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.

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  1. Who cares what Cheryl Miller thinks about the West? She couldn’t even dunk. I mean, I don’t even care about what Reggie Miller thinks about the West. He was just a spot-shooter. He doesn’t know anything about the up-tempo game they play out West. I mean he… what? Different Cheryl Miller? Not related to Reggie? Oh.

  2. McMurtry’s comment makes me think that he had no clue about movie westerns when he wrote the book. I will admit to not having read Lonesome Dove, but if he was trying to subvert the myth of an unassailable Cowboy hero, Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood, and Sam Peckinpah had already done it in the late 1960’s with the movies they made.

  3. McMurtry successfully subverted the Western genre with Broke Butt Mountin’.

  4. I thought “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” and “Little Big Man” brought whatever balance was needed for the history of the American West like 30+ years ago. The above John is right in that this is not exactly news and McMurtry didn’t exactly break new ground with whatever lesser novels he is referring to. Perhaps he should have just read “Little Big Man” and understood that it had already been done before and with more skill than he could bring to the table.

  5. What McMurtry aimed at, McCarthy hit.

  6. Cormac McCarthy – Blood Meridian? Great book, a vivid western.

  7. Sorry for the doubling up.

    An excellent book about (1) how the west was won and (2) how the perception of the west was aggrandized check out Gunfighter Nation by Richard Slotkin. It’s not a novel, though.

  8. Horsepuckey!

    A good duster is fun to read. Gimme a Louis L’Amour book to relax with before I drift off to sleep.

    “Fun to read” is a concept that does not get traction in academic circles. Which is why more people have read Harold Robbins than all of the Nobel Prize Winners [other than Kipling*] put together.

    *Of course, Kipling is far too politically incorrect to ever win today.

  9. Lamar- Yep. Blood Meridian is the book I was referring to.

  10. If you’re going to give credit for who first wrote about a demythologized Old West, what about the Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark? Or Warlock by Oakley Hall?

    Blood Meridian is a very fine novel.

  11. Readers don’t want to know and can’t be made to see how difficult and destructive life in the Old West really was.

    Way I heard it. Before the Texas Rangers caught up with him, Billy the kid shot forty-four men…one of them just for snoring too loud.

  12. Note to self. Only reference dead authors so they can’t directly contradict you.

  13. IF McMurtry didn’t subvert the entire western genre he at least created on of the greatest characters in Western fiction. Gus McCrae is a fantastic creation of a character.

    The thing about western literature is that any novel with adequete character development and any plot turns that deviate from the archetypal “dime-store” novel will be immediately noticed. The characters in Lonsome Dove are better constructed than in most western novels I’v read (mostly other McMurtry, L’Amour, or Elmer Kelton).

    As an aside if any one is interested in reading more McMurtry I would suggest Texasville. The novel is no were near serious or even particularly good its just incredibly fun especially if you grew up in Texas or a small town.

  14. The West has been “rewritten” every decade since about 1870.

  15. *Of course, Kipling is far too politically incorrect to ever win today.

    Politically corrected Kipling:

    “If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
    If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
    But make allowance for their doubting too….

    If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
    Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
    And–which is more–you’ll be a Person, my offspring!”

  16. just another lurker

    Now try it with “Gunga Din”

  17. How can you demythicize a way of life that never was? For real life try McMurtry’s Hud, working your but off your whole life to go broke slow, and have a drink on Friday. That is the cattle business I know about.

  18. I realized that the stories of “the West” were stories … long ago, while I was still a kid. You still saw people ride to town on a horse, but it was rare. Our church had a posted rule forbidding the wearing of boots or spurs to services. But there were people there, then, whose stories were really real, and they’d be beyond strange to modern ears.

    “The Virginian”, Owen Wister, is still the great story of the American West, its rise and fall.

  19. I can’t help but think of Deadwood

    “Motherfucking cocksucker something something cockersucker something something”.

  20. 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.

    Ya think? Anyone who would pack everything in a wagon and, at four miles an hour, cross the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains has supersize cojones. They earned their myth.

    “The cowards never started, and the weak died on the way.”

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