In the beginning of the stunning novel, O Pioneers, Willa Cather describes a small, frontier town on the Great Plains.
“One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away. A mist of fine snowflakes was curling and eddying about the cluster of low drab buildings huddled on the gray prairie, under a gray sky. The dwelling-houses were set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves, headed straight for the open plain. None of them had any appearance of permanence, and the howling wind blew under them as well as over them.”
The fictional town of Hanover represented many, many such frontier towns. Here, in the dramatic and often overwhelming landscapes of the American West, young natives from east of the Mississippi and immigrants from across the Atlantic poured into newly formed communities, struggling for stability, success, and permanency. New towns and communities developed with a rapidity unimagined in the old world. Not surprisingly, these new communities had to deal with a number of problems—none more serious than the land itself.
“But the great fact was the land itself, which seemed to overwhelm the little beginnings of human society that struggled in its sombre wastes. It was from facing this vast hardness that the boy’s mouth had become so bitter,” Cather writes, “because he felt that men were too weak to make any mark here, that the land wanted to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness.”
Could one be a good steward of such a land? Or would one merely have to dominate it (if such a thing were even possible)? Brilliantly, Cather ties the drama to the landscape; and the landscape (hence, the genre of the western) really matters. The type of soil matters; the type and amount of rainfall matters; the type of sky matters; the types of flora and fauna matter. Place matters.
But, the quality and verve of the human will matters as well. Cather presents us with the strength of a woman—descended from those same people who had conquered the Faroes and Iceland a thousand years earlier.
“When the road began to climb the first long swells of the Divide, Alexandra hummed an old Swedish hymn. . . . Her face was so radiant that he felt shy about asking her. For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious. Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her. . . . the great, free spirit which breathes across it, must have bent lower than it ever bent to a human will before. The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.”
Cather, one of the greatest of American authors understood the tensions between man and nature, and she understood the nature of myth and of saga.
After watching the television episodes this week and hearing the variety of lectures—the enthusiasm of a Gary Yoggy, the earnest integrity and patriotism of a Buck Taylor, and the learnedness of a Paul Cantor and a John Marini—we can be certain that the American Western offers a stage for great drama, myth, and saga. If the Civil War is our Iliad, the settlement of the American West is our Odyssey. What greater stage could there be for human drama?
Native white Americans, black freedmen and exodusters, Hispanics, European and Asian immigrants, and American Indians (of a thousand different types) intermingling on one continent—with the backdrops of unlimited skies; rushing rivers; seemingly endless mountain ranges; gorges, canyons, and valleys; deserts and alpine forests; seas of grass, cacti, and sage brush; and herds of buffalo, antelope, and elk.
But, easily a home on the range?
Of course not. Men carry their greatness, as well as their sin, with them—even if beginning over on a frontier where every possibility seems open to them.
As we saw in the variety of episodes this week: ethnic tensions; community group think, conformity, and peer pressure; questions of sovereignty, power, law, and government; the tyranny of the seasons—to name just a few problems—dogged the men and woman of the frontier. These things, they simply couldn’t escape.
And, in the end, one might ask what it was all for? Larry McMurtry, in his fine novel, Lonesome Dove, explores this question in a number of conversations between the two main characters, former Texas Rangers.
Black Beaver “claimed to have been all the way from the Columbia to the Rio Grande,” Call said. “That’s knowing the country, I’d say.”
“Well, he was an Indian,” Augustus said. “He didn’t have to go along establishing law and order and making it safe for bankers and Sunday-school teachers, like we done. I guess that’s why you’re ready to head off to Montany. You want to help establish a few more banks.”“That’s aggravating,” Call said. “I ain’t no banker.” “No, but you’ve done many a banker a good turn,” Augustus said. “That what we done, you know. Kilt the dern Indians so they wouldn’t bother the bankers.” “They bothered more than bankers,” Call said. “Yes, lawyers and doctors and newspapermen and drummers of every description,” Augustus said. “Not to mention women and children,” Call said. “Not to mention plain settlers.”
“Why, women and children and settlers are just cannon fodder for lawyers and bankers,” August said. “They’re part of the scheme. After the Indians wipe out enough of them you get your public outcry, and we go chouse the Indians out of the way. If they keep coming back then the Army takes over and chouses them worse. Finally the Army will manage to whip ‘em down to where they can be squeezed onto some reservation, so the lawyers and bankers can come in and get civilization started. Every bank in Texas ought to pay us a commission for the work we done.”…“If I’d have wanted civilization I’d have stayed in Tennessee and wrote poetry for a living,” Augustus said. “Me and you done our work too well. We killed off most of the people that made this country interesting to begin with.”
When Dr. Kalthoff (very much our own Matt Dillon—as Buck Taylor wisely and correctly pointed out on Tuesday night in one of the best moments of the whole week) graciously asked me to be on this panel, I was rather hesitant to agree.
My hesitancy had nothing to do with the Dillon-esque figure of Dr. Kalthoff, our Dean of Faculty; with the CCAs, wonderfully run by Doug Jeffries and Tim Casper, given technological teeth by Ted Maatko, and offered extensive class and beauty by the women of the college, handling our questions; or with the college in part or in whole.
And, I love the West. I grew up on the Great Plains. I began riding horses in kindergarten, and I was given my first horse when I received my first communion in second grade.As an adult, I’ve hiked and camped—rather rigorously—throughout the Rocky Mountains and the deserts of the Great Basin. One of my hobbies is photographing western landscapes; and my wife and I took a 10-day honeymoon, exploring the traditional areas of the Nez Perce Indians in northern and central Idaho. My dissertation dealt with French, American, British, and Indian relations in the western Great Lakes frontier during the American Revolution.
I love the American West. As my wife can tell you; no landscape nourishes my soul like the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. No smell means more to me than sage. Place matters.
But, timing also plays a role in all of this. As each speaker reminded us, the western television show came into being in the mid 1950s, hit its stride around 1959, and died in 1967.
I was also born in the summer of love—1967, just as the western on television was dying. I’d never seen (or, frankly heard of) most of the programs shown this week. I didn’t grow up watching much television (we spent almost all of our nonschool time at our land, feeding, working with, and riding our horses). When I did watch, I watched Star Trek (shown without commercials on PBS on Saturday mornings) and Battlestar Galactica. And, when I was visiting my grandpa and grandma, we had to watch Lawrence Welk. Never that I remember did I watch a western; and certainly not voluntarily.
And, since I’m on the subject, I agree, for the most part, with Dr. Cantor, that western themes re-emerged in the genre of science fiction. But, I also very much think that genre (especially place) matters. There were certain things that Star Trek could do (not that it always did it) that westerns simply couldn’t. And, there’s an attractiveness—at least to me—of science fiction that westerns are lacking.
Being more partial to Buzz than to Woody, then, I’d assumed, when Dr. Kalthoff had asked me to be on this panel, that I was very much the wrong man for it.
I have, however, learned a great deal, and I thoroughly enjoyed Cheyenne and Rifleman. Each show seemed to understand the necessity of order and virtue. Buck Taylor’s talk makes me want to explore Gunsmoke quite a bit more.
The only show I hope never to watch again is Have Gun Will Travel. I found the so-called Paladin repulsively smug. And, his quoting of classical sources was meant to demean his listener, not elevate the human person. In no way was his classicism humane—and I’m guessing that his arrogance turned more watchers away from the liberal arts than it attracted them.
Regardless of this one criticism, I found the week highly informative, and I certainly I understand the recent history of American culture much better than I did a week ago.
Most importantly, though, to go back to Cather—we were introduced to fascinating levels of myth and saga this week.
A great political scientist, Don Lutz, has recently explained the importance of myth to the success of a community. “Essentially what they share are symbols and myths that provide meaning in their existence as a people and link them to some transcendent order. The shared meaning and a shared link to some transcendent order allow them to act as a people.”
And, G.K. Chesterton reminded us frequently: “he who has no sympathy with myths has no sympathy with men.”
The West—the actual settlement as well as the remembering of that settlement—gives us a common American understand, one that, properly understood, as Dr. Marini explained, ties us to the founding and to the universal quality of Natural Rights.
And, as Buck Taylor wonderfully reminded us—many of the great actors of the western—John Wayne, James Arness, Ronald Reagan, and himself—knew the importance of God and country and never hesitated to defend each publicly.
I can think of no better expression of the universal power of the western American myth than that demonstrated in the fall elections of 1989.
Not here, but across the Atlantic—where members of a Polish labor organization by the name of Solidarity used the image of Gary Cooper from High Noon on their posters.
One man—armed with right and order—ready to challenge, to the point of death, the Enemy. Like Cooper in High Noon, the members of Solidarity, stared into the eyes of evil and said, “we’re coming for you.”
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This was originally given at a CCA, Hillsdale College, Michigan, Spring 2009.