Come Back, Shane! The National Nostalgia

[This appeared in the Southwest Review 98 (No. 1) 2013 and won the McGinnis-Ritchie Prize for best essay of the year]

“The Old West is not a certain place in a certain time, it’s a state of mind.  It’s whatever you want it to be.” 

                                                                                                                                                              ―Tom Mix (1938)

 conestoga wagonIn the last half of the nineteenth century, the journey of a hundred-millennia came to a close on the plains of North America, the last expanse on Earth open to civilization.  Thomas Jefferson had viewed that vast wilderness as a dark continent harboring mastodons and other primordial beasts, but the settling of the West removed the last great mystery from the map.  With that terminal chapter in human migration, the long childhood of our species came to an end, and the story of the West became the American Epic.  The belief that the ordeal in the wilderness created the American―optimistic, free-thinking, self-reliant―superseded the Revolution as America’s creation myth, the national nostalgia. 

We look back on the West not only as the last wilderness but as the last locus of freedom from social responsibility.  There is a wistful sense that the Old West, like childhood innocence, was a halcyon age of open options, an untamed expanse where a man controlled his own destiny.  The myth of the West nurtures a dream of escape from myriad minor obligations in a depersonalized society, a hunger to touch something more pure, more authentic and intense, something utterly real.  The passing of the Old West, wrote historian David Davis, was like the coming of adulthood.  “When we shut our eyes and try to remember, the last image of a carefree life appears.  For the nation, this last image is the cowboy.”1  The cowboy is the myth of the West compressed to a stock formula, forever replayed in film and pulp fiction:

The Western

The western dates from the late nineteenth century when a wave of escapist fantasy swept through popular culture in response to kaleidoscopic change―industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and revolutions in transportation and communication that shifted organization and control away from the local and personal.  An early sign was the dime novel, the earliest of which were westerns, idealizing the cowboy as the last areas of free land disappeared.  To make its messages more conventional for an ever more heterogeneous society, the new mass media developed familiar formulas that one could follow like a game, with a clear set of rules, goals, and opposing players, the entertainment lying in the subtle nuances.

The western formula, the myth of the free, natural man who comes out of the frontier, establishes order for a new society, and rides back into the sunset, dates from James Fennimore Cooper, whose Leatherstocking hero was modeled on Daniel Boone.  But it was the dime-novel tales of legendary figures like Kit Carson and Buffalo Bill Cody that spawned the genre.  The unprecedented popularity of Cody’s Wild West Show, which toured the nation and the world, established most of the themes and images that still shape the myth of the West, from whooping Indians in head feathers to heroes in Stetson hats, neither of which were common in reality.  In her study of the western myth, Jane Tomkins notes that “Buffalo Bill comes to the child in us, understood not as that part of ourselves that we have outgrown but as the part that got left behind, of necessity, a long time ago, having been starved, bound, punished, disciplined out of existence.  He promises that that part of the self can live again.  He has the power to promise these things because he represents the West, that geographical space of the globe that was still the realm of exploration and discovery.”2  But it was Owen Wister’s novel, The Virginian (1902), that gave the formula its classic form―from Bronco Billy, William S. Hart, and Tom Mix to John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.  

A conservative estimate is that westerns accounted for 25 to 30 percent of all American films from the inception of movies to mid-twentieth century.  As many as 200 B-picture westerns could be turned out in a year.  The first “long” (nine-minute) movie, The Great Train Robbery (1903), was a western.  Its lead, Broncho Billy Anderson, launched the star system and made 376 short westerns in a like number of weeks.  The western’s popularity peaked in the 1950s, a time of transition when postwar America suddenly found itself faced with global responsibilities.  The nostalgia for a simpler, more personal time was manifest throughout popular culture, from books, plays, and musicals set near the turn of the century to Bible epics and Disneyland.  In the fifties, western paperbacks were selling at annual rate of 35 million copies; and in 1959, eight of the top ten TV shows and 30 prime-time programs were westerns.  Crime shows, focusing on immediate concerns for law and order, have been more popular in such unstable periods of political and economic uncertainty as the 1930s or the present, yet the spirit of the Old West lingers ever below the surface, from the rise of country-western music to mechanical bulls in bars and accountants who spend their weekends dressed like John Wayne.

Like all great myths, the western formula resolves fundamental opposites. Our reality is a pattern of polar tensions, like the note in a vibrato, or the rhythms and cycles that define all things.  Though the actual settlement of the West lasted more than a century, most westerns are set in the period between 1865 and 1890 when frontier tensions―civilization and wilderness, nature and culture, individual and community―hung in precarious balance.  The mining boom, the building of the railroads, the Indian wars, the great cattle drives, the coming of the farmer, and the exploits of the western badmen all fell within that tumultuous era from the end of the Civil War to the closing of the frontier.  On one side of the balance was the wild land―the plains, deserts, mountains, and their primitive inhabitants; on the other were the ranches, forts, and small towns, each with its saloon, store, bank, sheriff’s office, and sometimes a school or church.  The open land seemed to promise individual freedom, new beginnings, and national greatness, while the town demanded cooperation and compromise, and was often corrupt.  Yet the harsh land was also seen as a treacherous desert threatening agrarian progress and community values, while the town seemed a haven from anarchy and savagery.  The paradox inhered in figures like Daniel Boone, Kit Carson and Buffalo Bill, seen as both rough innocents in flight from society’s artifice and as enlightened pathfinders for the new nation.

The Hero 

Mediating these opposites, the classic western hero has a physical allegiance to the wilderness on one hand, and a moral commitment to civilization on the other.  He is the powerful innocent, the good bad boy, who saves the town by defeating the evil outsider, his own counterpart.  Transcending the limitations of both, he brings the regenerative power of the wilderness to civilization.  The western was the original model for an “American monomyth” that has pervaded popular culture, the fantasy of an innocent community where evil villains from outside are defeated by an equally violent superhero, also from outside, defending the helpless citizens. 

But the hero’s dark side can never coexist with communal innocence.  Caught between the townspeople’s need for his savage skills and their rejection of his way of life, he must finally ride into the sunset, just as the Lone Ranger cannot wait for thanks, Superman must conceal himself as Clark Kent, and Captain Kirk must always head out of orbit.  Fathered by the western in those turbulent last decades of the nineteenth century, the monomyth has since assumed countless forms.3  The paradox of the superhero is that the poles are mutually dependent, neither viable alone.  The helpless citizens need the power of the good hero to save them from his evil opposite, while the hero needs the community to give his power purpose and his life meaning.

The monomyth tends to escalate with a growing sense of individual impotence in times of closing options―the late nineteenth century or the 1930s, the latter spawning Superman, Batman, and their comic book clones.  More recently, the web of postmodern frustrations, along with exaggerated threats depicted by the media, contribute to the mentality of the Death Wish films, in which a gang of hoodlums torture and murder the family of the hero, who becomes a vigilante, luring muggers in order to kill them in cold blood.  The dream of destroying the evil people we believe to be rife in society through a superior power and callousness of one’s own has always been part of the monomyth’s appeal, from the first western to Dirty Harry and Steven Segal.

A variation on the impotence theme is Jane Tomkins’ suggestion that “the western is really about “men’s fear of losing their mastery, and thus their identity.”  The western, she argues, “owes its popularity and essential character to the dominance of women’s culture in the nineteenth century and to women’s invasion of the public sphere between 1880 and 1920.”  The western brands “most features of civilized existence as feminine and corrupt, banishing them in favor of the three main targets of women’s reform: whiskey, gambling, and prostitution.”  It is a world “without ideas, without institutions, without what is commonly recognized as culture, a world of men and things.”4  It is the world of John Wayne, speaking in his methodical, rawboned voice, his arm around some “li’l lady” in a bonnet. 

If Tomkins’ thesis is sometimes polemic, there is still a sense in which the western, at its peak in the 1950s, offered not only an image of individualism in an age of togetherness and conformity, but also a counter to the so-called “Dagwoodization” of the American male.  The western suggests that real men are by nature simple, pure, and forthright, with a deep-seated longing for the clean, uncomplicated life of the wide open spaces, and that the failure to master the castrating complexity of urban society is due only to its contrived and unnatural state.  This is the western as the idyl of a Man’s World, inarticulate and emotionally numb, where sex is taken care of by saloon girls who can meet men on their own terms and threaten no permanent engagement.


But while the Death Wish mentality and masculine anxiety may contribute to the hero’s appeal, the myth of the powerful innocent is nostalgic at the core.  What the hero defeats in the villain is evil as mortal limits―the loss of carefree childhood innocence to the complexity and corruption of adult life.  The paradox of the powerful innocent is most pronounced in the adolescent, whose fantasy is to transcend the parental world while remaining safely within it, to perpetuate moral innocence into the real world of power and aggression.  The sense of personal limits in an abstract society is assuaged by combining the hero’s childlike moral purity and social isolation with the power of the adult, resolving complex problems in a single action.  It is a fantasy of white and black hats, uncomplicated, unencumbered by mental conflict or uncertainty.

But the nostalgia is not confined to adolescence.  The hunger westerns satisfy, as Tomkins notes, is not for adventure but for meaning:  “Life on the frontier is a way of imagining the self in a boundary situation—a place that will put you to some kind of ultimate test.”  What distinguishes the hero from the rest of us is that “he never fritters away his time.  Whatever he does, he gives it everything he’s got because he’s always in a situation where everything he’s got is the necessary minimum.”  Ordinary life and work “never embodies what the hero’s struggle to get out of the blizzard embodies: the fully saturated moment.”5  It is to such intensely engaged and present-oriented moments that nostalgia most often returns, moments that define our lives.

Behind all nostalgia, all transcendence, driving all art and science, is our awareness of death.  As the leitmotif of the western, the specter of death belittles our everyday preoccupations, prodding the nostalgic quest for meaning.  The arid landscape of rock, sand, and scrub, where nothing seems to thrive, suggests that life must be seen from the perspective of death.  Even the dusty  towns, with names like Deadwood and Tombstone, isolated on the limitless land, their ramshackle sidewalks and storefronts rising, as Howard Fast wrote, “out of the short-grassed prairie like a rickety mirage,” wavering in the heat haze, underscore the tenuousness of civilization, of life itself.  In the vast scale of the land, with its great extremes of light and climate, its majestic upthrusts of rock, steep bare canyons, forested plateaus, lonely rivers, snow-covered peaks, flat red deserts, and huge nights of stars and silence, we feel our sublime isolation and the mindless indifference of nature.  Yet it is this backdrop that lends transcendent meaning to the powerful innocent, who appears again and again to defend our fragile mortality, resurrecting our immortal child, tempering the present with the purity of the past.

Overlaying that personal nostalgia is our collective retrospect, a romantic ideal that “caters to our yearning to get up there on the screen, into the picture and into the warmth of its day.”6  But the heroes are gone, the times unpropitious.  In the deep nostalgia of an industrial society, the western hero is a counter image so perfect that if he had not existed he would have been invented.  The apogee of the fifties and sixties—the last great American watershed and the western’s golden era—was a coming of age, like a collective college interim, drifting between child and adult, projecting fantasies of heroic self-sufficiency.


In 1953, the classic western reached its epitome in George Stevens’ Shane, based on the novel by Jack Schaefer.  With four Academy Award nominations, it was the top western of the decade, so popular that it was rereleased in 1957.  Set in Wyoming in 1889, one year prior to closing of frontier, Shane reduces the myth of the West to its essentials: the tale of the mysterious stranger who wanders into a farming settlement and must finally defend it against the ruthless cattle rancher who controls the town. 

Shane (Alan Ladd) is the familiar gunfighter with a violent past whose determination to avoid a showdown is at first misconstrued as cowardice.  Hoping to break with his past, he accepts farm work with the Starrett family―Joe, Marian, and young Joey―but is soon embroiled in the conflict between the farmers and cattleman Ruff Riker.  When Shane sheds his buckskins, puts on work clothes, and heads to town with Starrett for supplies, he is insulted in the saloon by the Riker boys and backs down.  On a second visit, he and Starrett defeat them in a fist fight, causing Riker to send for a hired gun.  The gunfighter, Wilson (Jack Palance), kills one of the farmers in cold blood and Riker burns one of the farms.  Shane and Starrett convince the families to stay in the valley, but when Shane learns that Riker is luring Starrett to town to be killed, he dons his buckskins and rides into town that night, outdrawing Wilson and killing both Riker brothers.  Wounded, he rides into the blue mysterious hills from whence he came, while little Joey, who had followed him into town and witnessed the showdown, yells into the mist, “Come back, Shane!” his voice echoing off the mountains.

While the plot is standard, Stevens’ treatment is not.  His talent lay in combining the purity of myth with meticulous realism.  He did extensive research on Wyoming life and towns of the time, down to how firewood was stacked, and filled the kitchen with authentic antique western kitchenware.  The sounds of birds, horses, cattle, and spurs are intentionally exaggerated, and the weather―sun, lightning, violent torrential rains―always fits the scenes.  Stevens studied Remington and Russell paintings, giving the whole film a radiant Bierstadtian tone, even in moonlight.  The town has none of the gilded saloons, can-can girls, debonair gamblers, or singing cowboys that were so common to early westerns.  The plain-board frontier saloon is dismal and dimly lit, with characters slinking in the background.  The Rykers are not stock villains but real people whose conflict with the farmers is one between incompatible groups, each with plausible justifications.  And the film breaks with the Western’s long-standing convention that death is clean and without cruelty:  The actor playing Wilson’s helpless victim was wired from the back and yanked when shot to show what actually happens when a high caliber slug hits the body. 

The realism extends to the everyday lives of the little group in the valley.  There is a fleeting moment of togetherness and respite when Shane, the farmers, and their wives enjoy a festive gathering, dancing and singing to “Goodbye Old Paint.”  The scene lingers in memory long after the film is forgotten, echoing some simple truth―the pith of the pioneer saga, the communal bonding of those who braved the mountain winters and windblown prairie, who left lives and loved ones behind to begin anew on the far ends of a vast and virgin continent.  Another epiphanic scene, the funeral for the slain farmer, takes place on a hill overlooking the lonely town, a tiny row of frame buildings on the vast plain, the Grand Tetons, luminous in perfect light, rising up in the distance.  The adults say their words while Joey wanders off to pet a colt. 

Throughout the film, the mountains are visible in the background when Shane is in the frame, but are never seen with the villains.  Majestic and remote, isolated and lonely like Shane himself, the mountains are the haven from which he descends and to which he ultimately returns.  The melancholic stranger with no last name, no past, no family, and no friends, he is the fastest gun alive, his blank face and flat, expressionless eyes the wilderness incarnate.  Serene and unworldly, as if no experience can really touch him, he is the mythic Spirit of the West.

While Starrett needs Shane’s intervention to protect his farm, and Shane depends on Starrett’s community for the sense of purpose he had lost, the opposite of both is Wilson, the black-clad hit-man with steel-cold eyes and a sardonic grin, who enjoys killing even those who are no match for his skill.  When he walks, panther-like, his spurs jangling ominously, even the dog slinks out with his tail between his legs.  Radiating menace, Wilson is a Spirit of Evil as metaphysical as Shane’s embodiment of virtue.  Yet Shane, with a past as dark as Wilson’s, contains all the opposites inherent in the western myth: nature and culture, freedom and limits, independence and connection, past and future, West and East, material and spiritual, the anarchic world of male savagery and the civilized world of woman and home.  In the western hero’s attempt to bridge wilderness and civilization, there is always the implication that the backdrop of epic magnitude―the “yawning distances that seem to swallow sound and time,” as William Athern put it—have some sort of regenerative power for the hero; while frontier society, the limitations, the bareness, the pressures of obligation, leave him lonely, alienated, and suffering.

Shane comes, as Jane Tomkin said of Buffalo Bill, “in the guise of a redeemer, of someone who will save us,” who will “lift us above our lives, out of the daily grind, into something larger than we are.”7  Yet the complex realities of modern life dictate that the hero of simple solutions, after giving us our moment on the screen, must ride off, having outlived his time and usefulness in both fact and fiction. 

“Your days are over,” Shane says to the cattleman.

“Mine?” says Riker, “What about yours gunslinger?” 

“The difference is, I know it.” 

Like Shane, the West he represents is gone or never was, mourned in myth as the last moment in history when innocence and hope could carry the day.

The Real West

“What they dreamed we live; what they lived, we dream,” wrote T. K. Whipple.  But in truth the myth is an idealized representation of a small segment of American history.  The brief moment of equilibrium between civilization and wilderness when outlaws and Indians posed a threat to the community’s stability has been erected into a timeless epic, compressing the several wests―plains, mountains, desert, and Great Basin―into a stock formula town, Tombstone or Dodge City, with outlaws and desperadoes roaming the streets or engaged in saloon fights.  In fact, most towns were places of peaceful monotony, the lone gunman a rare psychopath.

Writers fastened upon a few pockets of lawlessness―the cow towns, mining camps, boomtowns, and work camps that dotted the West―picturing them as typical when in fact the great mass of true pioneers were small farmers, ranchers, and entrepreneurs.  Western mythology has attached its melodramas to a comparative handful of outsiders who sought quick money.  Always ahead of the agrarian advance, hunters, trappers, cattlemen, miners, and squatters populated towns with names like Leadville, Chance, Tin Cup, Whiskey Spring, Royal Flush, Horseshoe, Hard Rocks, Deadwood, and Horsethief Basin.  Such towns were more often an accident than a formed community, appearing overnight and disappearing almost as rapidly, “an eddy in the troubled stream of Western immigration, that caught the odd bits of drift wood and wreck, the flotsam and jetsam of a chaotic flood.”8

At the core of the mythology stood the cowboy, yet the cattle towns were a minor chapter in western history.  When Texans returned to their impoverished homes after the Civil War, there was nothing but the vast land and six million head of roaming longhorns.  In 1866 they drove some 260,000 of them north in search of markets, launching a boom that lasted 20 years before it collapsed.  The real cowboys, hired for the drives from Texas to the railheads in Kansas, were illiterate, uncouth, unwashed, unglamorous, and often so bored that they memorized the labels on tin cans and played games to see how well they could recite them. 

Out of these drab historical figures, writers recast mythical icons, omitting the manure, the punching of postholes, the stringing of barbed wire, the branding, castrating, dehorning, dipping, and horseshoeing that filled the laborious and unromantic lives of real cowboys.  As Robert Warshow noted in his seminal essay, “The Westerner,” even the legendary names enshrined in myth turn out, in the grainy photographs of the nineteenth century, to be “blank, untidy figures posing awkwardly before some uninteresting building.”

The Real Heroes

The true epic of the West is the story of what happened when ordinary people moved into an extraordinary land, the last migrants of the hundred-millennia journey, a massive wave moving westward at ten to forty miles a year―farmers planting the land, raising their shelters against the wind, building a continental nation from sea to sea.  The settling of the West is the story of a drab and grim frontier, of people living in isolation, eking out an existence as ranchers and subsistence farmers, heroic only in their dedication to building a better life.  The courage of the mythic cowboy becomes camp when compared to that of pioneers who left home and loved ones forever to trek westward with their covered wagons. 

From 1840 to 1870, some 300,000 emigrants followed the Oregon Trail, walking most of the 2,000 miles beside wagons packed solid with food and belongings.  Few but the sick would ride in the wagons, which had no springs or cushioned seats and shook so vigorously over rough, roadless terrain that balls of butter formed in the milk.  The wagons squeaked and groaned across the vast, uncharted sea of grass, a great empty waste devoid of shade or shelter, of trees or greenery, of houses or any sign of civilization.  Water was hard to find and more often polluted, killing oxen and spreading cholera.  To lighten the load for sick or exhausted oxen, many treasured possessions were left on the trail.  The top-heavy wagons tipped over easily and broken wheels were near impossible to replace.  One detoured for miles to find a tree large enough to replace a splintered axle.  Crossing the water, wagons were wrecked on hidden boulders and quicksand or broke loose from the team and floated down river.  To eat anything but hardtack and bug-ridden bacon required hunting for food, digging a shallow ditch for a cooking fire in the relentless prairie wind, and burning buffalo chips for lack of trees.  Mired in mud or choking on dust, weathering drought, sand storms, prairie fires, blizzards, and hail the size of apples, parties were besieged by snakes, mosquitoes, stampeding buffalo, and marauding Indians.  Many were bitten so many times by mosquitoes that the blood could no longer clot.  When they gathered at night, the songs were about home, love, and death. 

One in ten died along the way.  Children fell from the wagons and were crushed beneath the massive wheels.  Hundreds were swept away and drowned while trying to cross raging rivers.  Most deaths were from starvation or disease―typhoid, dysentery, smallpox, scurvy, malaria, and above all, the dreaded cholera.  The vomiting and diarrhea from polluted water could mean death in a single day.  Wagon trains sometimes lost two thirds of their people.  Often the sick were abandoned in their beds on the side of the trail to die alone.  Some diaries speak of almost nothing but death and burial.  “It was no unusual sight, wrote one traveler, “to see a wagon or a small group pull out to the side of the trail and begin to dig.  Sometimes we joined the sad little group that stood shivering and sobbing in the spring sunshine.  After a few minutes, a silent form would be carried from the wagon.  Sometimes there would be a rude, box coffin; more often, only a blanket or patchwork quilt.”  A short prayer, a shallow grave filled in, and the mourners and wagons would go on their way.9   Gravestones were signposts to the way west.

Those who survived the trip faced hard first winters with no summer crops to live on and little money left.  The towns had names like Wagon Wheel Gap, Mud Butte, Loco Hills, Lost Cabin, Lone Tree, Cactus Flat, Bitter Creek, Chalk Buttes, Skull Valley, and Hell’s Canyon.  Thousands settled in sod houses on the Kansas-Nebraska prairie, leading solitary lives of hard labor in a vast and vacant wilderness.  The isolation and ceaseless howl of the wind brought depression, insanity, and death to many women.  In the sorrow and courage that created the West, there were no teacup tragedies.  Yet most pioneer women were tough and resilient, holding on to hope, seeing the frontier as a new beginning.  These were the true heroes of the West, along with the farmers who tamed the wild land in the wake of legendary frontiersmen like Kit Carson.

As a major agent of western expansion, Christopher Houston “Kit” Carson embodied the frontier in the American mind.  “When the West was still a mystery to most of his countrymen,” wrote Michelle Ferrari, “few white men knew the vast landscape so intimately or understood the ways of its native peoples so well.”  Born in Kentucky, he set out at age 16 from Missouri territory, then the western edge of American civilization, beyond which lay another world.  He spent ten years as a mountain man and trapper, eventually guiding John Fremont’s expedition to map the overland route to the Pacific that would later become the Oregon Trail.  In the end, he had surveyed some 5,000 miles and it was said that there was “no trail he hadn’t traveled and no wilderness challenge he couldn’t meet.” 

He knew how to find water, read the terrain, and deal with the Indians, many of whose languages he spoke, having lived among the Arapaho and Cheyenne and married an Arapaho woman named Singing Grass.  Siding with some tribes and seeing others as enemies, he was called “Father Kit” by the Utes but carried out an order to conduct a scorched earth campaign against the Navajo, driving them from their homes in a long march on which hundreds died, an event he soon realized to have been a terrible mistake.  A man both violent and compassionate, Indian fighter and Indian protector, he later became an elder statesman of Indian affairs, insisting that relocations be confined to tribal homelands.

Fremont’s extensive praise of Carson in his best-selling accounts of the Oregon Trail, which were used as guides by settlers, made Carson a romantic figure in the public mind.  Trapper, mountain man, explorer, frontier guide, cross-continent courier, and soldier in the Mexican and Civil Wars, Carson became the greatest living example of the American tendency to mythologize the West.  Kit Carson: The Prince of the Gold Hunters, written by an Eastern hack, the hero bearing no resemblance to the real Carson, was the genesis of the dime novels and the first of 70 popular romances about him.  He was like the West itself in that people projected their own images and beliefs onto him.  In his late fifties, exhausted and near death from the constant string of missions assigned him, and longing to return home, he visited his newborn child only to have his wife die in his arms. 

There was a moment in the life of Kit Carson when myth and reality met.  He was on a mission to rescue a woman named Ann White who had been kidnapped by Apaches, but who was killed when they spotted him approaching.  Near her still warm body was that first dime novel about Carson.  In it he rescues a woman from Indians.  Carson, who couldn’t read or write, was unaware of the novel and was stunned when it was read to him.  Feeling that it had given her false hope, it haunted him for the rest of his life. 

His death in 1868 at age 59, as his doctor read to him from Carson’s first biography, was perfectly timed.  He had no place in the new West―the west of the railroads, the slaughter of the buffalo, the Indians last stand―yet he was critical in creating a continental nation.  His life reflected all the contradictions of western expansion; and if his legacy is at times uncomfortable for Americans, it is because he is an inherent part of who we are. 

If the legend of the West is in many ways overly romantic, shallow, inaccurate, and racist, why, if not for those very reasons, does it still appeal?  We romanticize a mythical West that never was, longing not for the hard facts of pioneer life but for the infinite potential of open land and unlimited option beyond the labyrinths of bureaucratic and technological constraint.  We long for a sunrise over mysterious mountains and uncharted rivers, for the exhilarating adolescence of America, when the future stretched away to forever.  We long, that is, for the lost clarity of our own youth, for a time when innocence and hope could carry the day.


1.  David BrionDavis, “Ten-Gallon Hero,” American Quarterly 6 (Summer 1954): 117.

2.   Jane Tomkins, West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp.198-99.  In The Lives and Legends of Buffalo Bill (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1960), Donald Russell explains that because Buffalo Bill employed only the Sioux and a few other Plains tribes, the Indians in Westerns ride horses and wear feathered headdresses, though many Indians did neither.  Also, “cowboys wear ten-gallon Stetsons, not because such a hat was worn in early range days, but because it was part of the costume adopted by Buffalo Bill for his show” (p. 470).

3.   See John Lawrence and Robert Jewett, The Myth of the American Superhero (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), which finds examples in history and every conceivable area of popular culture.

4.   Tomkins, West of Everything, pp. 37, 44-45

5.   Tomkins, West of Everything, pp. 14-15.

6.   David Thomson, “Better Best Westerns.”  Film Comment 26 (March/April 1990): 6.

7.   Tomkins, West of Everything, p. 198

8.   Jenni Calder, There Must Be a Lone Ranger: The American West in Film and in Reality (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974), p. 13.

9.  John K. Stockton, “The Trail of the Covered Wagon,” taylor/history/tci131.htm.

10. Michelle Ferrari, “Kit Carson,” American Experience (Boston: WGBH TV, 2008).


  1. February 11, 2014

    Masterly, Wyn. Just masterly.

    One hears the closing lines of Fitzgerald’s
    “The Great Gatsby” echoing just below the
    surface … an image of the enduring and
    illusory “societal leitmotif”.

    Give us something on John Cheever, and his
    sense of “pastoral loss”.


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