Who Are The Westerners?

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Being a Westerner is not simple. If you live, say, in Los Angeles, you live in the second-largest city in the nation, urban as far as the eye can see in every direction except west. There is (or was in 1980—the chances would be somewhat greater now) a 6.9 percent chance that you are Asian, a 16.9 percent chance that you are black, and a 27 percent chance that you are Hispanic. You have only a 48 percent chance of being a non-Hispanic white.

This means that instead of being suitable for casting in the cowboy and pioneer roles familiar from the mythic and movie West, you may be one of those Chinks or Spies or greasers for whom the legendary West had a violent contempt. You’d like to be a hero, and you may adopt the costume and attitudes you admire, but your color or language or the slant of your eyes tells you that you are one of the kind scheduled to be a villain or a victim, and your current status as second-class citizen confirms that view. You’re part of a subculture envious of or hostile to the dominant one.

This ethnic and cultural confusion exists not only in Los Angeles but in varying proportions in every Western city and many Western towns. Much of the adaptation that is going on is adaptation to a very uncertain reality or to a reality whose past and present do not match. The Western culture and Western character with which it is easiest to identify exist largely in the West of make-believe, where they can be kept simple.

As invaders, we Anglo-Americans were rarely, or only temporarily, dependent on the materials, foods, or ideas of the regions we pioneered. The champagne and oysters that cheered midnight suppers during San Francisco’s gold-rush period were not local, nor was the taste that demanded them. The dominant white culture was always aware of its origins; it brought its origins with it across the plains or around the Horn, and it kept in touch with them.

The Spanish of New Mexico, who also brought their origins with them, are in other ways an exception. Settled in the late sixteenth century—before Jamestown, Quebec, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony—New Mexico existed in isolation, dependent largely on itself, until the Americans forcibly took it over in 1846, and during those two and a half centuries it had a high Indian culture close at hand to teach it how to live with the country. Culturally the Spanish Southwest is an island, adapted in its own ways, in many ways alien.

By contrast the Anglo-American West, barely breached until the middle of the nineteenth century, was opened during a time of rapid communication. It was linked with the world by ship, rail, and telegraph before the end of the 1860s, and the isolation of even its brief, explosive outposts, its Alder Gulches and Cripple Creeks, was anything but total. Excited travelers reported the West in words to match its mountains; it was viewed in Currier & Ives prints drawn by enthusiasts who had never been there except in imagination. The outside never got over its heightened and romantic notion of the West. The West never got over its heightened and romantic notion of itself.

The pronounced differences some people see between the West and other parts of America need to be examined. Except as they involve Spanish or Indian cultures, they could be mainly illusory, the result of the tendency to see the West in its mythic enlargement rather than as it is and of the corollary tendency to take our cues from myths in the effort to enhance our lives. Life does sometimes copy art. More than drugstore cowboys and street corner Kit Carsons succumb. Plenty of authentic ranch hands have read pulp Westerns in the shade of the bunkhouse and got up walking, talking, and thinking like Buck Duane or Hopalong Cassidy.

We have sanitized him somewhat but our principal folk hero, in all his shapes good and bad, remains essentially antisocial.

No matter what kind of wilderness it developed in, every part of the real West was a melting-pot mixture of people from everywhere, operating under the standard American drives of restlessness, aggressiveness, and great expectations and with the standard American freedom that often crossed the line into violence. It was supposed to be a democracy, and at least in the sense that it was often every man for himself, it was. Though some of its phases—the fur trade, the gold rushes, the open-range cattle industry—lasted hardly longer than the blink of an eye, other phases—logging, irrigation farming, the stock farm with cattle or sheep—have lasted by now for a century or more and have formed the basis for relatively stable communities with some of the attributes of place, some identity as subcultures of the prevailing postfrontier culture of America. If Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis is applicable beyond the ninety-eighth meridian, then the West ought to be, with minor local variations, America—only more so.