I lived in California for a couple of years when I was a kid, while I was in junior high. In seventh grade, we took a film class, one of the predecessors of the “media literacy” courses that are common in public schools. For the first time in my life, I was taught that there was a “language” of film. One of the films we were shown is the now-classic western, “Bad Day at Black Rock,” which starred Spencer Tracy, Lee Marvin, and Walter Brennan. The story takes place in 1946, and is set in a tiny desert town through which the train runs once a day. One day, a stranger comes to town (Spencer Tracy) with a mysterious mission that he won’t disclose to curious town members. But he’s looking for someone – a Japanese-American rancher – who lives just outside town. Before the end of the day, the residents of the town will try to kill Tracy because of what he finds out while he is there.
In the film are many of the elements common to “westerns.” For a kid who knew next to nothing about what westerns were about – other than the common stories involving Native Americans and American cowboys – the film provided me with a template of how to read a western story.
The setting for westerns, is, of course, “the west.” One of the challenges that besets the characters is the climate and the landscape. I grew up in the shadow of mountain peaks that topped 10,000 feet or more (the Cascades of Western Washington) and was aware that you didn’t need to live on a mountain to be affected by it. Mountains challenge characters, whether because of the need to get across a mountain range, or because, on the dry side of mountains, you’ll find land that struggles to get enough rainfall to sustain the settlement activities of the folk who settle there. Whether it’s rain for irrigation or hydrating livestock, or flash floods, or sudden snowstorms that occur in higher elevations, climate and landscape make life hard – and that hardness shows up in how people treat one another.
In a land where people struggle for survival, relations among neighbors become paramount to the preservation of small communities that spring up. But the west is big enough that (even now) it’s possible to go out into the wilderness and be alone for long periods of time. The conflict between community and the individual features in these stories, therefore, and is often represented by the individual who is talked in to protecting the community by becoming its sheriff or marshal, even though what he really wants to do is leave town and live on his own. In most westerns, marshals have power thrust upon them. They are not naturally power hungry, unless they’re a bad guy.
In the western, there are good guys and bad guys. People who fall in the middle often become victims of the bad guys and are in need of saving by the good guys. A man who won’t protect his family is one of the lowest forms of life in a western. No good guy likes to kill, but if it’s to protect himself or his town, he will spring into action.
Women and children are the “domestic.” They’re what a man will protect, but they also complicate life for the average man, especially if he is a cowboy. Native Americans are the enemy, always looking for opportunities to destroy those who are invading their lands, but there are occasionally “good Indians,” who provide aid to the settlers.
Plots of westerns revolve around moral issues. Not the moral issues that occupy people in cities. Men and women are judged by a different moral standard out west, and the west often serves as a place for people who have made “mistakes” in civilization to make themselves anew. Questions of personal morality are sublimated to much larger questions. These ethical questions arise because of survival. What is a good person willing to do to survive and to protect those who are weaker than he is? These are life-and-death questions, not rhetorical ones. In fact, it’s the man who speaks too much who is less trustworthy than the man who is defined by his deeds.
I was curious about whether westerns were a thing of the past, or whether they offer anything to the reader in 2017. Can a book published in 2017 hold onto its view of the west in a time when we recognize how horrifically the Native American was treated? Is there space for women characters as something more than an object of protection? What about the environmental damage that we know was wrought by the slaughter of the American Buffalo, hunting practices that drove the animal to the brink of extinction?
I wondered if it was my own understanding of the western that was too reliant on older stereotypes that have changed. In addition to reading a brand-new western, I also turned to Louis L’Amour, the western writer who dominated the field for decades and has over 300 million books in print.
Robert Olmstead’s latest novel, a western called Savage Country, confronts some of the dilemmas of writing about this time period. The first thing that surprises you is this first description of the environment that protagonist Michael Coughlin is riding into:
Some distance from town he was met with the smell of raw sewage and creosote, the stink of lye and kerosene oil, the carrion of dead and slaughtered animals unfit for human consumption … The year was 1873 and all about was the evidence of boom and bust, shattered dreams, foolish ambition, depredation, shame, greed, and cruelty.
Into this western town, where the worst of human faults has brought a community to its knees, our protagonist rides. Coughlin has fought in the Civil War, and he will be the reluctant hero who is called to serve the greater community. In this case, he thinks that he is going there to take care of his brother’s widow, Elizabeth, who has discovered that her recently deceased husband has left her with a mountain of debt and a posse of debt collectors. But Elizabeth is not helpless. She has come up with a plan to save her ranch so that she can stay and continue to work the land. The plan is to hunt buffalo, the animal whose meat, skins, and bones are all in demand in the east.
Rather than shy away from the issues that might undo the western, Olmstead confronts them head-on. The buffalo hunt will start out as a means by which the ranch will be saved, but as the participants find out, participating in this hunt will bring all of the ethical issues that underlie so many of the classic westerns.
If Olmstead surprised me with his approach to the genre, Louis L’Amour turned my conception of the predictability of the genre on its head. In Bendigo Shafter, we are given all the familiar elements. A small group of settlers establishes a town on the edge of the frontier and then confronts all of the usual complications, including the challenges posed by the landscape. There are also hostile Indians, and problems with food and water supplies. At the center of it is Bendigo, the young man who accompanies his married brother to the frontier.
Bendigo longs to leave the town, to strike out on his own. His obligations to others, however, keep him tied to the town. But Bendigo is a reader, and as L’Amour explains, the settlers who brought books with them selected their very best with which to travel due to the weight restrictions. One of the settlers who brought books is the widow, and she favors classic philosophers. As a consequence, Bendigo reads John Locke and other Enlightenment writers and the Stoic philosophers, who in turn shape his thinking about his life and the west.
Consider this passage in which Bendigo speaks of observation and living in the moment:
The desert and the wild country taught me not only to look, but to see … and there is a difference. Many look but do not see, for the land about them that seems so changeless is changing even as they watch, a change unbelievably slow yet nevertheless there.
And not surprisingly, the more Bendigo comes to respect his environment and to love the changes he observes, the more he comes to respect the Native Americans who he sees as having shared with him this same approach to the land. Soon, Bendigo becomes friends with an old member of the Umatilla tribe and his grandson, who become his companions as he traverses the country.
L’Amour’s women are also surprising. Ruth Macken, the widow with the books, becomes Bendigo’s teacher about the broader world. She is also a crack shot who helps to defend the town, and L’Amour works her into Wyoming political history – the first state to give women the right to vote – by having her run for public office.
The Iron Marshal, also by L’Amour, doesn’t even begin in the west. It begins at the docks in New York harbor, where an orphaned Irish boy lands without any family. He is taken into one of the Five Point gangs, and the first part of the novel details how Tom Shanaghy becomes “muscle” for one of the gang bosses. Events out of Shanaghy’s control put him on a train, and when a train detective throws him off, it’s to find that he is now in Kansas. Despite all of Shanaghy’s reasons for not wanting to stay, he is talked into becoming the town’s marshal, and he must face those who want to destroy the town. Surely, these are the more common elements of a western, but again, L’Amour turns Shanaghy into a reader, who uses his rational thinking skills in aid of a town where guns rule social relations.
But Shanaghy is attracted to the environment of Kansas because its wide open spaces remind him of Ireland. His attachment to the land is what first convinces him to take a chance with staying in the west.
What became obvious to me in my reading of both Olmstead and L’Amour is that I had mistaken “genre” for something that didn’t allow for writers to play with its tropes and familiar attributes. The western still has things to say to readers who want to immerse themselves in familiar territory. For those who are willing to “see” as well as “look,” the works of Olmstead and L’Amour offer marvelous sights.