- Historic Sites
Who Are The Westerners?
“Why hasn't the stereotype faded away as real cowboys become less and less typical of Western life? Because we can't or won't do without it, obviously.”
December 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 8
Actually it is and it isn’t. It would take fast footwork to dance the society based on big reclamation projects into a democracy. Even the cattle kingdom from which we derive our most individualistic and independent folk hero was never a democracy as the Middle West, say, was a democracy. The real-life cattle baron was and is about as democratic as a feudal baron. The cowboy in practice was and is an overworked, under-paid hireling, almost as homeless and dispossessed as a modern crop worker, and his fabled independence was and is chiefly the privilege of quitting his job in order to go looking for another just as bad. That, or go outside the law, as some did. There is a discrepancy between the real conditions of the West, which even among outlaws enforced cooperation and group effort, and the folklore of the West, which celebrated the dissidence of dissent, the most outrageous independence. Bernard De Voto once cynically guessed that the only true individualists in the West wound up on the end of a rope whose other end was in the hands of a bunch of cooperators.
The dynamics of contemporary adaptation work ambiguously. The best imitators of frontier individualism these days are probably Silicon Valley and conglomerate executives, whose entrepreneurial attributes are not greatly different from those of an old-time cattle baron. Little people must salve their wounds with daydreams and fantasy. Some may imagine themselves becoming captains of industry, garage inventors whose inventions grow into Fortune 500 companies overnight, but I think that more of them are likely to cuddle up to a culture hero independent of the system and even opposed to it—a culture hero given them by the novelist Owen Wister, an Eastern snob who saw in the common cowherd the lineaments of Lancelot. Chivalry, or the daydream of it, is at least as common among daydreamers as among entrepreneurs.
Physically the West could only be itself. Its scale, its colors, its landforms, its plants and animals tell a traveler what country he is in and a native that he is at home. Even Western cities owe most of their distinctiveness to their physical setting. Albuquerque with its mud-colored houses spreading like clay banks along the valley of the Rio Grande could only be New Mexico. Denver’s ringworm suburbs on the apron of the Front Range could only be boom-time Colorado. Salt Lake City bracing back against the Wasatch and looking out toward the dead sea and the barren ranges could only be the Great Basin.
But is anything except their setting distinctive? The people in them live on streets named Main and State, Elm and Poplar, First and Second, like Americans elsewhere. They eat the same Wheaties and Wonder Bread and Big Macs, watch the same ball games and soaps and sitcoms on television, work at the same industrial or service jobs, suffer from the same domestic crises and industrial blights, join the same health clubs and neighborhood protective associations, and in general behave and misbehave much as they would in Omaha or Chicago or East Orange. The homogenizing media have certainly been at work on them, perhaps with more effect than the arid spaciousness of the region itself, and while making them more like everybody, have also given them misleading clues to who they are.
Who is the American, this new man? St. John de Crèvecoeur asked rhetorically more than two hundred years ago, and went on to idealize him as the American farmer—industrious, optimistic, upwardly mobile, family-oriented, socially responsible, a new man given new hope in the New World, a lover of both hearth and earth, a builder of communities. He defined him in the terms of a new freedom, emancipated from feudalism, oppression, and poverty, but with no wish to escape society or its responsibilities.
Crèvecoeur also sketched, with distaste, another kind of American, a kind he thought would fade away with the raw frontier that had created him. This kind lived alone or with a slattern woman and a litter of kids out in the woods. He had no fixed abode, tilled no ground or tilled it only fitfully, lived by killing, was footloose, uncouth, antisocial, impatient of responsibility and law. The eating of wild meat, Crèvecoeur said, made him ferocious and gloomy. Too much freedom promoted in him a coarse selfishness and a readiness to violence.
The pioneer farmer as Crèvecoeur conceived him has a place in Western history, and as the Jeffersonian yeoman he had a prominent place in the mistaken effort to oversettle the West, first by homestead and later by reclamation. Traces of him are to be found in Western literature, art, and myth. Sculptors have liked his sturdy figure plodding beside the covered wagon on which ride his poke-bonneted wife and his barefoot children. He strides through a lot of WPA murals. The Mormons, farmers in the beginning, idealize him. He has achieved more than life size in such novels of the migration as The Covered Wagon and The Way West .