Frederic Remington’s Wild West

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Critic Harold McCracken has argued for a depth and complexity to Remington inherent in the fact that he lived a double life. On the one hand he was the urbane Manhattanite, mingling with an impressive array of important men, lunching at the Players Club or some other cigar-andbrandy haven, dining at the Roosevelt White House, and living in considerable comfort, with a taste for expensive clothes and palatial residences; on the other he was the artist-correspondent in the field, enduring the extremes of weather, the hardships of long days in the saddle, and the risk of an enemy bullet, living on a minimal, even primitive level while absorbing those impressions that would feed his artistry for months to come back in his New York studio.

But these opposite lifestyles did not betoken some internal contradiction warring within Remington. Rather they were perfectly consistent with the values shared by a number of upper-class Easterners in this same period who, almost as if taking their cue from Roosevelt, sought out personal challenges, whether on western ranches, hunting and camping trips in the north woods ("to suffer like an anchorite is always a part of the sportsman’s programme,” Remington observed), the football fields of Yale and Harvard, or the battlefields of Cuba. This cult of “stress seeking” affirmed the need for a man to constantly test himself, pushing himself to the limits of courage and endurance and in so doing preserving intact those vital pioneering traits that had made America great but were now in danger of withering away before the sheer ease of modern life. “I believe that a man should for one month of the year live on the roots of the grass, in order to understand for the eleven following that so-called necessities are luxuries in reality,” Remington declared in 1894, in reference to his own experiences in the Sierra Madrés. Among the stress seekers there was an obsession with the pitfalls of wealth and worldly success, for they led directly to what might be an irreversible softening of the national fiber. Roosevelt railed at the “moneyed and semi-cultivated classes, especially of the Northeast” for producing a “flabby, timid type of character which eats away the great fighting qualities of our race.” The martial virtues were essential to the country’s well-being, and they must not be permitted to atrophy. Noblesse oblige dictated that the upper classes, who were most culpable anyway, should provide leadership in the campaign to preserve the best in the American character.

At times the stress-seeking philosophy degenerated into chest thumping and saber rattling. Its adherents suspiciously surveyed the world from the embattled perspective of “survival of the fittest” and tended to a deeply pessimistic view of current events. For Remington it added up to an agreeable intellectual milieu. He was not a subtle man. Direct statement was his style in the iSgo’s, and he was a walking catalogue of the prejudices of his time and class. He despised labor protesters and strikers as un-American “rats” and fretted over the inconvenience he might be caused by a shutdown of the Pennsylvania coalfields. He saw the urban “mobs” as tainted products of Europe’s decadence and feared the pollution of the American character through “mongrelization.” “Jews, Injuns, Chinamen, Italians, Huns—the rubbish of the Earth I hate,” he declared in one remarkable outburst in 1893. “I’ve got some Winchesters and when the massacring begins, I can get my share of ‘em, and what’s more, I will.” Though Remington came from staunch Protestant stock, it was not religion that concerned him. “I don’t care a d——n how a man gets to Heaven. … But I do care how he votes and lives and fights.” In 1898 Remington rejoiced at the prospect of war in Cuba. It was a chance to “lick the Dagoes,” though he mourned that “it does seem tough that so many Americans have had to be and have still got to be killed to free a lot of d——n niggers who are better off under the yoke.” Unlike the Civil War, however, “this time … we will kill a few Spaniards instead of Anglo Saxons, which will be proper and nice.” Remington’s America, in short, was a white man’s country—indeed, a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Republican country if things were as they should be. And to his mind the West was the purest portion of all, a bastion of unadulterated Americanism, a last great arena for testing a man’s mettle and building character.

As an immensely popular illustrator driven “crazy with work” Remington had to keep a strict regimen. He was usually up by six each morning and, after an ample breakfast, at his easel by eight. He painted until mid-afternoon, then relaxed by walking, riding, cycling, or paddling, depending on the circumstances. Prolific and busy as he was, Remington treasured all the more his respites from “the sad effeminacy of the studio"—respites spent among the “hard-sided” cavalrymen and the other frontier types he admired. He wholeheartedly identified with the men he met out west, yet largely avoided the self-conscious need to emulate them in dress and manner. He was outgoing and accessible—”a good natured smooth faced fat blonde original good fellow,” according to one officer who met him in 1890. Remington was, one hunting partner recalled, “an admirable companion, with an inexhaustible fund of adventure and anecdote.” It was as a companion—a man with whom one drank and pleasantly passed the leisure hours—rather than as a friend that he was ordinarily remembered.