How the West Was Rewritten


"Western writing," says Cheryl Miller in the latest issue of Policy Review, "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."

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."

Or if you like, the myth-making Western, direct from the horse's mouth. The words of Lonesome Dove author Larry McMurtry, who has a new book out called Telegraph Days:

"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."

Read the whole thing.