individual major character and pit him against a specific human problem and show how he rose to meet it."
Typically, stories from the Old West involve stoic characters and the kind of bravado displayed by cowboys who know no fear. Schaefer's novels broke from this mold, and Shane in particular involves strong sentiment from all of the characters, even the title character and hero. Schaefer died in New Mexico in 1991, at age 83. Now, many of his books are out of print, as Western fiction has not withstood the test of time nor has it escaped the scrutiny of scholars.