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Creating The American West

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Larry McMurtry.
Telegraph Days.
Simon & Schuster. 304 pages. $25.00

B efore his critical success with Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry floundered on the mid-list. So when reviewers dubbed him “a good minor regional novelist,” McMurtry took to wearing a sweatshirt with the words “Minor Regional Novelist” emblazoned across the front. In a similar vein, the great film director John Ford — a favorite of Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas — would introduce himself with, “My name’s John Ford. I make Westerns.”

Western writing may not always have garnered the respect of critics and cultural mandarins, but no other genre has more effectively captured what it means to be American. The Western is the story of the American Founding once removed: how a collection of newly independent states on the East Coast sent its people into the wilderness and built a country. The hugely popular Louis L’Amour, who really is a good minor regional novelist, writes that his stories are “concerned with . . . entering, passing through, or settling wild country. I am concerned with people building a nation, learning to live together, with establishing towns, homes, and bridges to the future.”

In that specific sense, Western writing has been about character — the character of people and of a people. It has mostly been about good character, but in the late 1950s and especially the 1960s, revisionist Western writers launched an “anti-Western” critique of American values. Spurred by the disillusionment of the Vietnam War and the rise of the counterculture, the revisionists rejected the romanticism of the traditional Western in favor of a darker tone reflecting an America seemingly torn apart by violence, racism, and class struggle. Thus was the Sixties Kulturkampf played out on a new Western frontier. The revisionists aimed to tell the untold stories of the West. Wallace Stegner (Angle of Repose) and Elmer Kelton (The Day the Cowboys Quit, The Time It Never Rained) focused not on the heroism of cowboys and lawmen, but on the day-to-day struggles faced by ordinary ranchmen, farmers, engineers, miners, and housewives. Others, such as Jim Harrison (Dalva, The Road Home) and Thomas Berger (Little Big Man), looked sympathetically at the lives of American Indians displaced by white settlers.

McMurtry, himself a student of Stegner’s, shared the revisionist project. In his memoir, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, McMurtry recounts how he, the son of a west Texas rancher, came to write about the West. Born in 1936 in Wichita Falls, McMurtry worked as a ranch hand until he realized, at 23, that he would never succeed as a cowboy because of his “profound disinterest in cows.” So he gave up herding cattle in favor of “herding words . . . across the spacious ranges” of literature. In 1961, he embarked on his project to uncover the real West with his first novel, Horseman, Pass By. But he soon found that his work was actually reinforcing the very myths he had set out to destroy:

My experience with Lonesome Dove and its various sequels and prequels convinced me that the core of the Western myth — that cowboys are brave and cowboys are free — is essentially unassailable. I thought of Lonesome Dove as demythicizing, but instead it became a kind of American Arthuriad, overflowing the bounds of genre in many curious ways. In two lesser novels . . . I tried to subvert the Western myth with irony and parody, with no better results. Readers don’t want to know and can’t be made to see how difficult and destructive life in the Old West really was.

McMurtry’s latest novel, Telegraph Days, belongs to the parodic vein of his Western writing, cheerily upending every legend it can lay hands on. It follows the adventures of its spunky heroine, the ridiculously named Marie Antoinette “Nellie” Courtwright. Orphaned after their father’s suicide, Nellie and her brother, Jackson, leave their isolated ranch in the Oklahoma Territory and settle in nearby Rita Blanca, where Nellie gets her brother signed up as a deputy and establishes herself as the town’s telegraph operator. But the notorious Yazee gang threatens the town by planning to kill the sheriff and take the place over.

In a comic take on the Western shoot-out, Jackson, who has never fired a gun before, kills all six Yazee brothers. It’s pure luck, but Nellie quickly capitalizes on Jackson’s newfound fame by writing a penny pamphlet, “The Banditti of No Man’s Land,” about her brother’s heroic feats. Her story becomes a bestseller, and, tasting financial success, Nellie decides to make a career of it. She signs up with Buffalo Bill Cody’s traveling Wild West show and (like Jack Crabbe of Little Big Man) meets a whole series of legendary Westerners fit for her brand of revisionist hagiography — George Custer, Wild Bill Hickok, Billy the Kid, the Earp brothers, Jesse James, and, of course, Buffalo Bill himself. They’re pathetic sorts, really, and Nellie, being the flannel-mouthed busybody she is, ends up bossing them all around.

At first glance, Telegraph Days is the most cynical of McMurtry’s revisionist novels. The Lonesome Dove series, though unmerciful in its gritty depiction of the cattle drives of the 1890s, was nonetheless truly a romance of the Old West and largely stayed within the established conventions of the genre. Its heroes, Augustus “Gus” McCrae and Woodrow F. Call, however flawed, were still good men and skilled fighters, worthy opponents of the last remaining Comanche warriors and the bandit Blue Duck and his gang. Telegraph Days, in contrast, presents a demythicized American West in which there are no heroes or villains, no epic struggle, not even a hint of conflict. All the West’s great heroes are revealed to be frauds, poor shots, mean drunks, and bumbling idiots; the pulp novels and penny pamphlets chronicling their adventures are unabashed lies written by cash-strapped hacks for a credulous Eastern public. Yet, as with Lonesome Dove and his subsequent novels, McMurtry can’t quite see the thing through. Lies the popular history of the American West may be, but they’re noble lies. So even as McMurtry turns the legends on their heads, he can’t help but celebrate the legend makers.

“To the great extent that there was a West of the imagination — and this was the West that most Americans knew — it was the artists, not the pioneers, who created it,” McMurtry wrote.

“To the great extent that there was a West of the imagination — and this was the West that most Americans knew — it was the artists, not the pioneers, who created it,” McMurtry wrote in a 1990 New Republic essay. “The winning of the West was in large measure an imaginative act.” It’s not surprising, then, that in Telegraph Days McMurtry reconceives the greatest showman of the Wild West, Buffalo Bill Cody, as an artistic hero.

Bill is an unlikely leading man: He is blustering and boastful, strangely asexual (he’s the only man in Telegraph Days unmoved by Nellie’s considerable charms), and so inept that for all his showboating, he can hardly get his Wild West show on the road without Nellie’s help. Yet Bill has a vision of the West. Like Nellie with her penny pamphlet, Bill takes a dreary, unpoetic reality and recreates it as myth. But unlike Nellie, Bill actually believes in his creation; he sees in his mythic reimagining of the West a place more real than reality itself. And through his Wild West shows, dime-store novels and eventually the movies, Bill’s dreamed-up West supplants the actual region in the American mind.

N ot for nothing does the historian Richard Slotkin argue in his Gunfighter Nation that the entire history of the West is but Buffalo Bill’s “lengthened shadow.” The frontier came alive in the public imagination, thanks to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, even after the actual frontier disappeared. The show opened in 1883; in 1890 the U.S. Census Bureau officially declared the frontier closed. But Buffalo Bill continued to perform. He gave a hugely popular performance at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the same place where Frederick Jackson Turner delivered his famous lecture, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” bemoaning the end of the Western frontier.

To Turner, the “free land” of the frontier defined the American spirit. “This fluidity of American life, this expansion westward — with its few opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society — furnish the forces dominating American character,” he said. “To the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics.”

And it was true: Most Americans shared a belief in the power of nature as a source of renewal. Physicians prescribed the “West cure,” a hunting trip meant to rejuvenate weary Eastern men. By going outdoors, shaking off the shackles of civilization, men could return to their authentic selves. Theodore Roosevelt championed this view in his writings on “the strenuous life.” The future president had been a sickly, asthmatic child. His father recommended a rigorous regimen of exercise, including boxing, gymnastics, swimming, and horseback riding. In 1882, at the age of 24, Roosevelt headed out to see the last remaining buffalo herds in the Dakota Territory. Two years later, he turned westward again to recover from the grief of losing both his wife and his mother. He stayed there for two years, producing Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, Thomas Hart Benton and The Winning of the West, his four-volume history of the early frontier. In 1887, Roosevelt founded the Boone and Crockett Club, a society dedicated to environmental conservation and what he called “the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife . . . that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil.”

Other members of Roosevelt’s Boone and Crockett Club had followed similar paths. Owen Wister, the scion of a famous Philadelphia family, had a nervous breakdown in 1885 and was sent to Wyoming to recuperate. Wister later wrote The Virginian, the novel that established the conventions of the Western literary genre. The historian Francis Parkman, son of a wealthy Bostonian family, suffered from bouts of childhood illness and was sent to the family farm where he developed an interest in the American wilderness. Parkman later traveled throughout Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, and Kansas and eventually wrote The Oregon Trail.

These three wealthy, Harvard-educated men felt the transformative power of the frontier at an early age and set themselves the task of conveying it to their fellow Easterners. In an 1895 Harper’s essay, “The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher,” Wister described how an “effete” English lord had traveled to Texas and been reborn. The effect of the landscape on the aristocrat was instinctual; as soon as he “smelt Texas,” Wister wrote, his blood stirred. The dandy, once accustomed to the best of everything, became revitalized by the hardships of rustic life and came to relish sleeping on the ground, roping cattle, and hunting. In keeping with Turner’s frontier thesis, the experience democratized the English lord. Whereas he once looked down on lower classes, in Wister’s telling the nobleman becomes “fundamentally kin with the drifting vagabonds who swore and galloped by his side.”

Thus, the closing of the frontier sparked a deep intellectual crisis. Turner’s thesis presented an obvious problem, one well expressed half a century later by Henry Nash Smith in his classic Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (1950): If the frontier was a necessary source of America’s democratic culture, of the nation’s spiritual values, what would happen when there was no more free land? As the Western frontier closed, was America in danger of losing no less than its national identity?

Roosevelt feared as much. In his 1899 address to the Hamilton Club, he warned against letting America collapse into decadent Orientalism: “We cannot, if we would, play the part of China, and be content to rot by inches in ignoble ease within our borders . . . heedless of the higher life, the life of aspiration, of toil and risk, busying ourselves only with the wants of our bodies for the day.” To forestall the loss of America’s frontier spirit, President Roosevelt established the national park system in 1905 to preserve the “hardy life of the wilderness and of the hunter in the wilderness,” and he launched imperial adventures abroad. In both, his goal was to inject a shot of manly vigor and pride into democratic politics to moderate its baser tendencies toward consumerism and populism. As Parkman put it, American society had to “resist the mob and the demagogue . . . the race for gold and the delirium of prosperity . . . to prove . . . that the rule of the masses is consistent with the highest growth of the individual; that democracy can give the world a civilization as mature and pregnant, ideas as energetic and vitalizing, and types of manhood as lofty and strong, as any of the systems which it boasts to supplant.”

This turn-of-the-century critique of a frontierless America echoed an earlier warning by Alexis de Tocqueville. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville worried about the tendency of democratic society to foster a preoccupation with private materialistic concerns to the exclusion of public life. “I see an innumerable multitude of men, alike and equal, constantly circling around in pursuit of the petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls,” he wrote. “He exists in and for himself, and though he may still have a family, one can say at least he has not got a fatherland.” Such a society, Tocqueville feared, could become susceptible to paternalism and eventually tyranny. Roosevelt, Wister, and Parkman believed that the frontier spirit had checked democracy’s dangerous tendencies. Now that the actual West could no longer serve that function, the idea of the West had to do so instead. So they sought to create a national myth that would shore up the American character against the debilitating effects of the new commercial age. As Smith argued in Virgin Land, it was not the actual experiences of Western pioneers that formed the American character, but rather an elite living in the East that self-consciously crafted the Western story for national purposes. Indeed, with help from Buffalo Bill, it turns out that a fairly small number of intellectual entrepreneurs managed in the space of about a quarter century to transform the West from a physical landscape into an imaginative one. The new, imagined West carried the same values through literature, histories, and popular culture. Vehicles for the new myth included Roosevelt’s own history, The Winning of the West, James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, the penny pamphlets chronicling the adventures of the great wilderness men Daniel Boone and Kit Carson, and, later, the dime-store sagas of Deadwood Dick and Calamity Jane. But by far the most influential work of Western mythology was Owen Wister’s The Virginian.

P ublished in 1902, The Virginian created the conventions and stock characters that would define the genre: the quiet-spoken hero, the Eastern schoolmarm, the black-hatted villain, the dramatic shoot-out. It overflowed with manliness. It was dedicated to Teddy Roosevelt. Frederic Remington illustrated it. Gary Cooper played the lead in the 1929 movie. Ernest Hemingway loved it.

The novel’s action takes place in the Wyoming Territory between 1874 and 1890. In the “Letter to the Reader” that opens the book, Wister writes that the events of his story occurred not long since the present day, but already “it is a vanished world.” The evolution from America’s agrarian past to its industrial future is “inevitable” and even desirable, he wrote, but it has also upended social mores for the worse: “A transition has followed the horseman of the plains, a shapeless state, a condition of men and manners as unlovely as is that moment in the year when winter is gone and spring not come, and the face of Nature is ugly.” Wister’s book aimed at creating a new founding myth for this shapeless state.

The novel’s hero resists the shallow culture of the city and the marketplace. Unlike the men of “Wall Street,” the Virginian keeps his word. Unlike the men of “Newport,” his manners are gentle: He does not speak “lewdly to women.” Wister clearly wants to rescue those virtues for democratic American man. He urges Americans to reclaim the cowboy as America’s knight: “What is become of the horseman, the cowpuncher, the last romantic figure upon our soil? For he was romantic.”

The cowboy, moreover, is not distinguished by wealth or family name. The Virginian, who remains nameless throughout Wister’s novel, is a “yeoman” from the Piedmont Mountains. He uses salty language and speaks forthrightly to the point of rudeness.

He is uneducated but exhibits an innate natural wisdom. His fiancée, Molly, a schoolteacher, introduces the Virginian to Shakespeare, Keats, Tolstoy and other classics. But the Virginian, the hybrid hero who combines Western strength with Eastern gentility, displays a deeper understanding than Molly of their literary themes. Despite his lack of formal schooling and noble birth, the cowboy is an aristocrat. He possesses superior physical strength and fighting prowess like the knights of medieval times, but also a certain moral superiority that empowers him to dispense justice, with or without the community’s sanction. The classical Western holds, with Andrew Jackson, that “one man of courage makes a majority.”

The Virginian takes the law into his own hands twice: when he hangs his best friend, Steve, for cattle rustling and when he duels with the villain Trampas. Molly condemns the hanging and threatens to break off her engagement to the Virginian if he fights the duel. The local bishop tries to persuade the Virginian to leave town. But although the community, the church, and his future wife all disapprove of his actions, the Virginian fights as a matter of honor. The narrator elaborates: “It had come to the point where there was no way out, save only the ancient, eternal way between man and man. It is only the great mediocrity that goes to the law in these personal matters.”

Molly and a friend of the Virginian, Judge Henry, then debate the morality of the Virginian’s vigilantism. Molly insists that the hanging of rustlers is no different from the lynching and burning of slaves in the South. The judge disagrees: “I consider the burning a proof that the South is semi-barbarous, and the hanging a proof that Wyoming is determined to become civilized.” In contrast to the South, which has strong government and an established court system, Wyoming’s government is weak, and its warden is unable to punish criminals. “Civilization,” the judge tells Molly, has “not yet reach[ed] us.” So while the lynchers of the South upset the rule of law, the lynchers of Wyoming act to establish it.

Wister suggests here, as do others elsewhere, that civilized and civilizing principles must be learned. They can operate only in a society where institutions exist to enforce and support them. The cowboy stands outside that established order in a pre-social state where equality is still an aspiration and order must be established by force. Only when the cowboy’s work is done can the schoolmarm open her schoolhouse and the judge open the court for trial.

But an established democratic order has no place for a naturally superior aristocrat — which is why, at the end of just about every classical Western, the cowboy must ride off into the sunset. His natural virtues are acceptable only when he acts in service to the frontier town, but as a hero he has no interest in setting himself up as the town’s boss. It’s the villain who wants to stick around and rule by force. When the cowboy first comes to the town, he almost always wishes only to live a quiet life. Typically, he was once a lawman or a gunfighter but gave it up when he was no longer needed. He takes up arms to face a new threat and lays them down again when the law is established once more.

In John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, Wyatt Earp settles in Tombstone after retiring as the marshal of Dodge City, but he resolves to clean up the town after his brother is murdered by the Clantons. In George Stevens’s Shane, the titular hero gives up his gunfighting past until, moved by the plight of the Starrett family, he takes up arms against the Ryker gang. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, another of Ford’s films, Tom Doniphon plans to marry Hallie and settle on a private farm outside of town—until the threat of Liberty Valance calls him into service. Likewise, in High Noon, Marshal Will Kane resigns his post after marrying a beautiful Quaker woman but soon returns to confront outlaw Frank Miller.  

Not only must the cowboy disclaim all interest in any settled life, but his very presence in society is intolerable. He is a reminder of the undemocratic means used to secure the newly civilized community. The life of the townfolk is inhospitable to his virtues, even though he has made life in town possible. So the cowboy heads out for parts unknown, for another frontier to tame.

The cowboy’s renunciation of civilization is often dramatized by his renunciation of the woman he loves, which McMurtry describes as the “domestic tragedy of Western life.” His cowboys are too restless to settle down: In Lonesome Dove, Call neglects Maggie, who dies an alcoholic, and refuses even to acknowledge their son Newt, who later is killed in Streets of Laredo. Gus loves Clara but is “relieved” when she turns down his marriage proposal. In many Westerns, the cowboy must leave because he has, in effect, the mark of Cain upon him: The cowboy is “the man who has no ties because he kills.”

The Western, like the Bible, recognizes the reality that political order arises not spontaneously but from violent acts that have no place in the order created, and this reality is tragic for both the cowboy and the town.

It is interesting that, like the archetypal American cowboy, the biblical Cain is the founder of the very first city mentioned in the Bible. Cain’s descendants, moreover, invent the trappings of civilized life: the domestication of livestock, metallurgy, music, and the arts. The Western, like the Bible, recognizes the reality that political order arises not spontaneously but from violent acts that have no place in the order created, and this reality is tragic for both the cowboy and the town. The cowboy’s very success destroys his own way of life. He can’t live as anything other than the hero, but the heroic mode of life is no longer possible or needed. In Lonesome Dove, Gus and Call quit the Texas Rangers when they no longer have an enemy worth fighting; arresting drunks and horse thieves just doesn’t cut it. Gus jokes that they “killed off” the very people who made the frontier “interesting.”

So Gus and Call leave Texas to see the last frontier by starting a cattle drive to Montana. “Look there at Montana,” says Gus. “It’s fine and fresh and now we’ve come and it’ll soon be ruint, like my legs.” Gus refuses to have his second leg amputated, even though it’s infected with gangrene and will kill him: “I’ve walked the earth in my pride all these years. If that’s lost, then let the rest be lost with it.” Not surprisingly, McMurtry has called Call and Gus “my Sancho and the Don,” prisoners to an idealized vision of the West that they do not realize exists only in the imagination until it is too late.

However wrong the cowboys are about the reality around them, their vision, like Don Quixote’s, feeds the soul and sustains the spirit. The myth of the West, however unreal, offered a calling, nobility and an escape from the prosaic particulars of bourgeois existence. The myth, though literally untrue, is literarily true, for it captures something true about ourselves.

It is a truth, too, that McMurtry and many of the would-be Western revisionists have been well-placed to see. Like McMurtry, Stegner and Kelton had fathers who were ranchers; they saw their fathers go into debt as corporations bought up family farms and small-time ranches. His own father, McMurtry writes, lived in the past but believed in the promise of the West: an unspoiled paradise where one could truly experience life and be spared the spiritual emptiness of modern America. And his grandfather was in that generation where a man could have gone up with the first cattle drives in 1866 and still be only middle-aged in 1890 when the “whole glorious adventure” ended. Could that man or his son or grandson be happy “selling insurance in the suburbs?” asks McMurtry. His other novels, set in an urbanizing Texas — Horseman, Pass By; The Last Picture Show; Texasville — suggest not. They depict a world in which men are alienated and directionless, drowning their sorrows in cheap booze and loveless sex. Men like Call and Gus had a calling. Without the vision of the West, all that’s left is “just jobs, and crappy environmentally destructive jobs at that.”

W illiam Kittredge, the Montanan essayist and novelist, summed up the revisionist project as follows: “So, out in our West, artists are trying to run their eyes clear of mythic and legendary cobwebs, and see straight to the actual.” McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove came closest to fulfilling that goal — by mining the sense of the tragic already hinted at in the traditional Westerns of Owen Wister and John Ford.  

But the Western — and its hopeful faith in progress and renewal — always aimed less at describing life on the frontier than at enriching our own modern, post-frontier existence.  The West has ever been less an actual place than what Stegner calls a “geography of hope.” So while McMurtry’s revisionism insists that the traditional Western depicts a tragic, unattainable way of life, he also celebrates those virtues that the traditional Western was meant to inspire. In Streets of Laredo, the final novel of the Lonesome Dove series, McMurtry describes two phases of history: the “exploring part” and the “settling part.” Call, now a bounty hunter, represents the end of the “exploring” age while Lorena, the prostitute of Lonesome Dove, represents the new age of settlement and with it the possibility of redemption and rebirth. Now a schoolteacher and the mother of five, she rescues Call and her husband Pea Eye, an ex-Ranger, from their former lives of restless adventurism. McMurtry could not be more clear in his conviction that the Western ethos must be abandoned as an actual way of life.  But he still recognizes the nobility of Western myth. Thus, Telegraph Days, even with its merciless skewering of the Old West, celebrates the beauty of the Western dream — as a dream that never was a reality. Indeed, Nellie lampoons the actual “heroes” of the West but reveres its most famous mythmaker, Buffalo Bill. Nellie calls Buffalo Bill the “dreaming part of me,” and he soon becomes the dreaming part of an entire nation. In this way, McMurtry completes the revisionist project by looking past the cobwebs and discovering that the real West was always more an idea than a historical fact.  But the idea, though it exists in the national mind rather than the historical record, is no less real — and even more important.