Myth of the West

by Steve Lancaster10/26/17
In 1893 Fredrick Jackson Turner stated in his paper “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”, that not only was the finite frontier closed but Americans might need to find a replacement. Since then, historians, authors of both fiction and non-fiction, playwrights, musicians and movie makers have sought to enlarge and explain the mythos of the American west. The west, Turner says is closed, lives on in our shared American conscience. A question we ask our collective self is how does our nation grow and expand without creating an empire without a good answer? Other countries and empires emeritus tend to view the US as more or less valuable empire, but nonetheless an empire.

Travel to any part of the world, make known that you’re an American, as if you could actually fool someone that you’re not, and in the space of a conversation the cowboy will come up. As a derogative or in admiration.  Turner was talking about the realities of the fixed frontier. The formation of states, often by less than democratic process, but resulting in alignment with constitutional requirements. With the official separation of the LDS church from polygamy, a notably theocratic state, Utah, was admitted to the union in 1896.  In Turner’s America, there was a lot of room for differing styles of state governance.

Rather than deal with Turner, the pros, and cons of his thesis; I would like to argue the west as myth and its importance. One of the first authors to help create the mythos of the west has to be James Fenimore Cooper with, The Leatherstocking Tales. Writing about the American version of the French and Indian War (1755-1763). Cooper describes unique American traits in fiction years before Tocqueville wandered through on his grand tour.  Although, Cooper and Tocqueville lived at about the same time. Each chronicled what they saw in America in fiction and fact.

Hawkeye is the quintessential American, strong of character, independent and in his own words, “subject to no man”. On the intellectual side, Perry Miller a contemporary of Turner, discusses in “The New England Mind, and Errand in the Wilderness, the growth of New England Puritanism and writes on the growth of independence, in the colony, and the efforts to spread Christianity to the Indians of Massachusetts. Miller is perplexed by how the Puritans transformed into transcendentalists and subsequently into Unitarians.  However, even these worthies just by leaving England and separating from the English Church exemplify the ideals of what would later be the code of the west.

Building on the example of Cooper and other authors like Zane Grey they set down and elaborated the code of the west; Vardis Fisher and Raymond Thorp’s books, Mountain Man (1920) and Crow Killer (1959) merge into a single movie, Jerimiah Johnson (1972) produced by and starring Robert Redford. The movie spins off of the real life of John Johnson and his personal war with the Sioux into an American legend. Redford may not agree, but if you could get our enemies to watch Jerimiah Johnson and assure them this is the character of the average American, peace would be just around the corner. Although, nearly 200 years separate them, Chris Kyle and John Johnson are examples of the men this country produces. Be afraid, very, very afraid if they are coming after you.

On a demographic basis, the early settlers of the west were largely male, up to 90% in some mining camps. Of course, all of the military units were male. The presence of a commander’s wife or daughter on a post or fort was rare. Since most of the men were of the “worst” type, most of the women that traveled west were of the same. The men were young, looking for adventure, drunkards, gamblers, pimps, thieves, murderers, and the women they wanted were of similar bent. Many a grandmother of the pioneers got her start in the west working in a saloon or bordello and conveniently forgot that part of her personal history when marrying a customer and moving to the city. Josephine Marcus married Wyatt Earp after leaving Arizona. Trivia fact Wyatt Earp is buried with Josie in a Jewish cemetery in Coloma CA.

The author Louis L’Amour, (1908-1988), born in N. Dakota is a shaper of the western myth and code of the west. His novels and short stories covering the settlement of the west from the early arrivals of the Sackett family into the modern west. So many of his stories were incorporated into movies and television that almost no western in the last 50 years does not, in some way pay homage to his talent. The John Wayne movie Hondo is but one example of a L’Amour work on the screen.

Back to fiction and myth. In 1951 Lerner and Lowe produced for Broadway a musical called, Paint Your Wagon. In 1969 the film version was produced with additional screenplay by Patty Chayefsky. The movie is mostly good fun, although there are some subthemes worthy of exploration. Set in a gold rush mining camp, no name city, has no law but mining law, and is an endless collection of saloons, brothels and opium dens. All set to extract as much from the miners as possible. It is even possible for a Mormon with two wives to sell one off and for that wife to then marry two men.  However, the music, in the movie performed by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band that makes the movie. From the opening overture of I’m On My Way to Clint Eastwood singing, I Talk to The Trees, and the best known, They Call the Wind Maria. An inside joke, in Hebrew Mariah can be translated as bitter. Then there is, Wand’rin’ Star and if Eastwood singing is a peculiarity, then Lee Marvin, as Ben Rumson, singing is a phenomenon to behold. Nevertheless, the character of Ben Rumson is the more interesting.

I have little doubt that if you dig into the ancestry of many pioneer families you will find a grandfather like Ben Rumson. A man unknown to history, perhaps not even to his own descendants, certainly not an E B Crocker or John Stanford. Ben Rumson and his cronies traveled the west, building roads and towns, laying track and stringing telegraph wire and they moved on, as they always did, from one gold or silver strike to the next. California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Alaska, the roads they built are littered with their unmarked graves. Paint Your Wagon is just one of several musicals that present an ideal of the American west, Oklahoma, 7 brides for 7 brothers and Showboat among others.

However, we always seem to come back to movies. Almost from the first time a motion picture was made it was the classic American western, The Great Train Robbery (1903). A silent movie with bad guys, good guys and a shootout. Who could ask for more? This was the style for the next 36 years. Then in 1939, over shadowed by the world blockbuster, Gone with The Wind, a movie that created a legend of its own. John Ford cast a young actor Marion Morrison (John Wayne) who had made a lot of B movies in Stagecoach.

Stagecoach could truly be viewed as the real beginning of Wayne’s acting career and over the next 40 years until his last movie, The Shootest, Wayne set the model of the western hero. Along with John Ford as director they made a list of timeless movies: The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, The Horse Soldiers, Rio Grande, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.  When we think of the west and the men and women who settled it our visual is the Duke on horseback with the mittens of Monument Valley in the shot. We cannot help it by now it is part of our cultural DNA.

The B and C movies, second features from the 30s and 40s made the transition to radio and then into television. Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger and others moved from successful radio programs to the new home entertainment medium. In the 50s and 60s we got an assortment of westerns, Wagon Train, Rawhide, The Big Valley, The Virginian, The Rifleman and the much-loved Bonanza and the moralistic Have gun, Will travel.  All of them with strong independent characters, male and female. Have Gun, was a 30-minute ethics play of a knight errant dispensing justice, often in conflict with local law enforcement.

Modern westerns take advantage of this emotional image. Westworld, an HBO series is largely filmed in and around Monument Valley, and the demarcation between black hat and white hats is still the fastest method to tell who is a good guy and who isn’t. The western style has now progressed beyond the west.

A single western franchise covering over 50 years, the first and most famous is the television and movie franchise of Star Trek, an example of the western transiting into space. Additionally, just like in the 30s with the same easy to identify characters, shootouts, chases and iconic good and bad guys is the more modern western Star Wars.  An interesting new western is the Dark Knight Batman Movies Directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Christopher Bale. If the Duke were alive he would recognize this Batman as a true western in the Ford/Wayne tradition. It could be argued that the Dark Knight is just a remake of High Noon.

The American west has grown far beyond the limits that Turner opined about in the 1890s. It has been absorbed as a part of our human condition. Yet it remains a distinctive American genre.  It twists and turns to fit generations but surely, hundreds of years from now on some far-off planet, there will still be stagecoaches rolling. • (183 views)

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5 Responses to Myth of the West

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    So much meat here, I’ll have to think about it before commenting on it seriously. I will make a few minor points, though. One interesting example of the role of mining law in Paint Your Wagon is the wedding there that concludes with, “I now pronounce you claimed and filed.” I will also note that “They Call the Wind Mariah” has no real connection to the rest of the movie. (I haven’t seen the play, so I have no idea if they fit it in better there.)

    Incidentally, the title of Wayne’s final movie was spelled The Shootist/ A shootist was basically a professional gun-slinger. In the MAD Magazine parody, he turns out to be an inspiration to a bunch of kids, such as the James and Younger brothers.

    Star Trek was often described from its earliest days as Wagon Train to the stars.

  2. Lucia says:

    One of my grandmother’s uncles travelled from Missouri to California on a mule to work in the gold mines. He never found much gold and lost his mule. My grandmother said it took a year for him to get back home again. I’ve got a photo of him taken with him and some others at their claim.

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    To some extent, everything is a myth because the reality is too complicated. We use shortcuts. So the question isn’t whether something is mythical or not but how much truth is behind the myth. Somewhere out there in the West was a John Wayne even if 99.99% of the men were not.

    I would have gotten more out of this article, Steve, had you listed it in more of a fact vs. myth format. Or “the truth behind the myths.” What you have is kind of a scattershot approach.

    I would agree that the various writers and TV productions have enlarged certain elements of the West, likely out of proportion to the reality. (If they did not, who would watch or read?)

    Last night I started reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition. Having thoroughly enjoyed his Mayflower and Sea of Glory, I have high hopes for this one.

    It starts out with a rather interesting proposition:

    Charles Thomson was uniquely qualified to write a history of his times. As secretary of the Continental Cngress from 1774 to 1789, he had functioned as what one historian has described as the “prime minister” of the Congress. While delegates came and went over the course of the War of Independence, Secretary Thomson was always there to bear witness to the behind-the-scenes workings of the nation’s legislative body during its earliest and most critical period. According to his friend John Jay, “no person ini the world is so perfectly acquainted with the rise, conduct, and conclusion of the American Revolution as yourself.”

    Soon after his retirement in July 1789, Thomson set to work on a memoir of his tenure as secretary to the Congress, eventually completing a manuscript of more than a thousand pages. But as time went on and the story of the Revolution became enshrined in myth, Thomson realized that his account, titled “Notes of the Intrigues and Severe Altercations or Quarrels in the Congress,” would “contradict all the histories of the great events of the Revolution.” Around 1816 he finally decided that it was not for himn “to tear away the veil that hides our weaknesses,” and he destroyed the manuscript. “Let the world admire the supposed wisdom and valor of our great men,” he wrote. “Perhaps they may adopt the qualities that have been ascribed to them., and thus good may be done. I shall not undeceive future generations.”

    Despite all the supposed dirt behind the scenes, I think Cornwallis really did surrender at Yorktown. The bureaucrat, perhaps only ever able to see the world through a bureaucrat’s eyes, has no room for the larger stories and realities. He must “deconstruct” and show “the real story.” Everything is a “myth” if it doesn’t always include the bad stuff first and foremost.

    Well, I’ll see how this book goes. Some of the tragedies, violence, and mistakes of the American Revolution are well known to this crowd, as well as the near ineptitude of the Continent Congress. I would appear early-on that this book is about how Benedict Arnold’s betrayal somehow coalesced public opinion and events in a way that brought Americans together who were otherwise fraying apart.

    We’ll see. What the book does note is that George Washington was Herculean in his ability for patience and eating shit sandwiches from the Continental Congress. Arnold, a more delicate, fiery, and self-absorbed character, was not.

    So in regards to the American West and American’s expansion, that’s a very big story indeed. It’s not a flaw that the myths evolve to describe the big story. But one of the draws of reading historical novels is to get a sense for what it was really like in one place for at least one group of people. Maybe TV’s “Rawhide” is a condensation of what it was like to punch cattle. But on the surface of it, if Wishbone is perhaps more of a TV stereotype, and Clint Eastwood’s Rowdy Yates is perhaps more heroic than most, then certainly Eric Fleming as the trail boss, Gil Favor, seems highly plausible.

    So to take on “The Myth of the West” one must go to some pains to describe the reality, or perhaps a series of books and TV programs that do a good job of giving a conglomerate image.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      Thomson realized that his account, titled “Notes of the Intrigues and Severe Altercations or Quarrels in the Congress,” would “contradict all the histories of the great events of the Revolution.” Around 1816 he finally decided that it was not for him “to tear away the veil that hides our weaknesses,” and he destroyed the manuscript. “Let the world admire the supposed wisdom and valor of our great men,” he wrote. “Perhaps they may adopt the qualities that have been ascribed to them., and thus good may be done. I shall not undeceive future generations.”

      I would have loved to read Thomson’s history. I don’t need a sugarcoated narrative to determine how great our founding was. All one needs to ask when trying to determine its place in mankind’s achievements is, “As compared to what?” In order to answer that, one needs some knowledge of history and mankind.

      So when compared to humanity’s other political endeavors, the founding of our country is a stupendous achievement. Any myth which may have arisen about this is just an abridged edition of a great story. And Thomson was right about the need to have ideal models on which we can base our behavior. As they say, shoot for the stars and you will reach the moon.

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