Plundered Province

Examining The American West As A Literary Region.

LET A PHILOSOPHIC observer commence a journey from the savages of the Rocky Mountains eastwardly towards our seacoast," Thomas Jefferson instructed in 1808, after he had learned of such matters from the reports of Lewis and Clark. "These he would observe in the earliest stage of association, living under no law but that of nature, subsisting and covering themselves with the flesh and skins of wild beasts. He would next find those on our frontiers in the pastoral state, raising domestic animals to supply the defects of hunting. Then succeed our own semi-barbarous citizens, the pioneers of the advance of civilization, and so in his progress he would meet the gradual shades of improving man until he would reach his, as yet, most improved state in our seaport towns. This, in fact, is equivalent to a survey, in time, of the progress of man from the infancy of creation to the present day." It should stand as little more than a curio of proto-social Darwinism, but Jefferson's survey instead offers a program for the great mass of writing about the American West, from James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, written at a time when the Connecticut River marked the western frontier, to Louis L'Amour's ongoing saga of the Sackett clan, where the vicious wilderness of catamounts and rogue Indians stands opposed to the virtuous advance of Eastern mores.

Students of westward expansion have rejected Jefferson's continuum since its last gasp in Frederick Jackson Turner's The Frontier in American History (1920), but it thrives on in the canyons of Manhattan, where the publishing industry continues to elaborate the myth of the West and the savage frontier.

That myth and myth-making apparatus are nearly as old as the nation, fueled by the accounts of explorers like James Ohio Pattie and John Charles Frémont, whose legendary lying fixed his name in American history. It posits a West of steel-jawed, rugged individualists, of cruelly deceptive aborigines (with Comanches, Apaches and Sioux as the favorite villains), of fifth-column outlaws and renegades foolishly attempting to thwart Manifest Destiny. Alone of the nation's geographical regions, the West has had the dubious distinction of spawning a literature that bears little resemblance to reality, of providing the stage for a morality play that will not end.

The industrial myth-making process owes its origins not only to explorers' embellishments and the tall tales of mountain men, a popular genre in the 1840s, but also to the romantic journalism that accompanied the first great westward migrations -- Mark Twain's exaggerated tales of the jumping frogs of Calaveras County, Charles Lummis' paradisiacal accounts of the Pueblo Indians in their state of natural innocence, Bret Harte's depictions of the whiskey-soaked raw frontier. In the manner of contemporary journalists, their lesser progeny seized on the unusual human-interest story, ignoring the mundane realities of life in mining camps, fishing villages, and dusty farmyards. They were especially fond of celebrating violent deeds and of elevating common criminals to the rank of folk heroes, noble if sociopathic exemplars of the breed of people who would settle the wild frontier.

A case in point is William Bonney, a.k.a. Kid Antrim, a.k.a. Billy the Kid. Bonney was an unlucky cowhand caught up in the so-called Lincoln County War of the 1870s, a New Mexico feud between rival cattlemen. In the five-year course of this bloody business vendetta, Bonney is known to have killed only three men; thanks to his having chosen the losing side, a fixed jury sentenced him to hang for a murder he did not commit. He escaped, only to be shot unarmed a few days later. Journalists were there all along to misinform an eager nation of his deeds (Larry McMurtry's fine 1989 novel Anything for Billy does a fine job of pegging their role in the unfortunate young man's posthumous rise to fame), and within a year of his death, a full eight books with Billy the Kid as their monstrous protagonist saw print. The industry has continued unabated ever since, continuing to advance the notion that Bonney killed 21 men in cold blood, one for every year he lived.

The Kid's legend is one of many in a fabulous roster: Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, The Wild Bunch, The Hole in the Wall Gang, Johnny Ringo. These are among the fruits of newspaper reporters' overactive imaginations, fed to an overly credulous Eastern readership that demanded more and more tales of the savage West.

The East was not alone. Karl May (1842-1912), a German hack writer imprisoned for fraud, passed his jailhouse days by inventing a cowboy hero named "Old Shatterhand" and his noble Indian companion Winnetou. May had never seen America, but he wrote 15 hugely popular novels in the 1860s and '70s wherein civilization -- more exactly, German civilization -- overcame savagery in a mythical West. May's novels continue to sell, and they propel German tourists to visit the American West by the hundreds of thousands each year, sure that Winnetou lurks behind every clump of sagebrush.

Had May ever seen the places he wrote about, he likely would not have changed a word. Zane Grey (1872-1939), an Ohio dentist who moved to Arizona in 1907 to take up a new career as a writer, traveled the West endlessly to capture the details of local color, but his novels -- Riders of the Purple Sage, The Call of the Canyon, Wanderer of the Wasteland, and 40-odd other adventures -- are no more authentic than May's except in incidentals of the local dialect. Neither are those of his famous hack successor Louis L'Amour, whose vaunted research does not save him from perpetuating the same genre-locked romantic myths. His Sackett saga, a multi-volume mass of cliché, might as easily be set in the highlands of Scotland or the Kalahari for all the historical truths it advances.

Max Brand, Max Evans, Terry Johnston, Jim Miller, Bill Reno: the pulp-romance tradition continues, urged along by a constant readership. Like the vast run of bodice-ripper gothic and science-fiction novels, which share many other similarities with Westerns, their books are mass-produced and interchangeable, the literary equivalent of the barbed-wire strand or the Colt revolver. In their flood, books that speak to the real West, that take the region as something other than a vermilion-and-ochre backdrop, drown unnoticed: J. P. S. Brown's The Forests of the Night, Charles McNichols' Crazy Weather, James Welch's Fool's Crow, and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, to name but a few.

It may be misleading to speak of Western American literature at all. The term has increasingly little meaning except as a buzzword for critics for whom "the new regionalism" is new. Not long before his death, the great Western novelist A. B. Guthrie remarked that "a good book is not 'regional.' It is a good book because it is a good book...William Faulkner and Eudora Welty weren't regional writers." Sound words, surely. But, Guthrie went on to add, "Trying to fight the [Western] myth, I tell you, is a losing fight. I'm afraid people want to think about the West in terms of Tombstone."

They will do so as long as the categories outside the Boston-Washington corridor remain fixed in booksellers' racks, publishers' lists, and college offerings. A region can be a center. In the case of Western writers, it's a corral with a gate that can't be kicked open, as claustrophobic and confining as one of Don DeLillo's Manhattan lofts. Just as the American West remains an economic colony, it is sure to remain a cultural colony as well, the source of comforting moral tales of civilization's progress and of pastel coyotes for Atlantic seaboard living rooms.

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