Steaming Torsos

J. Hoberman

  • Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film by Lee Clark Mitchell
    Chicago, 352 pp, £23.95, November 1996, ISBN 0 226 53234 8

From 1910 to the end of the Fifties, Westerns accounted for a quarter of all Hollywood productions. As late as 1972, the high point of genre revisionism, they still represented 12 per cent of all American movies. But if the year that brought Richard Nixon’s triumphant re-election was the last in which the number of Western releases would reach double figures, the residual significance of the West as the bedrock of American identity was eloquently reiterated, just before the collapse of Soviet Communism, by the panic which attended a Japanese firm’s bid to administer the services at Yellowstone National Park.

Like the designated ‘national pastime’ of baseball, the Western is a sacred part of America’s post-Civil War national mythology – a shared language, a unifying set of symbols and metaphors, and a paradigm of (mainly male) behaviour. But where baseball is all form, the Western is heavy on content. Essentially, as Philip French once observed, it is ‘America rewriting and reinterpreting her own past, however honestly or dishonestly’. As is the literary history of Westerns: Henry Nash Smith’s classic Virgin Land is redolent of New Deal optimism, Robert Warshow’s much anthologised essay ‘The Westerner’ is a précis of Cold War concerns, Leslie Fiedler’s Return of the Vanishing American rescripts the West in countercultural terms and Richard Slotkin’s vast Gunfighter Nation is haunted by Vietnam.

Lee Clark Mitchell’s elegantly written Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film includes among its introductory epigrams Henry Kissinger’s 1972 comparison of himself with the Lone Ranger but, as befits the uncertainties of America’s post-Communism role, his book has less to do with realpolitik than with the construction of gender. Mitchell, who chairs the Department of English at Princeton, traces the Western’s obsession with masculinity from James Fenimore Cooper through Owen Wister, Zane Grey and John Ford to Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. His subject is the well-known tautology that a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

For Mitchell, the Western novel is essentially theatrical – a stage on which male identity is enacted, as well as a form of cinema avant la lettre. He rightly considers Cooper’s heroic Indian-fighter Natty Bumppo, protagonist of The Last of the Mohicans – the most celebrated and popular American novel for a century after its publication in 1826 – to be the model of a political leader. Natty is a man of the people who is immune to the passions of the mob; he is on familiar terms with the wilderness and yet exercises moral restraint, even as he destroys his enemies. Each of the Leatherstocking novels, as Mitchell points out, also ‘raises the large question who possesses the American continent itself and how that possession is to be legitimised’. That ownership, of course, is achieved by obliterating the indigenous inhabitants in the cause of historical inevitability. A white man who has transformed himself into an Indian, who is unencumbered by family and yet remains the last, best hope for the settlers on the frontier, Natty is – as D.H. Lawrence put it in his Studies in Classic American Literature – an ‘isolate, almost selfless, stoic, enduring man, who lives by death, by killing, but who is pure white’. (Taciturn and buckskin-clad, he is also the original American hipster; turgid though it is, The Last of the Mohicans represents the Birth of the Cool.)

Cooper’s use of the West as a stage set exerted a powerful influence on subsequent American painters; as Mitchell notes, it also anticipates Zane Grey’s high Utah plateaux and John Ford’s repeated use of Monument Valley – to which, looking ahead to the genre’s self-consciously florid sunset, one might add Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Mexico’ and Sergio Leone’s sensationally arid Leone-land. Although he glosses over the degree to which, a half-century before Hollywood, the weekly ‘dime novel’ and the Wild West Show pioneered by Buffalo Bill Cody had already produced a popular romance of the West, Mitchell does – in his most original chapter – bracket the painter Albert Bierstadt with the writer Bret Harte, two popular iconographers of the West, both of whom enjoyed a meteoric rise and suffered a subsequent fall in the decade following the Civil War. Neither is remotely canonical.

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