Desktop version

Home arrow Geography arrow The Myths That Made America : An Introduction to American Studies

Cowboys (and ‘Indians’): The American West in Popular Culture

People from all levels of society read Westerns: presidents, truck drivers, librarians, soldiers, college students, businessmen, homeless people. They are read by women as well as men, rich and poor, young and old. In one way or another, Westerns - novels and films - have touched the lives of virtually everyone who lived during the first three-quarters of this century. The archimages of the genre - the gunfight, the fistfight, the chase on horseback, the figure of the mounted horseman outlined against the sky, the saloon girl, the lonely landscape itself, are culturally pervasive and overpowering.

Jane Tompkins, West of Everything

Violence in the hegemonic discourse on the ‘Wild’ West has been largely imagined as regenerative and cathartic (cf. Slotkin, Regeneration)-, the various elements of the frontier myth “center on the conception of American history as a heroic-scale Indian war, pitting race against race” (Slotkin, Fatal Environment 32). This fantasy of the West as a site of necessary quasi-mythical violence can be found in print media, performance culture, film, and television, which I will exemplarily address in my discussion of the West in popular culture (and the West’s popular culture) in order to uncover the ideological manoeuvres that have contained and controlled violence in the West along with Native American presences and absences and that have belittled or even completely disavowed the Native American genocide. For an analysis of print culture’s role in the making of heroes and villains of the West in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, we can turn to pioneer Daniel Boone’s (1734-1820) elevation to the status of national hero in John Filson’s pamphlet The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke (1784) and to the heroes of James Fenimore Cooper’s historical romances. Both authors popularized the binary stereotypes of the noble and the ignoble savage, whose most prominent exemplars are perhaps the heroic and ‘noble’ Chingachgook and Uncas, and the villainous, ‘ignoble’ Magua in Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826); whereas the former correspond to the image of the ‘vanishing Indian’ and support Euro-American westward expansion as they conveniently seem to anticipate their own extinction, the latter is representative of depictions of Natives as barbaric and primitive peoples who need to be vanquished in order for the West to be ‘won,’ settled, and ‘civilized.’ Cooper’s dichotomous stereotypes have been extremely influential and to this day inform the majority of representations of the West and its indigenous inhabitants. In the logic of Cooper’s Native presences, the very existence of the noble savage justifies the racist depiction of Natives in that it ostensibly counterbalances (but actually reinforces) their otherwise more overtly negative characterization.

Even more widely read than Cooper’s highly successful novels were the dime novel Westerns, which became an unprecedented phenomenon in publishing and consumer culture in the second half of the 19th century (cf. Bill Brown, “Introduction” 6). Sold at very cheap prices (five to twenty-five cents), these pocketsize ‘novels’ were put out in series that ensured the recognizability of their title heroes (such as Deadwood Dick or Seth Jones), and prominently included dramatic scenes of violence as a major part of their attraction (cf. ibid. 2). Somewhat paradoxically, these texts projected rugged individualism and outstanding heroism in a format that relied to a large extent on standardization, serialization, and mass consumption:

If we suppose that the mass-produced myth effected some degree of national cohesion, then we should also suppose that both cohesion and alienation lay in the shared reading practice, the shared relation to consumer culture, and the newly shared pace and privacy of reading as an act of consumption. The material facts of the dime novel’s production and distribution help us to appreciate the Western as a rationalization of the West that synchronized the realm of leisure in the rhythms of work and industry. (ibid. 30)

Picking up Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of mass culture in “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” Brown points to the anachronism at the heart of the popularity of the Western: while the success of dime novel Westerns hinged on mass production and thus on the industrialization of the US, the texts depicted pre-industrial frontier life. With the so-called Indian Wars still going on, the dime Westerns time and again staged and re-staged conflicts with the Native population as wars against ‘savages’ to which there was no alternative. Borrowing selectively from the racist “Cooperian mythology” (Slotkin, Fatal Environment 106), these Westerns focused on the ignoble savage and indulged in and legitimized white violence against the indigenous population of the American West (it is only after it had been drastically reduced due to warfare and ‘removal’ policies that they began to stage conflicts between white men). A closer look at Edward S. Ellis’s Seth Jones; or, The Captives of the Frontier (1860), one of the most successful early dime novel Westerns - we could sample randomly from many others to find similar constellations, though - reveals how Native Americans are demonized in stereotypical descriptions such as the following one:

Behind were a half-dozen savages, their gleaming visages distorted with the passions of exultation, vengeance, and doubt, their garments flying in the wind, and their strength pressed to its utmost bounds. They were scattered at different distances from each other, and were spreading over the prairie, so as to cut off the fugitive’s escape in every direction. (197)

The Natives’ dehumanizing representation as evil, animalistic, and dangerous puts them into stark opposition to the white characters, whose sense of entitlement to land and power is unquestioned and whose extreme brutality is condoned and legitimated by the narrative. White violence is described almost gleefully and in disturbing graphic detail, and is obviously supposed to be pleasurable for the (white) audience. The text continues with Seth Jones beginning to take revenge for the capture of whites by the Natives:

So sudden, so unexpected, so astonishing was the crash of Seth’s tomahawk through the head of the doomed savage, that, for a moment after, not an Indian moved or spoke. The head was nearly cleft in twain (for an arm fired by consuming passion had driven it), and the brains were spattered over numbers of those seated around. Seth himself stood a second to satisfy himself the work was complete, and when he turned, walked to his seat, sat down, coolly folded his arms and commenced whistling. (212, emphasis in the original)

The slaughtering of the Native in this passage is described in hyperbolic yet at the same time realist fashion; whereas many other cultural productions (including Cooper’s) would disavow or at least camouflage violence against Native Americans, in scenes such as this one - which abound in dime novel Westerns, and qualify in some instances as a precursor to what in contemporary jargon is labelled ‘torture porn’ - even the most ‘savage’ white violence is represented as acceptable and legitimate in an unequivocal assertion of white superiority. The dime novel Westerns do not claim national allegorical status, which is perhaps why their implication in the construction and affirmation of white supremacy is more overt than in other, more subtle cultural productions. The fact that these mass-produced and mass-consumed fantasies do not hide or feel the need to explain the white violence that they describe points us to the tacit dimension of the myth of the West in hegemonic discourse: “This is how the Western produces what we might call its ‘mythology effect’ - with the presumption that the West already exists as shared knowledge, with an absence of detail that insists on familiarity” (Bill Brown, “Introduction” 33). This “familiarity” is grounded in the unquestioned acceptance and successful naturalization of the fundamental ideological premises of frontier discourse, which above all include the assumption that white people’s usurpatory presence in North America is justified at all.

Illustration 5: Popular Stereotypes of the West

Cover of Seth Jones: Or, the Captives of the Frontier by Edward S. Ellis (New York: Beadle, 1860).

None of these dime novel Westerns have been canonized; in fact, they have often been overlooked despite having constituted a large-scale phenomenon that connects to the earlier texts by James Fenimore Cooper as well as to later writers such as Owen Wister, whose novel The Virginian (1902) is often considered the first literary Western. This neglect has perhaps been motivated more by political rather than by aesthetic considerations in that their explicit descriptions of raw violence in contrast to other texts’ more sanitized representations of westward expansion inconveniently point to - rather than obscure or rationalize - the brutality of the ‘Indian Wars.’

That the Western is to a large degree “a matter of geography and costume” (Ca- welti, Six-Gun Mystique 35) is also in evidence in my second example of how the West figures in popular culture: Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, a national as well as international phenomenon that evolved out of the 19th-century print culture on the West. This Wild West Show was founded in Nebraska in 1883 by William Frederick Cody (1846-1917), a veteran of the Civil War and former bison hunter who created Buffalo Bill as his alter ego. For roughly 30 years (1883-1916), this show was one of the largest and most popular entertainment businesses in the world; it toured in the US and throughout Europe, and in addition to Buffalo Bill featured other prominent western figures such as James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok, Annie Oakley, and Calamity Jane. Cody a.k.a. Buffalo Bill became a “national icon” - Larry McMurtry suggests that in his day he was probably “the most recognizable celebrity on earth” (Colonel 5) - and a figure that embodied and continued the tradition of earlier well-known fictional and semi-fictional figures of the West such as Natty Bumppo a.k.a. Leatherstocking/Hawkeye, and Daniel Boone; Buffalo Bill carried on the legacy of an ethnically white man who had partially ‘gone native’ and incorporated aspects of both the white and the Native world yet for the same reason was also an outstanding ‘Indian fighter’ and buffalo hunter, and was never in doubt about his cultural loyalties and allegiances: the gist of many of Cody’s Buffalo Bill sketches is that the white man, time and again, outperforms the Native by using the latter’s techniques.

The persuasiveness of these shows can be glimpsed in the following eyewitness account by Dan Muller, who lived and worked with Cody:

The show started. The band played a lively opening number. The Grand Entry was on. A group of riders appeared in the swinging spotlight at the scenic entrance. They loped around the arena and pulled up at the far end. [...] A spotlight now picked up a single rider loping toward the head of the assembled group of riding battalions. “LADEEZ AND GENTLEMEN,” shouted the announcer. “ALLOW ME TO PRE-SENT THE GREATEST SCOUT OF THE OLD WEST: BUF-FA-LO B-I-I-I-L-L-L.” The trumpets of the band burst into a loud blare of sound. By now Uncle Bill had brought his prancing horse to a theatrical stop that set him up on his hind feet. The crowd roared approval. [...] The program was action-packed from the first announcement to the grand closing. [...] There was a buffalo chase, and Uncle Bill, riding a horse at the buffalo’s flank, blazed away with a rifle. [.] There were trick ropers the climax of whose act was dropping a loop over four running horses. [...] But the one I liked best was the stagecoach chase. In this act the stagecoach, drawn by six wildly galloping horses, its top crowded with men with rifles and with riflemen poking their weapons through the windows, tore around the arena with Indians mounted bareback in chase. And all the while the stagecoach blazed with the fire of the rifles and the Indians fired back. It sure was exciting. (My Life 113-17)

Illustration 6: Buffalo Bill Stamp

US Postal Service, Buffalo Bill Cody 15ф (1988).

Native Americans figured prominently in Cody’s shows; for one thing, because they included re-enactments of ‘Custer’s Last Stand,’ i.e. the defeat of the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the US Army in the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 by a coalition of Native tribes. This battle re-enactment was performed with Sitting Bull, military leader of the Lakota, who actually led the fateful attack against Custer. Knowing that the Natives’ military success had only been temporary, white audiences apparently did not feel threatened by this performance; at the same time, it provided a great deal of spectacle. The collaboration between Cody and Native American leaders has been considered quite remarkable and somewhat puzzling: “Over the years Buffalo Bill managed to engage such figures as Sitting Bull and Geronimo as performers, and a great number of Indians who had fought against the cavalry less than a year before, as well as the services of regular units of the US Cavalry to perform opposite them” (Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation 68). Besides Native celebrities, Cody also needed Native actors for the ‘typical scenes’ and tableaux vivants his troupe staged. The ambivalence of their appearance can be grasped when weighing the worldwide reception and (apparently equal) pay they received during the tours against the fact that it helped freeze the image of Natives - by way of the show’s content - into that of stereo?typical, archaic warriors whose resistance to a superior Euro-American civilization had to be overcome, and indeed was by and large overcome by the time the performances took place. At the height of the show’s success in the 1890s, Cody’s troupe included one hundred Native men, women, and children among a total staff of 500. Bringing the ‘Wild West’ to Americans throughout the US and to Europe required a logistical effort that was impressive: “In 1899, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West covered over 11.000 miles in 200 days giving 341 performances in 132 cities and towns across the United States” (Fees, “Wild West Shows”). Buffalo Bill’s Wild West became an international trademark whose successful branding of the American West many performers sought to emulate. The show produced, enhanced, and affirmed the myth of the West and of the frontier for national and international audiences. The decline of the show coincides with the rise of another medium that would become dedicated to representing and mythologizing the West: film. Toward the end of his life and career, Buffalo Bill’s show no longer convinced audiences, who sometimes even considered his enactments of the ‘Wild West’ laughable (cf. Muller, My Life 256).

In the 20th century, the Western can be considered the American film genre par excellence; it has been an important object of scholarship in American popular culture studies, and will be my third and final example of cultural productions on the West in this section. From Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903) onwards, the Western’s negotiation of questions of individualism and community, masculinity, alterity, and violence as well as national and racial supremacy has codified the West as a formative space of US national identity. Visually, it is a genre that can easily be identified: “[W]hen we see a couple of characters dressed in ten-gallon hats and riding horses, we know we are in a Western” (Cawelti, Six-Gun Mystique 34). The so-called Golden Age of the Western is often dated from John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) to Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), with the latter already operating at quite a distance from the classical Western; Neo-Westerns that have partially absorbed revisionist historiography include Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves (1990), Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995), Ang Lee’s Broke- back Mountain (2005), and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012).

The Western’s long-time popularity, once more, corroborates Robert Dorman’s argument that the frontier is “the prime commodity of the Old West culture industry(Hell 11). John Cawelti - whose work is closely related to that of Leslie Fiedler and Richard Slotkin - has identified a particular formula of the Western: its setting is the West, i.e a locale that existed in a very brief period of time which is turned into the central “epic moment” (Six-Gun Mystique 39); its cast of characters usually includes settlers and outlaws (who are sometimes Native Americans but, somewhat surprisingly perhaps, more often are white); its hero, who has a horse and a gun, intervenes on behalf of the “agents of civilization” (ibid. 46) while sometimes taking recourse to the same methods as the outlaws in order to win over them, and thus remains ambivalently ‘in the middle’ as he is at the same ‘advancing’ and escaping from ‘civilization’ (cf. ibid. 52); its plots usually revolve around capture, flight, and pursuit (cf. ibid. 67). Cawelti’s typology links the Western to the archetypal narrative structure and patterns of the hero myth; the Western thus dramatizes a “foundation ritual” (ibid. 73) in the sense that

it presents for our renewed contemplation that epic moment when the frontier passed from the old way of life into social and cultural forms directly connected with the present. By dramatising this moment, and associating it with the hero’s agency, the Western affirms the act of foundation. In this sense, the Western is like a Fourth of July ceremony. (ibid.)

Cawelti’s relevance for discussing the West as a foundational myth is obvious, as in his view the function of the Western is to ritualistically affirm the hero’s integrity and innocence despite his acts of violence against what hegemonic discourse represents as ‘savages’ or ‘outlaws;’ while some Westerns explore the moral dilemma of innocence and aggression in more ambiguous terms, Westerns by and large still are “fantasies of legitimated violence” and “moralistic aggression” (ibid. 85).

In many ways the Western films seem to transform the ‘virgin land’ of Henry Nash Smith into a ‘crowded prairie’ (cf. Coyne’s book of the same title) from which, however, one part of the North American population is increasingly and symptomatically absent: In reconstructing the history of the Western, Jane Tompkins observes how Native Americans appear to disappear from a genre for which they actually were foundational (cf. West); the topos of the “vanishing race” (Fiedler, Return) and the “romance of disappearing” (Lawlor, Recalling 41) have been widely noted. In Frank Gruber’s typology of basic Western plots, Native Americans appear only in one out of seven: “Custer’s Land Stand, or the Cavalry and Indian Story” (qtd. in Cawelti, Six-Gun Mystique 35). In line with the pernicious notion of the ‘Vanishing Indian,’ the West in the Western becomes a stage for white (male) fantasies: “Westerns marginalized the Indian because they were only marginally about the Indian” (Coyne, Crowded Prairie 5). The white hero’s ‘just’ fight against his enemies instead has a redemptive function in that it provides “regeneration through violence” (cf. Slotkin’s book of the same title); the hero’s rite de passage takes center stage and pushes the

Native genocide to the sidelines, or leaves it completely out of the picture. Roy Harvey Pearce has suggested that in the 19th century, the stereotype of the Native as either evil or noble savage slowly gave way to a white view on Natives as an inferior ‘race’ that belonged to an earlier (and thus doomed) stage of civilization (cf. Savagism). When looking at more contemporary productions, we may wonder if the Neo-Western has managed to challenge or alter the classical Western formula all that much in regard to its deeply problematical ideological underpinnings.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >

Related topics