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In Defense of the Classic Western
by Gary North
I grew up on Westerns. I would sit on Saturday mornings in a darkened theater, along with several hundred other boys – we did not recognize the existence of girls on Saturday mornings – to root for guys in white hats or black hats, but only if the guys wearing black hats were wearing nothing except black, Lash Larue being the archetype, with Buster Crabbe's Billy the Kid close behind.
My father's generation had done the same. By his day, the Westerns were an established genre. The first major movie was The Great Train Robbery (1903), the first narrative film. It was based loosely on Butch Cassidy's Hole in the Wall Gang.
This fascination with Westerns did not begin with the movies. In 1860, the publishing firm of Beadle & Adams began issuing what later became known as dime novels. These were stories of the American revolution, the early frontier, crime fighting, and the wild west. They were immensely popular for the remainder of the nineteenth century. They were aimed at adults at first, but found child readers (boys) after 1870.
In a brief introduction to dime novels, the author writes: "Dime novel authors had strict guidelines to follow – stories had to be exciting, entertaining, and moral." As mass literature of the Victorian era in the United States, these novels, while of no great literary value, reflect the ethics of the era.
A popular author after 1870 was Ned Buntline (E. C. Z. Judson). Buntline introduced easterners to a real-life scout, William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody. He suggested to Cody in 1872 that they jointly produce a traveling stage play about the Wild West, which Buntline wrote in four hours. The show was successful. Cody later went out on his own, creating the cowboys and Indians road show that became world famous.
The literature of the wild west did not flourish in upper-class Victorian circles. New York and Boston social scions would not have wanted to be found reading Ned Buntline's novels. But the literature of the Wild West flourished among the common people, who were price-sensitive. A dime novel was at the high end of their budgets. There were nickel novels, too.
College classes in nineteenth-century American literature do not include even one dime novel. University-trained Scholars who wax eloquent about "literature" rarely tell about the actual market for the books selectively defined as literature. Show me the sales figures before you tell me what literature was popular. The first book published by Beadle and Adams sold 300,000 copies.
The Western dime novel was fantasy literature, and this never changed. It had a huge market in the late nineteenth century. Lower-class adults and children of the middle class with a dime to spend on a book dreamed of individual courage. The Western novel provided a geographical setting and good reasons for men to display such courage. Far, far away is where we live our youthful fantasies of courage and honor, for life-risking courage and honor do not seem to flourish among shopkeepers' sons. We later trade courage and honor for peace and prosperity. But then, from time to time, our peace is threatened. Then the market for courage and honor increases, overnight.
Because middle-class women had leisure in the nineteenth century, they had time to read. Thus, there was a large market for women's novels written by women. Novels from the beginning were women's literature, from Fielding to Jane Austin. The dudes who today control English departments are our era's version of the schoolmarms who tried to get farm boys to delight in the poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson. I side with the schoolboys.
The Western remained popular in American culture during the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, but it had become a mainstay of popular culture no later than 1875. It was a reflection of Victorian American males' dreams of personal, individual glory in a world geographically safely distant from the cities, a world that did not survive the blizzard of 1888, which wiped out whatever remained of the West's non-corporate cattle empire.
Cool, Clear Water
The Western as we know it tells the story of a specific era, 1865 to 1888, in a geographically limited region: the cattle country of the Western plains. The classic Western took place west of Edgewood, Texas, 55 miles east of Dallas. East of Edgewood, the pine trees begin and stretch to the Atlantic. There are few trees in a classic Western movie, except in the high country of Colorado.
In a classic Western, trees have only two important functions: to attract lightening during a cattle drive and to string up innocent men, who will be avenged.
The classic American West stretched west from Dallas to California and north to Montana. It took in Oklahoma and Kansas, but not the Dakotas or Iowa. The West was cattle country, not sodbuster country. The soddies were where poor farmers lived, and when they got enough money, their wives insisted that the family move into poorly insulated wood frame houses.
The West was where the rain wasn't. It was where water rights were crucial to establishing a business. It was the place where small wars erupted over unowned (Federal government-owned) open range and free-flowing streams. But these wars were not fought by civil governments. They were fought by entrepreneurs who had difficulty establishing and enforcing property rights.
Once property rights were established and enforced predictably by the courts, the Western died. The Western was about the Victorian era's desire to establish civilization in a land without the central economic institution of the Victorian bourgeois era: enforceable private property.
The gunslinger existed as a literary phenomenon only where predictable law had not been fully established. The wild west was wild because private property grew out of the barrel of a gun – a fast gun.
Civilization and the Law
The fact of the matter was that in the midst of the wild west was civilization. A town had its cattlemen's district, where saloons and brothels flourished. Eastern seaboard towns had similar districts that catered to sailors. Ned Buntline had begun his adult life as a teenage cabin boy. This should not surprise us.
The cattlemen knew their territory; they did not stray north of some street that marked the edge of enterprises that catered to their demands. Sometimes, the two societies mixed for special occasions. In Tombstone in Wyatt Earp's brief era (1880–81), a young seminarian got Earp to donate some card-playing money to build an Episcopal church. Earp told the other players to put some money into the hat. They did. The young man's name was Endicott Peabody. Later in his career, he headed Groton and officiated at the marriage of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Always in the history of the American West, there has been a tension. Was the pioneer escaping from civilization, or was he bringing it? Was Daniel Boone a lone wolf in revolt against civilization or a property developer? The case for either role can be made. Robert Hine taught me Western history back in 1963. Hine returned to this seeming antinomy repeatedly. The same theme can be found in the histories on colonial America. Was America a self-consciously new society, as the Puritans insisted, or an extension of European Protestant culture, as the Episcopalians insisted?
The Victorians recognized that, in the absence of predictable law, it takes individual courage to defend what is right. It takes honor. It takes a moral code. The code of the West was a moral code in Victorian Western literature and also in twentieth-century books and movies until the late 1960s.
When Representation Is Disputed
Who guards the guardians? This theme is as old as the Western literary tradition. When the guardians become tyrants, a good man is hard to find. But he is always there. He comes to the aid of the poorly represented citizenry. Read the Book of Judges if you want an introduction to this literary tradition. Read the story of King Eglon and Ehud, the left-handed judge with the sword strapped to his right leg. This is also the story of a lazy bureaucrat – never actually mentioned – who decided to save time by checking for concealed weapons by patting down only left legs, since most men are right-handed (Judges 3).
The good gunfighter in a popular Western movie may be outside the civil law structure or part of it. The bad gunfighter may also be inside the civil law structure or outside it. In Silverado (1985), the sheriff of Silverado is a thief and a robber, a former outlaw, who is hired by a rich cattlemen to enforce the cattleman's interests. He is finally killed in a gunfight with a former member of his gang, who sides with the sodbusters. There is nothing new here. What is new is that both men's headquarters is the same local saloon. "I love the smell of a saloon," the hero says. In this sense, this was a 1985 Western.
In every classic Western, the background is moral. The foreground is a battlefield: the loss of authority of the righteous and the replacement of justice with power. The question is: How will power be broken and replaced with lawful authority?
The greatest Western is Shane (1953). Why is it the greatest? Because the constant theme is the life of the common farmer, seeking to live his life peacefully, confronted with a well-armed cattleman. The cattleman got there first. What the movie never says is this: the land was owned by the Federal government. There was a conflict because there were no property rights to land and water.
Who had the right of ownership? The cattleman or the farmers? The nearest marshal was a hundred miles away. Each side was represented by a gunfighter: Shane vs. Wilson.
Shane knew his era was over. So did farmer Joe Starrett's wife. But little Joe, the pre-teen, dreamed of the continuation of life with Shane, the righteous hero who could shoot fast and straight. "Shane! Come back!" is the call of pre-teen boys of every era, especially the Victorian era. Heroism had a ready market in 1890. Read any of the 100+ boys' novels written by G. A. Henty in the late nineteenth century. (www.henty.com)
The classic Western presents the representational showdown between good and evil. Both sides represent order. The question is: Whose order? This means: Whose authority? Whose law? Whose sanctions? Whose future? These are what Calvinists call covenantal issues. They are always settled by representatives: God vs. Satan, Eve vs. the serpent, Abel vs. Cain, Moses vs. Pharaoh, David vs. Goliath, Elijah vs. Ahab, Jesus vs. Israel's leaders.
A Man's World
The Western is opposed by little old ladies of both sexes. This is because it is the story of men. Men represent women. This has been a theme of the West ever since Moses wrote the Book of Genesis. Women seek protection. Men provide it. The ultimate protection is physical, having to do with rape. Conquering soldiers have raped women for as long as they have conquered. This has to do with the exercise of power, not the sex drive. Every army has had camp followers. Sex is usually available at a price – the free market in action. What conquering armies want is to display their power. Rape is a traditional means.
You do not get rid of pillagers by switching to Capital One.
The bad guys in B-Westerns meet the dude at the stagecoach to have a little fun. They shoot at his feet. "Dance, dude." Sooner or later, the good guy intervenes on the dude's behalf. The good guy defends the values of peace by means of the gun. But it is peace that he defends. He recognizes that he lives in an anomalous era and that civilization will reduce gunplay when it arrives and takes hold. But, in the meantime, there are dudes to defend, maidens to defend, families to defend.
As a teenager, my favorite Western was The Searchers (1956). I saw it repeatedly. I still do. I even read the book. The movie radically re-structured the book's ending. In the book, the hero is a vengeance-driven maniac who seeks not only revenge but also to kill his kidnapped niece. She has had sex with an Indian and therefore deserves killing, he thinks. He dies appropriately. He swoops down on horseback from behind to scoop up his niece in the cavalry raid. It isn't his niece. It's an Indian woman. An Indian woman with a gun. One shot ends his self-appointed vengeance project. Message: he who lives by the sword dies by the sword.
John Wayne's character repents at the end – in actions, not words. He has tried to kill her, and the man who accompanies him – her adopted brother – intervenes. "No, you don't, Ethan! No you don't!" Then an Indian shoots an arrow into Ethan's shoulder. The two men hide in the tall rocks. Somehow, they get away. The movie never shows how. Finally, Wayne's character changes. At the end, he scoops her up and takes her home. The family is restored. The script writers knew enough to re-write the ending for a pre-1965 American audience.
The movie is about the clash of cultures: American vs. Indian. It is about the inability of either side to impose order. The Indians are raiders and thieves. The Army is distant. The rangers are not numerous enough. Two men do the searching. Both they and the Indians they pursue are outside the law.
At the end, the cavalry finally shows up and is led into battle by Wayne and his partner, followed by the local rangers, followed by the army. The defining scene after the battle is where the captain of the rangers is having his rear end swathed in some stinging solvent. He is looking furiously at a young lieutenant. He had constantly told the youth regarding his sword, "Boy, watch out for that knife!"
There is no question that two lone men cannot administer justice. It takes the rangers and the army. Two men had to do the years of tracking. They cannot bring the conflict to a conclusion.
Warfare Is Not Bourgeois (Except for the Swiss)
There is no literature about the typical day of a shopkeeper, unless he is a secret agent, a secret gang leader, or a super-hero on the side. We do not go to movies about the day-to-day affairs of people like us. Nobody on TV ever spends an evening doing what most people do: watch TV. All popular literature is fantasy.
We are bored with our lives. So, we read novels and watch movies about people decidedly not like ourselves.
To the extent that we identify with the hero, we can do so only by pretending that our bourgeois lives can have a break. This is why millions of men marched off to war joyously in 1914. Then their lives became decidedly non-heroic. Robert Nisbet once said to a class that there is no sociological literature on boredom. If I had been faster on the uptake, I would have replied, "That's because it's a really boring topic." Of course, a boring topic has never stopped academia, but it still would have been a good one-liner.
Yet there is an exception: a fusion of two cultures. The Swiss are an armed camp. Bankers take pride in their marksmanship. Yet no nation is more bourgeois than Switzerland. Hitler was wise enough not to invade. Napoleon wasn't, but he wisely pulled out his troops after the "conquest" of Switzerland. The Swiss recognize that bourgeois values depend occasionally on non-bourgeois values: honor, courage, and personal self-sacrifice rather than personal self-interest. To the degree that a nation is ready to implement these non-bourgeois values when invaded, it can spend most of its time – century after century – in supremely bourgeois pursuits. A nation of clock makers and bankers, when fully armed and trained, can produce lots of clocks and balance sheets.
Meanwhile, little old ladies of both sexes want gun control.
There is nothing primitive about a Swiss officer. There was nothing primitive about John Wayne's characters, either. There was nothing primitive about Hopalong Cassidy or Buster Crabbe's Billy the Kid. Rarely is there a Western hero who is illiterate. He may be on the cattle trail with illiterates, but he probably has a Bible or a copy of Blackstone's Commentaries to teach any illiterate compatriot who wants to learn how to read.
But they are all men – Victorian men. Is there any feature of the Victorian age that is more fundamental than this: A man taking risky action to defend women? A man who was not willing to risk his life for a woman was not considered a man. A man who fled all violence, unless he was a Quaker or an Amish farmer, was not a man. The essence of the Victorian mindset was this: bourgeois values of peace and justice must sometimes be defended by force of arms – masculine arms.
In an era – ours – in which women serve as equals in the military, such an outlook is politically incorrect. The Western has faded in popularity. Private Lynch has overcome Gary Cooper's Sergeant York and John Wayne's Col. Yorke (Rio Grande).
Westerns vs. Bankers
One of the best things about B-Westerns is that bankers are so often the bad guys. Those of us who understand fractional reserve banking and central banking in general would be overjoyed to see Bruce Willis in Diehard 4 go after the people at 33 Liberty Street, New York City, rather than act on their behalf, as Willis did in Diehard 3.
Bankers are thieves again and again in Westerns. This theme began no later than Andrew Jackson's war against the Second Bank of the United States. As Murray Rothbard points out in The Panic of 1819, Jackson learned early what fractional reserve banks could do to destroy the economy. He opposed the system throughout his career.
Some banks get robbed in Westerns. The good guys go after the bank robbers. The common people had their savings in those banks. But good guys go after thieving bankers, too. The bankers always hire gunmen to do their dirty work, along with lawyers.
B-Westerns were wonderful. Bankers and lawyers were assumed to be guilty until proven innocent. Every kid in the theater could instantly recognize the #1 bad guy if a banker had a moustache. If a banker or a lawyer was not a villain, then he was impotent – someone to be protected.
The classic Western was a defense of individual heroism in a transitional culture, where law and order are distant or corrupted by local special interests. It was self-consciously a literature of men, written for men and boys, about the life-and-death issues that only rarely face a man in organized society, but which every man in every society should be willing to face.
The Western, like the war movie, faded after 1965. Some of the reasons overlapped; others didn't. Some of the reasons that overlapped were these: a loss of moral certitude (white hats vs. black hats), a cynicism regarding moral issues generally, a cynicism regarding life-and-death issues (see Roe v. Wade, 1973), and a spreading social pessimism.
Women's literature is only rarely about life-and-death issues outside the home, and virtually never about the defense of right by force of arms. It is about hearth and home, as it should be. Jane Austin had one story, re-written over and over, or so it seems from the endless re-makes of movies based on her books. Her stories are about talented but unmarried young women of one class worrying about marrying men from another class. Victorian novels are not my cup of tea – a distinctly English Victorian phrase. Somehow, I have never been in a group of men where someone asked: "Have you ever seen Pride and Prejudice?" I have seen it. I just can't distinguish it from Emma.
Bourgeois values encompass hearth and home. On the frontier, the hearth is replaced by the campfire. Home is replaced by cattle drives. Women are not there. They will be there, once the cattle drive reaches Dodge City. But they won't be wives and mothers.
The Western is about a transitional era in a treeless environment. It is about a world without clear and enforceable property rights. It was clear to Shane that this judicial world was coming to an end. That does not mean that we cannot celebrate Shane's role in the transition.
Shane to Wilson: "I've heard about you."
Wilson to Shane: "What have you heard, Shane?"
Shane: "I hear you're a low-down yankee liar."
Wilson (putting on his shooting glove): "Prove it."
Shane did not prove it, exactly. But Wilson's days of lying were over.
Much as I appreciate bourgeois values, I am not interested in a sequel, Little Joe Grows Up, the heartwarming story of a Montana life insurance salesman and his six children.
October 28, 2005
Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit http://www.garynorth.com.He is also the author of a free 17-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.
I liked Gary North's In Defense of The Classic Western so much, and I agrre w/what he says, that I just had to add a few comments--mine and others--to all that he had to say. The Searchers, Shane, and I'll throw in High Noon too, are/have been my favorite all-time Westerns. What's not to like of any Duke Wayne flik???
So I hunted around and found one good example, but not overly negative, regardinding the supposed racial overtones of The Searchers. As for Shane, it is everything Gary North describes, and more. I might add that one of Clint Eastwood's more recent fliks seems to me to be a takeoff on Shane, in some ways--but I cannot, at the moment, recall the name of that flik--if you, reading this, agree w/me you will know the one I mean.
Anyway, please see my response to the Gary North page at...