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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
We are not so far from our models, real and fictional, as we think. As on a wild river, the water passes, the waves remain. A high degree of mobility, a degree of ruthlessness, a large component of both self-sufficiency and self-righteousness mark the historical pioneer, the lone-riding folk hero, and the modern businessman intent on opening new industrial frontiers and getting his own in the process. The same qualities inform the extreme individualists who believe that they belong to nothing except what they choose to belong to, those who try on life-styles as some try on clothes, whose only communal association is with what the sociologist Robert Bellah calls “lifestyle enclaves,” casual and temporary groupings of the like-minded. One reason it is so difficult to isolate any definitely Western culture is that so many Westerners, like other Americans, only more so, shy away from commitment. Mobility of every sort—physical, familial, social, corporate, occupational, religious, sexual—confirms and reinforces the illusion of independence.
Consider the freedom-loving loner. In the West this figure acquired an irresistible costume—the boots, spurs, chaps, and sombrero bequeathed to him by Mexican vaqueras, plus the copper-riveted canvas pants invented for California miners by a peddler named Levi Strauss—but he remained estranged from real time, real place, and any real society or occupation. In fact, it is often organized society, in the shape of a crooked sheriff and his cronies, that this loner confronts and confounds.
Plenty of ranch hands have read pulp Westerns in the bunkhouse and got up walking, talking, and thinking like Hopalong Cassidy.
The notion of civilization’s corruption, the notion that the conscience of an antisocial savage is less calloused than the conscience of society, is, of course, a bequest from Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The chivalry of the antisocial one, his protectiveness of the weak and oppressed, especially those whom James Fenimore Cooper customarily referred to as “females,” derives from Cooper with reinforcement from two later romantics, Frederic Remington and Owen Wister, collaborators in the creation of the knight errant in chaps.
The hero of Wister’s 1902 novel The Virginian is gentle-seeming, easygoing, humorous, but when the wicked force him into action, he is the very gun of God, better at violence than the wicked are. He is a daydream of glory made flesh. Note that the Virginian not only defeats the villain Trampas in a gunfight as formalized as a fourteenth-century joust—the first of a thousand literary and movie walkdowns—but that he also joins the vigilantes and in the name of law and order acts as jury, judge, and hangman for his friend Steve, who has gone bad and become a rustler.
The Virginian feels sorry about Steve, but he never questions that the stealing of a few mavericks should be punished by death, any more than Wister questioned the motives of his Wyoming rancher host who led the Johnson County vigilantes against the homesteaders they despised and called “rustlers.” This culture hero is himself law. Law is whatever he and his companions (and employers) believe (which means law is his and their self-interest). Whatever action he takes is law enforcement. Compare Larry McMurtry’s two ex-Texas Rangers in his recent novel Lonesome Dove . They kill more people than all the outlaws in that book put together do, but their killings are right. Their lawlessness is justified by the lack of any competing socialized law and by a supreme confidence in themselves, as if every judgment of theirs could be checked back to Coke and Blackstone, if not to Leviticus.
Critics have noted that in The Virginian (and, for that matter, in most of its successors, though not in Lonesome Dove ) there are no scenes involving cattle. There is no manure, no punching of postholes or stringing of barbed wire, none of the branding, castrating, dehorning, dipping, and horseshoeing that real cowboys, hired men on horseback, spend their laborious and unromantic lives at. The physical universe is simplified like the moral one. Time is stopped.
The Virginian is the standard American orphan, dislocated from family, church, and place of origin, with an uncertain past identified only by his nickname. With his knightly sense of honor and his capacity to outviolence the violent, he remains an irresistible model for romantic adolescents of any age, and he transfers readily from the cowboy setting to more modern ones. It is only a step from his “When you call me that, smile!” to the remark made famous by the mayor of Carmel and the President of the United States: “Go ahead, make my day.”