Westerns Are Us 

In 1939, William S. Hart, a Shakespearean actor from New York who had been a key player in the making of Hollywood 20 years earlier, and for a time was considered its biggest silent star by virtue of filming “western” melodrama in a signature gritty and realistic style, re-released his 1925 silent epic “Tumbleweeds.” With it he offered a spoken introduction that was a sad farewell to both his own career and to the genre he had helped establish. This same year also saw the release of “Stagecoach,” John Ford’s benchmark. “Tumbleweeds” was a depiction of the actual opening of the Cherokee Strip in Oklahoma by the U.S. government only 50 years before and, to Hart’s mind, the end of the Western epoch. But the “western,” as we now know it, had just been re-born.

Four years after those Indian lands had been taken, at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Frederick Jackson Turner offered his assessment of “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” to a meeting of the American Historical Association. This “frontier thesis” of individualism and American exceptionalism became a touchstone of historiography in the 20th century and influenced much of the depiction of the West that followed, especially in the literature of the time, including that of Hollywood.

It is important to understand the wide acceptance of the thesis on many levels, but most importantly as an effort of one generation to understand another—the West that we now see through the lens of Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour as well as John Ford and William S. Hart, is a creation of children looking at the acts of their parents. It bears the same truth and fault as Baby Boomers looking at our own parents and calling them “the Greatest Generation.” No matter the truth, the debunking of both was inevitable, and also equally flawed.

In Rising From the Plains, the fine essayist John McPhee wrote a wonderful depiction of a moment in time. A young, freshly minted Wellesley graduate named Ethel Waxham takes a stagecoach into the mountains of Wyoming in 1905 with the intent of teaching school there. Smart and sophisticated as she was, she was not a fish out of water but a resourceful and creative player in the final scenes of a drama that began over two centuries earlier, on the shores of New England: the great westward migration. 

Best of all, Waxham can write, and we can now read her own thoughts on the matter in the letters and journals collected by her granddaughters in Lady’s Choice. That she was courted by a tough sheepherder named John Love, and was finally won, is as important after the fact as the likelihood that she herself might have been influenced by a mere novel, The Virginian by Owen Wister—the story of a cowboy who courts a schoolmarm in the wilds of Wyoming, and was by far the biggest best seller of 1902. And too, that her son, David Love, became the geologist who inspired the book by John McPhee, and thus opened the door on that history.

The Virginian is a damned good story, not pinned to a melodrama, that was written soon after the time of the events and follows closely to a reality still known through the personal experiences of many. This sense of reality is the key to why it became a template for nearly all the Westerns we now know, both novels and Hollywood, the debunkers as well as the rest. But there are hundreds of journals and letters and diaries such as the ones by Ethel Waxham, written by those who lived through all that history of the West. The Lakeside Press, the University of Oklahoma, the University of Nebraska and a dozen other presses have published hundreds of these personal accounts and make the study and pleasure of reading them readily accessible.

The western is not just a myth. It is a matter of our nature and heritage as Americans. That it has been mythologized does not make it untrue—any more than was the Iliad’s depiction of the battle of Troy. That the heroes and outlaws of the American West have their counterparts in myth might well serve as insight into our deeper past and likened to the Icelandic eddas and sagas, just as the understanding of that specific history must be a part of any comprehension of what we are, what we have done, and what we might do.

It may be argued that the western as a literature had its beginnings with Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans in 1826, a tale based on the history of the French and Indian Wars of the 1750s, some 75 years prior. The hero, Hawk-eye, is intentionally a mythic character, but he had his real-life counterparts in men such as Simon Kenton, so superbly recorded in Allan Eckert’s Frontiersmen. And Eckert has also given us a fine account of the great Shawnee Chief Tecumseh, and his attempt to thwart the seemingly inevitable tragedy of the European confrontation with the Native American, with all of its vagaries, contradictions, misalliances, and inevitable misfortune.

The manufactured controversies over a great film, John Ford’s “The Searchers,” most often relate to supposed prejudices irrelevant to the story told. The author Alan Le May had fashioned his novel from the many factual first-hand accounts of Comanche kidnappings, including that of the mother of the war chief, Quanah Parker. The film draws from that novel but alters the story for its own purpose. It does not attempt to deny or alter the history of actual events. The condensation of history that is possible to fiction is one part of what becomes myth.

The American West of Mark Twain’s 1872 memoir Roughing It, though embellished in Twain’s inimitable way, includes the picaresque material of the stagecoach journey and of silver mining that can be found in countless other novels and films, because the grit fits. For instance, much of that tale is also told again firsthand by Robert Eccleston in his Overland to California, and The Mariposa Indian War, but without Twain’s sense of humor. Amazingly, as it so often goes with these near mythic figures, Eccleston was one of the founders of Tombstone, Arizona, and was present at the time of the legendary gunfight at the OK Corral.

True enough, the face-off of the gunfight itself, so often portrayed by Hollywood, was relatively uncommon. More often retold are tales of bushwhackers and other such murders for robbery and revenge that were related in the “dime novels” of the contemporary period by writers such as Ned Buntline. But these deadly confrontations also tended to be brief affairs, and not so photogenic—over before a crowd could gather, and thus not good fodder for the “print the legend” mentality, or Hollywood. 

Because the gun was a common tool for all, men and women, there was in fact relatively little such violence. Death might come soon enough through common accident in a cowboy’s life, no need to rush it. But life for an average citizen of the western community—that is, apart from the railheads, cattle towns, and gold strikes—was far safer than life is today in Chicago, New York, or Baltimore. Messing with people back then had consequences and the sheriff was usually too far away. Movies are not made about such things, but the books and personal accounts of everyday small town life in the West, punctuated as it was by events at the “Opera House” with its visiting vaudeville shows and personal appearances by the likes of Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, and Sara Bernhardt, all sound quite appealing to my ear.

William S. Hart used Wyatt Earp as a consultant on his movies. He was yet another friend to Bat Masterson (wasn’t everybody?), and always looking for detail, and went out of his way to meet and talk with many of the survivors of the western heyday. The western mythos of individuality was not manufactured so much as used and abused.

And some of this was aided by the participants themselves. Masterson left the West behind only when his game leg—famously requiring him to use a cane—made riding a horse too difficult. He had actually hunted buffalo with Bill Cody in the 1860s, been a gambler, hustler, gunfighter, lawman, mining speculator, saloon owner (including “Gunsmoke’s” famous Longbranch, of Dodge City) and a good friend to both men and women, including Wild Bill Hickok, Doc Holliday, and Earp, while known to be an easy touch for those in need. Masterson later became a world famous sports reporter for the Morning Telegraph in New York City where he became a friend to Jack Dempsey, Jack Johnson, John L. Sullivan, and a favorite of Theodore Roosevelt.

In 1901, just about the time the aging Masterson moved to New York City,  a slight fellow of 19, with a diminished leg from a childhood bout with polio, but without “folding” money, or an education, chose to flee Canton, North Carolina. He was avoiding an arrest warrant for being in the company of a friend who had shot and wounded the local sheriff. It so happened that on the way out of town he saw a girl, not yet a woman, on the platform at the train station, and she caught his eye. There was some small talk. He must have been a charmer. The girl, carrying a single cloth bag, had come down from the mountains to work as a seamstress in the textile mill there. She needed a place to stay. The young man knew of just the thing—a room was now open at the house of his parents. And as he said goodbye, he told her to wait for him and that when he got back, he would marry her. In good Huck Finn fashion, he then lit out for the territories, beyond Texas, and from there, south into Mexico. Across the border he found his refuge with an uncle and cousins who had started a silver mine. And after three years, when the arrest warrant had expired, he did return home, and married my grandmother. I am here as proof of it, along with 36 other grandchildren.

I heard stories of this doughty adventure when I was still young enough to believe every embellished detail, including encounters with Pancho Villa. Growing up in the suburbs of New York, the western was already a staple. “Hopalong Cassidy,” “The Lone Ranger” and “The Cisco Kid,” and in their turn “Gunsmoke” and “Rawhide” fired my imagination. In fact, however, the television western, unlike the movie western, had a short heyday. It just happened to come in my childhood years.

And yet, the TV cowboy was a pale hombre compared with what I read in the works of Will James, Ernest Haycox, William MacLeod Raine, Elmore Leonard and a dozen others. Soon enough I graduated to the more complicated tales of Frederick Manfred, Conrad Richter, Willa Cather, and Dorothy Johnson.

More interesting to me then and now is that I had several friends who had their own family stories and connections to the West: to the Mormon trek, to an Italian immigrant in the California Gold Rush, to a Polish Jew who opened a drug store in Montana, and to a German railroad shipper operating out of Denver, Colorado. Always then, and to me, “the West” was just in my grandfather’s time.

The debunking began long ago. The Oxbow Incident was the only western I was ever assigned to read in school. The senseless violence of “The Wild Bunch” was an answer to the heroism of “The Magnificent Seven.” But now, in a woke frenzy rejecting all things male, even this West is denied, to be artificially removed from the realm of both fiction and history, much less personal recollection. Firsthand accounts of the West are denied in favor of a politically correct doctrine of conquest and subjugation. We are now told that slavery was the objective from the first.

Those who believe and promote this dogma have no interest in the Native American as anything more than a tool—and a blunt instrument at that—for the furthering of a political agenda. Those who espouse this revisionism have never read the literature. They don’t know the territory, and they don’t want to. Condemnation is all that matters. Injustice is to them the unique quality of the American character. That they are now the lynch mob never occurs to them.

The depredation of the American Indian has been a theme of the literature from at least the time of James Fenimore Cooper. The overwhelming of the North American tribes by European immigration was not planned, or imagined, any more than was the invasion of Europe by the barbarian hordes. The contest took place over hundreds of years, between what we know now to be two historically unequal combatants always unsure of the outcome. But the result was as inevitable as it is undeniable. And still, the sense of righteousness lingers.

Importantly, the themes of the American West, self-reliance, individuality, cooperation, trust, perseverance and resourcefulness, remain with us as a nation—must remain, lest our culture and the history that made us, be lost. It is a history of both losers and winners, and all the many that were in-between—the survivors. It is a history that now belongs to my grandchildren and should not be forgotten or destroyed by the political ambition of lesser folk. 

About Vincent McCaffrey

Vincent McCaffrey is a novelist and bookseller. Visit his website at www.vincentmccaffrey.com.

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

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