Who Are The Westerners?

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The mythic figure of the cowboy has irritated me all my life. He is a faster gun than I am. He is too attractive to the daydreaming imagination. It gets me nowhere to object to the self-righteous, limited, violent code that governs him or to disparage the novels of Louis L’Amour because they are mass-produced with interchangeable parts. Mr. L’Amour sells in the millions and has readers in the White House.

The best imitators of frontier individualism these days are probably in Silicon Valley and among conglomerate executives.

But what one can say, and be sure of, is that even while the cowboy myth romanticizes and falsifies Western life, it says something true about Western, and hence about American, character.

Western culture and character, hard to define in the first place because they are only half-formed and constantly changing, are further clouded by the mythic stereotype. 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. But also there is the visible, pervasive fact of Western space, which acts as a preservative. Space—itself the product of incorrigible aridity and hence more or less permanent—continues to suggest unrestricted freedom, unlimited opportunity for testings and heroisms, a continuing need for self-reliance and physical competence. The untrammeled individualist persists partly as a residue of the real and romantic frontiers, but also partly because runaways from more restricted regions keep reimporting him. The stereotype continues to affect romantic Westerners and non-Westerners in romantic ways, but if I am right, it also affects real Westerners in real ways.

In the West it is impossible to be unconscious of or indifferent to space. At every city’s edge it confronts us in the federal lands kept open by aridity and the custodial bureaus; out in the boondocks it engulfs us. And space does contribute to individualism, if only because in that much emptiness people have the dignity of rareness and must do much of what they do without help and because self-reliance becomes a social imperative, part of a code. Witness the crudely violent code that governed a young Westerner like Norman Maclean, as he reported it in the stories of A River Runs through It. Witness the way in which space haunts the poetry of such Western poets as William Stafford, Richard Hugo, Gary Snyder. Witness the lonely, half-attached childhood of a writer such as Ivan Doig.

Even in the cities, even among the dispossessed migrants of the factories in the fields, space exerts a diluted influence as illusion and reprieve. Westerners live outdoors more than people elsewhere because outdoors is mainly what they’ve got. For clerks and students, factory workers and mechanics, the outdoors is freedom, just as surely as it is for the folkloric and mythic figures. They don’t have to own the outdoors, or get permission, or cut fences, in order to use it. It is public land, partly theirs, and that space is a continuing influence on their minds and senses. It encourages a fatal carelessness and destructiveness because it seems so limitless and because what is everybody’s is nobody’s responsibility. It also encourages, in some, an impassioned protectiveness; the battlegrounds of the environmental movement lie in the Western public lands. Finally, it promotes certain needs, tastes, attitudes, skills. It is those tastes, attitudes, and skills, as well as the prevailing destructiveness and its corrective, love of the land, that relate real Westerners to the myth.

If I were advising a documentary film maker where he might get the quintessential West in a fifty-six-minute can, I would steer him away from broken-down rodeo riders, away from the towns of the energy boom, away from the big cities, and send him to a little city like Missoula or Corvallis, some settlement that has managed against difficulty to make itself into a place and is likely to remain one. It wouldn’t hurt at all if this little city had a university in it to keep it in touch with its cultural origins and conscious of its changing cultural present. It would do no harm if an occasional Eastern-born critic like Leslie Fiedler came through to stir up its provincialism and set it to some self-questioning.

It is in places like these, and through individuals like these, that the West will realize itself, if it ever does: these towns and cities still close to the earth, intimate and interdependent in their shared community, shared optimism, and shared memory. These are the seedbeds of an emergent Western culture. They are likely to be there when the agribusiness fields have turned to alkali flats and the dams have silted up, when the waves of overpopulation that have been destroying the West have receded, leaving the stickers to get on with the business of adaptation.