If you like your books straight shootin’, gun totin’, tight ropin’, hard drinkin’, and fast ridin’, look no further than the Western.
The Western emerged from the settlement of the portion of the United States west of the Mississippi River, notably the Great Plains and the Southwest. The widely held belief in ‘Manifest Destiny’ – that American settlers were destined to expand across the continent – emboldened white people to violently seize this land from indigenous Americans.
The battle between white pioneers and Native Americans, the saloon brawl, accounts of bounty hunters and outlaws, and the figure of the cowboy provided rich storytelling devices. Early stories from the West were produced as cheap “dime novels” and adventure stories and sold the idea of American exceptionalism back to readers in the East. After that, the Old West got its lasso around audiences and never stopped tugging.
How has this rugged old genre stuck around so long? The Western is “like an inkblot test”, says Richard Aquila, author of Wanted Dead or Alive: The American West in Popular Culture. “Every generation uses it for its own purposes”. As America evolved from an outsider in global affairs to the world’s only superpower, the archetypes of the Old West have been used to explore America’s dark truths.
Cormac McCarthy is widely regarded as one of the greatest contemporary writers and his fifth novel, Blood Meridian, is his magnum opus. The novel is subtitled “The Evening Redness in the West” and is described as both a Western and an anti-Western. In Blood Meridian, “the kid” follows the Glanton gang, a historical group of scalp hunters, who are emboldened to brutally slaughter Aboriginal Americans with Manifest Destiny in mind.
Murder and pillaging are far from the only violence committed in this book. The novel is best remembered for its terrifying antagonist Judge Holden, or “The Judge”. One of the reasons the book resists film adaptation is this character. The Judge’s Satanic evil and barbaric form proves impossible to capture outside of the novel. His hulking appearance (he stands well over six-foot and is completely hairless) is offset by his eloquence, though Holden uses both physical brutality (he is a sadistic murderer of children) and intellectual violence to conquer the West.
Why does the Judge obsessively sketch historical artefacts he encounters? White settlers saw it as their destiny to shape and refine the West how they saw fit, and Holden understands rewriting the country as the ultimate form of intellectual violence. “Men’s memories are uncertain and the past that was differs little from the past that was not”, says The Judge.
The Western may have gotten its start in dime novels, but the genre has proven itself a formula that works across mediums. Annie Proulx’s short story collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories is most famous for its entry “Brokeback Mountain”. The story takes place long after the closing of the Frontier, but its two lead characters, Jack and Ennis – technically shepherds but forever to be known as “gay cowboys” – find themselves beguiled by the myth of the West.
Dissatisfied with the domesticity of their lives, the two men find freedom in the wilderness. After they are hired for seasonal work at a grazing range in Wyoming, Jack and Ennis form an intense emotional and sexual relationship. Proulx was inspired to write the story after noticing a man in a bar who appeared to be watching only the men playing pool, which led her to contemplate the life of a ranch hand who might be gay.
“The Mud Below” is another story from Proulx’s collection which considers the pull of Western myths. Twenty-three-year-old Diamond Felts struggles to feel comfortable in his masculinity: at five foot three, he is nicknamed “Shorty”, “Tiny”, and “Little Guy”. Enter: the exciting life of rodeo pageants, an opportunity for Diamond to risk life and limb and gain recognition for his physical prowess. Diamond’s mother tries to steer her son away from the ‘redneck’ culture, but even she is a slave to this powerful nostalgia: she runs a shop selling Old West cowboy trinkets to tourists.
All too often, Native American voices are silenced in the Western. One only has to look to Western films where white actors, from Burt Reynolds to Johnny Depp, are cast in Native roles. Another way white writers erase the truth of Native people is by portraying them as somehow supernatural or magical. J. K. Rowling, Twilight, and Peter Pan, have all been accused of trivialising Native American traditions and equating them with magic.
What happens when Native voices are allowed to speak? Louise Erdrich, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, fills her stories with indigenous characters and settings. In “Fleur”, Erdrich seeks to reclaim Native female and sexual power. The story begins with the titular Native character leaving her reservation to find work in a butcher shop in a town nearby. She joins her male co-workers in a game of poker, but after repeatedly winning, she is savagely attacked by the enraged men. The butchers meet the same fate as any man who crosses Fleur: they are mysteriously killed soon thereafter. After this, men tend to stay away from Fleur, who they believe is imbued with mysterious powers.
Readers looking for full-length Erdrich can turn to The Plague of Doves, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2009. The book is set in North Dakota and focuses on the uneasy history between a town and an Ojibwe reservation nearby. The novel explores the impact of violence and the nature of generational trauma.
A story doesn’t have to take place in the West to tell a great Western. The Space Western includes Star Trek, with its “new frontier” to be explored, and Star Wars, replete with exotic landscapes and dangerous outlaws. Similarly, a story about the East Coast of the United States can have a great Western at its core.
The American Dream had long involved people pushing westwards, but by the time F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) was published, Westerners sought to make their money in finance in the East. However, as the novel concludes, Nick Carraway understands the search for wealth in the East as corrupt. “I see now that this has been a story of the West”, he says. “Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.”
With its brooding cowboys, villainous outlaws, and epic battles between good and evil, the Western has proven irresistible to writers for generations. As the genre emerged from cheap dime novels to blockbuster adventure stories, so did America emerge as a global superpower on the world stage. Over time the Western has proven a malleable form, allowing writers to subvert its cliches and provide rich stories of America with its iconic characters and tropes. The image of the Black cowboy, brought back into the spotlight by Lil Nas X, and the runaway success of Westworld prove this genre isn’t done provoking and entertaining the masses. It will be a while until audiences get off this rodeo.
Words by Jack Whitfield
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