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Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 11.40.09 PMA lot of good books have come out of the West. They have been written by men and by women and may be read by girls and by boys. It is no wonder that so many appear on John Senior’s list of the thousand or so good books that youngsters should read before they get to the hundred or so great books. Surely the good prepares for the great. However, these good books of the West may lead the youngsters elsewhere, in fact to the West, as I hear they led John Senior to run away from home to the West, and later when a man, after Columbia with its Western Civilization core, taught by Mark Van Doren and the likes of Barzun and Trilling, John Senior went West to teach in Wyoming, and then to Kansas, where with friends Dennis Quinn and Frank Nelick, he founded his justly celebrated program in good books.

When you read the Three Musketeers, on John’s list, you might play “musketeers” for a couple of weeks, but you wouldn’t run away to France; when you read Ivanhoe, you might play “knights in armor” for a while, but there is no way to run away to the middle ages; when you, a girl, read Pride and Prejudice, you might imagine a graceful dancer, if you could get a pliant boy to play the part, but never suppose it depends on getting to Regency England; and when you, a boy, at last appreciate Shakespeare is not all dull, you would not seek your Juliet in Verona, unless you live in New Jersey.

The books of the West, like no others from other regions on John Senior’s list, draw readers to the West itself, as they drew me, first as a boy to dream of the life of a cowboy, then to set out there as a youth, until the car turned over in Iowa, later to sojourn in Wyoming (counseled to go by John Senior), then to settle among German-speaking Texans, and all the while to teach great, and some good, books between Bryce and Zion Canyons.

In what follows, I’ll describe some of those good books of the West, many that John Senior lists, some others that belong on the list, and what kind of travels, of body and soul, these books inspire. I’ll also mention some movies of them; although as Aristotle says spectacle is the least important part of drama and as my daughter Molly just said “the book is always better,” our children of today take in a lot with their eyes, and it’s good to set the good beside the bad, let them make comparisons, and even appreciate some Western movies we parents enjoyed as children, coming after John Senior. Much later, I will note some troubling questions about our Western Civilization, which emerge in these good Western books and the great books speak to profoundly.

Meanwhile, fellow parents, be warned: Reading these books may make your children want to run away to the West, or at least give them the desire throughout life, and thus though settled down in De Smet or elsewhere sometimes get that faraway look, like Pa Ingalls. And these books may make you too want to head West. Below I’ll suggest how you and your children can gratify this good desire. Melancholic Stuart Little, a fellow native of my provincial starting point in the universe, thinks the road leading north is different and “that from now on I shall be traveling north until the end of my days.” I am prepared to say that if Stuart had headed West, he would have grown big-hearted and married that little girl. And I am almost prepared to say that the road leading West is always happy.[1]

No doubt all good things are instances of the Good itself, but these good books come out of one place on the earth’s great surface, one unlike any other.

The water is scarcer, the air thinner, the spaces emptier, the distances greater, and the whole level of things higher. In the West, you feel at once bigger than what’s below you and smaller than what’s above you. Sunlit by day and starry by night, unless storming more darkly and violently than elsewhere on the continent, this big Western sky determines all beneath it. The West is not just where the sun sets, but where if you head there, you will catch more of that sunlight. “Light, light, more light” said Goethe as he lay dying. Don’t we all want more light, and feel it is ever west of us? Will we ever get there? The West really is where there is more sunlight. Perhaps that is why so many have said “this is the place,” and stopped. Thus the West has existed for the last ten million years or more; thus it existed when ancient peoples first migrated to it, hunting peoples mainly but a few farmers; and thus it existed when the horse-breaking, metal-working, and ocean-going peoples of Europe followed.

To them, it was a part of a great frontier, all those portions of the globe outside Europe, which they spread out to, in their capable ships and daring voyages. Like the story of the great frontier everywhere, the story of how the Western United States was settled has much the same characters and the same experiences, of sweat, and of blood, of tears, and of prayers, and smiles. It is even more like the story of their Atlantic forbearers, with their commercial energy, their resourceful minds, their restless souls, and their self-governing liberty. Yet the story of the Western frontier differs from its predecessors. It is more dramatic.

Out West, the climate is harsher, both hotter and colder, the rainfall smaller, the wind steadier, the bears fiercer, the salmon bigger, the sand more abundant, the mountains higher, and the storms mightier. Nevertheless, the speed with which the American West was settled was more rapid than anything the world has ever seen. Jefferson thought it would take a hundred generations to reach the Pacific. He was wrong. From the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the Great War, a mere three generations, sufficed to fill the West with settlers. West of the Mississippi all the stages of civilization that passed before the eyes of the generations of Governor Winthrop, Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Daniel Webster, and Abraham Lincoln passed within one life span. Washakie, Chief of the Shoshoni, was born before Lewis and Clark set out on their exploration; when he died, the Rough Riders from the West had just liberated Cuba and expelled Spain from the new world.

Moreover, these recent events, of trekking, founding and settling are well remembered in the West. The evidence of them, the very wagon tracks, has not been obliterated yet, and when the wind blows, the bones of slain settlers and Indians still appear. Drought drying up the lakes performs archeology. Both Vermont and Texas had a pioneer existence; both fought for their independence, and both were sovereign republics before entering the Union. Yet they differ. It is not just that the Battle of Bennington and the taking of Fort Ticonderoga were half a century before the Alamo, Goliad, and San Jacinto; the difference is greater than the proportion of three to four in years, for the earlier battles, though victories, are nearly forgotten and the others, though including an utter defeat and a massacre, are cherished in the hearts of living Texans. One reason such founding events are better remembered in the West is that the lives of the present dwellers are more like their forbearers. True, there are no more Indian wars, little open range, few buffalo roaming free, and fewer passenger trains, but there are plenty of cattle, sheep, horses, game and wilderness, lots of ranchers, cowboys, Indians, and farmers, some miners and a few semi-mountain men, and plenty of lawmen and doctors. Some of these people now living in the West had parents who first settled it. Many had grandparents who did. They know its history in their family story, as well as books. And people still move to the West for some of the same reasons they did a century ago.

Since the dry, high place the West exists today just as it has for a thousand, thousand generations and just as it existed a few generations ago, when it was settled so rapidly, and since the people living in the West today live in some continuity with the founding of their way of life, the West out of which the good books of the West have come can be visited, and should be, as one reads the books.

Not so long ago it would not have occurred to me to say this. My trail to the West was happy, but roundabout. When I moved to Texas, I moved for great books, to a university that had a “great books” core, undergraduate and graduate, which Dartmouth had not adopted. Though in Dallas, I had no car. All my travels were sedentary and in time, through the ages. That is the way it is with great books, with most of them. They are so deep that the contemporary shafts descending to their depth are everywhere and thus in no place very much more than another. When you read Hamlet, you are not seized with a desire to visit Denmark. You have to be still to read the great ones. You are a bit removed from life, but in recompense, you have for company the best minds who have ever lived. Reading Hamlet, you are getting close to Shakespeare. By contrast, when you read The Virginian, you just might imagine yourself in Wyoming and fetch a map.[2] I have never stopped reading great books. Yet I did not just add the good to the great. It was by first moving out into the West, to the hills of Austin with their prairie verbena and then to the staked plains of West Texas, for sun, and wind, and serenity, and with a sojourn in Wyoming, that I came to appreciate good books, those to come out of the West. And there in the West, I discovered an unusual town, a remarkable man, his mother’s story, and a wonderful chronicle play, all of which I come back to annually, and will later describe, that you may enjoy them, find it, or find your own. To know the West one must visit it, spend time there, get to know some residents well, as well as read some of the good books that have come out of it.[3]

How might others do that? In his Great Plains, Ian Frazier shows a way to begin, I think. One summer he got in his VW bus and traveled all over the plains, stopping here, stopping there, at Register Cliffs along the Oregon Trail, at Lawrence Welk’s hometown, at Ft. Griffin in West Texas, and at Nicodemus in Kansas, settled by Blacks after the Civil War. As an explorer, Frazier is something like Pike, or Fremont, or Carson. Since he goes up and down the plains, he is also something like the cowboys on the great cattle drives. Since the sheer motion of it pleases him so, he may be something like the buffalo, or the Indians who followed them. Certainly, like the Indians, he gets use out of everything he hunts. And yet he is not unlike the greedy Gold-Rushers too, eager to cross the West to get to the Far West, for he has a purpose, to write a book, and a schedule, a summer one at that. Really he is most like the mountain men, for he is alone and in motion and by commerce connected to the Easterners at the New Yorker magazine. Yet unlike many of the mountain men, he has no streak of cruelty, and he will not be on the road always. Really Frazier is an inquirer with a bus and a pen. Thus, before, after, and during his trips, he also read to his heart’s content, along lines sometimes suggested by his chance contacts and always in accord with his lifelong loves.[4] In his Great Plains, the riding, the researching, and the searching make one happy trail.

And the writing is so happy. Very few books today include such fine long sentences. From the highway of the main clause, you get to see passing beauties in the subordinate ones, and ahead of the sentence moving across the landscape is the peak of the paragraph, itself running toward the horizon of the page, and up above it, the big sky of the whole book. Enjoyment in the things is doubled in the writing and passed on to us, and without a user fee. That The New Yorker permitted joy to appear in its pages is remarkable. When Frazier visits the Little Big Horn, you feel that once again it is that June day in 1876, so near our country’s hundredth birthday, and you feel you are now meeting Custer and Crazy Horse, though neither probably “met” the other. Indeed, Frazier has something of Custer’s cheerfulness and something of Crazy Horse’s nobility. He also has some of Shane’s grace. He could have been a hired pen, but will not be. Yet virtuous as he is, he, like Shane, will never dwell in the region his skill savours so precisely. As a stay-through-the-winter native of the plains said to him in a letter, Frazier is a visitor. (Honest Frazier added the letter to the paperback edition.) In the book, especially in the footnotes, you will find a lot of good advice about what to read next. The most important thing is the spirit of his journeying.

Read any three good books out of the West, get a map, and then go. Follow some old trail, the Oregon, the Goodnight-Loving, the Chisholm, or the Santa Fe, or blaze a new trail of your own mind’s making, but with room for digression and for conversation. Some are Interstates, but more are non-Interstates. Roll down the window, for the smells, for the vast dryness, for the precious water, for hay, for mesquite, for clean sagebrush, and for bluebonnets in profusion. Use the air conditioner if you must, but try to restrict it to the desert. And no dark glasses to keep you from missing the sights and Westerners from seeing you. No fast food, reliable but insipid. Never consult your timidities. Look for restaurants with the names of the owners on them, for cafeterias (especially in Texas), and for cafes. If the place looks like it would take a reservation, pass on. Go West with three questions (or a thousand and one, or one big one, like Tocqueville), and expect answers, but not exactly from whom or when or where they will come to you. Go with big questions or you will be frittered away by curiosities. As Frazier makes clear, you have to read about as much as you travel for any journey to be worth much. Read before you go, so your travel will satisfy some desire, and read after, so the new questions those satisfactions bring up will receive some answer. And write. Write. Write. Either do what is worth writing about, or write about what is worth doing, said an ancient sage. Or do both, and as you travel.

And if music is the food of travel, let Western music be yours. Country yes, Willie Nelson “On the Road Again,” Iris De Menth “Our Town,” and Bill Staines “My Sweet Wyoming Home” and anything by Duane Dickerson and Dick Datloff, but old country, too: Tex Ritter “Do Not Forsake Me,” but also Hank Snow “I’ve Been Everywhere” with its Whitmanesque roll of names, Woody Guthrie “Grand Coulee Dam” with its celebration “there goes another Flying Fortress to fight for Uncle Sam,” Webb Pierce, Ernest Tubb, and Hank Williams, right back to Jimmy Rodgers, the singing brakeman. Get back before the electrification of the instruments, when music had a connection to its primal scene, persons who live together playing for each other, a lover to his lass, a mother to her child, one family after supper, several families at a camp meeting, and Christians in church. Sing the songs your fore-travelers sang: “Sweet Betsy,” “Red River Valley,” and “T for Texas.” And keep your eye out for a dance, where they still play “San Antonio Rose” where they do the Texas Two-Step, or that Western Swing, and recognize Bob Wills’ “Ah, ha” and “Take it away Leon.” And around Christmas, go to the Cowboys’ Christmas Ball, in Anson, Texas, where they have been holding it since 1890 with the mostly recently married couple leading the grand march.

One place to find the books you need is the present, for good books still come out of the West. From recent Western times, you might try Horton Foote’s plays and movies. The author has a delicate touch, a tender heart, and a steady compass. After the film script for “To Kill A Mocking Bird,” instead of staying in New York where success was for the grabbing, Foote retired to the country to raise his family. Some artists are the artists they are because they are the men they are. The later results of Foote’s decision are excellent, as excellent as Babette’s FeastTender Mercies might teach many a sinner, even one who did not know he was a sinner, to forgive himself, and Trip to Bountiful might reconcile many a son and mother. It is good these films are popular. Perhaps America is not on a course to forbid the dunking of mature sinners in holy waters, the humming of hymns in homes, and “God” in the Declaration. And perhaps the popularity of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It means the lovers of nature and the lovers of human beings can lie down together, trading in the enmity of the spotted owl and conifer log for the harmonious cooperation of the dry fly, fly rod, and the mute shimmering trout. In the movie, the younger brother has an art and a grace in it beyond the reach of art, but he chooses games of chance instead of the gift life and life’s God gave him. The older brother, though less gifted, chooses a life in accord with his gift and he lives. For Norman Maclean himself that meant leaving the West, teaching literature well at Chicago, but many well-chosen lives have been lived in the West by those who stayed. Among twentieth century Western lives, I like especially Gene Schulze’s account of practicing medicine in Texas in the Depression, Yesterday’s Seasons. Fine as James Herriot’s memoirs of the veterinarian life are, I like these better; a human clientele permits as great humor, requires as great service, but has more depth. Humans can tell their own stories, and by including their stories, this doctor’s story adds up to something more.[5]

There has always been a lot of traveling in the West; for thousands of years the bison, roaming to graze, North in summer, south in Winter, with Indians and their dogs trailing them. Then came the adventurous Spaniards, their horses let wild; soon Indians mounted on them overtaking the bison, later the voyageurs on the rivers, and the mountain men trapping beaver and enjoying freedom (and some misanthropy). Then there were seekers hurrying past the West to the Far West, some for gold, some for souls, most for green valleys, to settle, or dark forests, to log. And yet the archetype of movement in the West will always be the great cattle drives, although they moved north, not west, and although they only lasted a short generation.

For life on those trails, from south Texas in April to Montana in September, the authentic happy original is Andy Adams, Log of a Cowboy. Anyone reading it will understand why, despite the constancy of their duties, in the midst of danger, adversity, and discomfort, with sleepless watches, unchanging food, with coffee whose grounds were only changed when the pot filled with them, and with dust everywhere, why these men arose happy each morning to go forth to their tasks, having slept light all night, because it was their duty. With a day-after-day zest, Adams did it as a young man, and with page-after-page pleasure, he later wrote about it. These men liked the fellowship, the loyalty, the responsibility, and the purpose stretching over six months. Teachers, pastors, and parents may recognize analogies. And youngsters reading the book might come away with a test of vocation: To choose in life something that though hard, even to the point of breaking you, certainly stretching you, and that looking back upon, will have made you someone you are pleased to be. (The counterpart for a boy is by Ralph Moody, in his Little Britches series, who at thirteen really got to be a cowboy for a summer, and had to support his mother; it was both an adventure and a duty.)

For a long life begun on the trail, with much on the scrapes that ended many another cowboy’s life early, and some on the ranching he might turn to later, best is E.C. “Teddy Blue” Abbot, We Pointed Them North. These men did things worth doing (and not doing) and wrote about them; Abbot with the help of Helena Huntington Smith, Adams alone. Adams went on to write more, which John Senior lists. In The Outlet, he has risen to trail boss, works for a good cowman, and proves equal to the statesmanship required. Stories told around the campfires on the trail figure in these accounts and have been collected as Campfire Tales (Bison). A child’s book with the spirit of the drive is Old Blue, Sybil Hancock’s retelling of the story of a remarkable steer, Old Blue, who led many a herd up the trail for Charles Goodnight, and is honorably buried at the National Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma City.

Judging from the movie, the appeal of the trail drive endures and worthily so, in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. Its six video hours take the twin heroes, former Texas Rangers, from South Texas to Montana, on one last trail drive. Incorporated in it, as in none of the original accounts I know of, is a Virgilian sense of the tears of passing things. In one lifetime, the West went from frontier—Indian, and bandit—to ranches, crops, and towns. These heroes, McCrae and Call, see it and almost are it. The very results of what these men achieved when young nearly overtake them in middle age. Yet this makes their second age of endeavor sad; it is more noble, more self-knowing. It is knowledge of the passing of an age suited to, because it required heroism that provokes Gus McCrae’s death; he just can’t see a herd of buffalo, fast waning he knows, without stirring them to a gallop. Likewise, black Dietz, moved to care for a child, can’t believe an Indian brave would risk spearing the child to get him. Call is lucky; he fathered a child, and at last, grudgingly, recognizing him, will mean he has something to live for, as well as something to die for. Jake, the third Ranger, was not so lucky. Not wanting a child from his union with young Lori, he hides in dissipation and drifts into savage evil. The excitement of the trail is coming to an end, and now a new measure of heroism is beginning to appear: Are you man enough to become a father?

In this movie, some of the language is strong, some of the deeds seedy, but the principles are heroes, the suffering real, and their ends noble. In the first century of the “death of God,” foreseen by Nietzsche, though persons still make good ends of their lives, few good deaths appear in the entertainment we kill time and deaden our souls with. Lonesome Dove and Ken Burns’ Civil War are exceptions.

The truly great motion in the West has been the migration of families seeking a home. However blazed by bachelors, such as Cabot, Hudson, and Cartier, this trail had the happiness of a family as its end. It started in seventeenth century England, with the Puritans and the planters, and continued for four hundred years. The history of it is woven in with everything else, from Columbus to the Space Program. Kings, aristocrats, tyrants, the powers of Europe, and the original peoples of America, all science, commerce, and art, most of the virtues and vices, and perhaps, as Tocqueville suspected, even God advanced it, whether they always meant to or not. The American Revolution was a great advance; after it succeeded, what was called the “back country” became the “frontier,” a word that no longer meant a border, but a region, of opportunity and risk, of freedom and danger, of adventure and settlement. The battle that forever symbolized it is the Alamo, freedom and the few against tyranny and numbers. (Visit the Alamo, read the names of the slain, and you will find that a goodly number are Spanish.) Some of its great advancers were the Northwest Ordinance, the transcontinental railway, and the Homestead Act of 1862, the most hopeful piece of legislation ever enacted. The greatest advancer was the Civil War; up till then, every advance westward, except the Northwest Ordinance, which declared the Territory forever free, meant a crisis in the Union, requiring compromises, some of which made the ultimate solution crueller, with the great acquisitions of 1845-48, greater than the Louisiana Purchase, bringing it to a boil, first in bloody Kansas, and then everywhere. With slavery extinguished, the advance west sped forward, more land settled in the next twenty-five years than the previous two hundred and fifty.

As Pope Benedict, upon visiting America, observed: “Americans have always been a people of hope: your ancestors came to this country with the expectation of finding new freedom and opportunity, while the vastness of the unexplored wilderness inspired in them the hope of being able to start completely anew, building a new nation on new foundations.”[6] In 1861 Abraham Lincoln described that foundation; it is “the principle of “Liberty to all”—the principle that clears the path for all—[that] gives hope to all—and, by consequence, enterprize, and industry to all.” Bringing the nation more steadily to rest upon that foundation, Lincoln spoke to Congress in December of 1862: “In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last, best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just—a way which if followed the world will forever applaud and God must forever bless.” It had been the year of the Emancipation Proclamation, opening hope to all, and the year of the Homestead Act that opened up the West to all the hopeful.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Crisis Magazine (April 2012).


[1] Two fine accounts of moving to the West, because it seemed like home there, as it had not in New York City, are Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces (1985) and Ruth Rudner’s Greetings from Wisdom, Montana (1989).

[2] If, on your next flight into Denver, you hire six white horses from Avis to gallop about Wyoming, I recommend three guides: an old one, filled with stories and songs, by Struthers Burt, Powder River: Let ‘er Buck (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1938); a modern one, arranged for driving, by his son, Nathaniel Burt, Wyoming (Oakland: Compass American Guides, 1991); and John McPhee’s fine mixture of Wyoming geology and a Wyoming life, of the geologist David Love, Rising from the Plains (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986.

[3] For some later trips in the West, to conferences about the West, with good participants and the right atmosphere for conversation, I thank the Liberty Fund, its most Western officer Bill Dennis, and the several conference directors, Mel Bradford, Dan Elazar, and Terry Anderson.

[4] Although Frazier’s sympathies are wide, his opinions are centered. I think they were not changed by his inquiries. The opinions are most evident in what he fixes on. In the free Black town of Nicodemus, he is sad, that there were not more such communities, at a intercontinental missile site he is a bit terrified and angry, and thinking of Crazy Horse, although he is primarily admiring, Frazier is also indignant. I think we should all feel the same, but also ask why there were not more Nicodemuses (not assume an answer, or let the reader supply one), ask where those missiles were aimed and why, and while admiring Crazy Horse also admire Washakie.

[5] Schulz has another book about his medical service in Vietnam and one about Albert Schweitzer.

[6] Washington Nationals Stadium, Thursday, 17 April 2008.

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Published: Jul 5, 2016
Michael Platt
After study at Harvard, Oxford, and Yale, and teaching long stints at Dartmouth and the University of Dallas, with sojourns in Germany at Heidelberg and Greifswald and in Austria at the International Theological Institute (founded by John Paul II), Dr. Michael Platt now teaches politics, philosophy, and literature at George Wythe University; some of his writings, on Shakespeare and Thomas, on teaching and learning, and on the phenomenon of the Teenager, are on its website.
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8 replies to this post
  1. Drummer BUDDY RICH, asked, upon entering a hospital, if he was allergic to anything: “Yeah,
    country and western.” It was a sad day when these two categories were amalgamated. I doubt if he disliked those wonderful pre-1950 western songs.

  2. The original My Friend Flicka trilogy is wonderful. They are treated like children’s stories, but they aren’t really. The writing is lovely.

  3. Thank you for including A River Runs Through It in this. I believe that the final few pages of that book (which are, incidentally, quoted verbatim in the film) are some of the finest lines of American literature ever written.

    And the line, “I am haunted by waters” rivals the best lines every crafted in the English language, coming especially as it does at the end of that exceptionally beautiful passage.

    I’ve never been able to confirm that Norman McLean was influenced by Eliot. It seems that he taught mostly the Romantic poets. But my gosh…everything that he writes simply bleeds TS Eliot.

    Thank you, again, for recognizing McLean in this very important essay.

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