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Who Are The Westerners?

July 2024
15min read

“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.”

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.

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 .

But those are novels more of motion than of place, and the emigrants in them are simply farmer-pioneers on their way to new farms. They have not adapted to the West in the slightest degree. They belong where the soil is deep, where the Homestead Act worked, where settlers planted potato peelings in their fireguards and adjourned to build a combination school-church-social hall almost before they had roofs on their shanties. The pioneer farmer is a Midwestern, not a Western, figure. He is a pedestrian, and in the West—horseman’s country even for people who never got on a horse in their lives—pedestrians suffer from the horseman’s contempt that seems as old as the Scythians. The farmer’s very virtues as responsible husband, father, and home builder are against him as a figure of the imagination. To the fantasizing mind he is dull, the ancestor of the clodhopper, the hayseed, and the hick. I have heard Wyoming ranch hands jeer their relatives from Idaho, not because the relatives were Mormons—so were the ranch hands—but because they were farmers, potato diggers.

It was Crèvecoeur’s wild man, the borderer emancipated into total freedom, first in Eastern forests and then in the plains and mountains of the West, who really fired our imaginations, and still does. We have sanitized him somewhat, but our principal folk hero, in all his shapes good and bad, is essentially antisocial.

In real life, as Daniel Boone, Jim Bridger, Jed Smith, Kit Carson, he appeals to us as having lived a life of heroic courage, skill, and self-reliance. Some of his manifestations like Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill Cody are tainted with outlawry or showmanship, but they remain more than life size. Even psychopathic killers such as Billy the Kid and Tom Horn throw a long shadow, and some outlaws like Butch Cassidy and Harry Longabaugh have all the engaging imitability of Robin Hood. What charms us in them is partly their daring, skill, and invulnerability, partly their chivalry; but not to be overlooked is their impatience with all restraint, their freedom from the social responsibility that Crèvecoeur admired in his citizen farmer and that on occasion bows the shoulders of every person born.

Why should I stand up for civilization? Thoreau asked a lecture audience. Any burgher or churchwarden would stand up for that. Thoreau chose instead to stand up for wildness and the savage heart.

We all know that impulse. When youths run away from home, they don’t run away to become farmers. They run away to become romantic isolates, lone riders who slit their eyes against steely distance and loosen the carbines in their scabbards when they see law, or any obligation, or even company approaching.

Lawlessness, like wildness, is attractive, and we conceive the last remaining home of both to be the West. In a folklore predominantly masculine and macho, even women take on the look. Calamity Jane is more familiar to us than Dame Shirley, though Dame Shirley had it all over Jane in brains, and could have matched her in courage, and lived in places every bit as rough as the cowtowns and camps that Calamity Jane frequented.

The attraction of lawlessness did not die with the frontier either. Look at the survivalist Claude L. Dallas, Jr., who in 1981 killed two Idaho game wardens when they caught him poaching—shot them and then finished each off with a bullet in the back of the head. In that act of unchivalrous violence Dallas was expressing more than an unwillingness to pay a little fine. He hid out in the deserts of Idaho and Nevada, protected by people all over the area. Why did they protect him? Because his belated frontiersman style, his total self-reliance and physical competence, his repudiation of any control appealed to them more than murder repelled them or law enlisted their support.

All this may seem remote from the life of the average Westerner, who lives in a city and is more immediately concerned with taxes, schools, his job, drugs, the World Series, or even disarmament than with archetypal figures out of folklore. But it is not so remote as it seems. Habits persist. The hoodlums who come to San Francisco to beat up gays are vigilantes, enforcing their prejudices with violence, just as surely as were the miners who used to hunt down Indians and hang Chinese in the mother lode or the ranchers who rode out to exterminate the nesters in Wyoming’s Johnson County War.

Habits persist. The hard, aggressive, single-minded energy that according to politicians made America great is demonstrated every day in resource raids and leveraged takeovers by entrepreneurs, and along with that competitive individualism and ruthlessness goes a rejection of any controlling past or tradition. What matters is here, now, the seizable opportunity. “We don’t need any history,” said one Silicon Valley executive when the Santa Clara County Historical Society tried to bring the electronics industry together with the few remaining farmers to discuss what was happening to the valley that only a decade or two ago was the fruit bowl of the world. “What we need is more attention to our computers and the moves of the competition.”

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.”

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.

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