Fall 2001, Volume 19.1
A. Robert Lee
Western Sightings—John G. Cawelti in Conversation with A. Robert Lee
A. Robert Lee is Professor of American Literature at Nihon University, Tokyo. He formerly taught at the University of Kent at Canterbury and has been a frequent Visiting Professor in the US, including The University of Virginia, Northwestern University, The University of Colorado and The University of California at Berkeley. His recent books include Designs of Blackness: Mappings in the Literature and Culture of Afro-America (1988), with Gerald Vizenor, Postindian Conversations (1999), and the pamphlet Ethnics Behaving Badly: US Multicultural Narratives (2001) in the Working Papers Series in Cultural Studies, Ethnicity and Race Relations (Pullman, Washington).
Few names in the scholarship of American popular culture can lay better claim to veteran, and international, credentials than John G. Cawelti. Across a huge body of material—literature, TV, film noir, photography, science fiction, comic books, westerns, spy classics, detective thrillers, Disney, pop music, commercials, US regionalism, casinos and gambling, ethnicity and gender, and not a little unsqueamishly, pornography—he has brought to bear an eye, and appetite, of rare acuity. A career in academia as Professor of English (at the University of Chicago from 1957-1980, and then, until retirement, at the University of Kentucky 1980-2000) can hardly in his case be thought to have meant the rarified life.
From his first book-length publication, Apostles of the Self-Made Man (1965), through to his recently completed essay-collection, Mystery, Violence, and Popular Culture (to be published like a number of his works by the Bowling Green State University Popular Press under the aegis of Ray and Pat Browne), the focus has been directed at the typologies, the variations of formula and genre, whereby works of popular imagination take hold of (and reciprocally help shape) our sense of the world.
Nor is this to suggest that he has been a stranger to canonical writing. James Fenimore Cooper, Melville, Joyce, Faulkner, Nabokov and Bellow have long been among the favorites in his teaching and criticism. But popular culture has been his forte, everyday, plural America in its exultations and anxieties refracted in what he once characterized as "magic pigments of adventure, romance, and mystery." In this, and since the late 1950s when he first made his scholarly bow, he has served as a pioneer theorist and analyst, an American Studies voice (though with frequent delvings into British and European work) as keen-edged as it has been comprehensive.
Two of his books deservedly rank as interpretive classics. The Six-Gun Mystique (1971), across three revisions, decodes the Western both of text and screen. Here, under his purview, has been a "collective" fantasy, at once heroic myth, a frontier of High Noons, and all the ritual of gunplay. Cawelti was also early to spot, and decipher, the implications to do with white American masculinity, the role of women, the "Indian" as Other, and the familiar western decor of homesteader, cattle drive, horsemanship, stagecoach, saloon bar, and, to be sure, the quick-draw.
In Adventure, Mystery and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture (1976), perhaps his defining work, the span is yet more inclusive, an "anatomy" in the tradition of Northrup Frye or Kenneth Burke. Cowboys to spies, nursery stories to space epics, murder stories to police procedurals, Hollywood to the tabloids—little escapes Cawelti's monitoring or his framing of each within the larger cultural whole.
Both accounts, moreover, carry another hallmark. Infinitely to their credit, they read with genuine accessibility, theoretical where necessary, but unabstract. His has always been the overall argument backed by local case study, the view in-close.
Much of his other writing can be seen to connect to these volumes. Focus on Bonnie and Clyde (1973) gives a fresh perspective to the West's best-known (and loved?) renegade couple. Why Pop (1973) opened a window, which Cawelti has shared with Leslie Fiedler among others, on the still active issue of cultural canon and non-canon. The Spy Story (1987), written with Bruce Rosenberg, did trans-Atlantic duty, another classic, wide-ranging map of a popular form with annotation and analysis from Cooper to Le Carré.
Cawelti as Chicagoan has also had another incarnation. He was a longtime proponent, and close friend, of the leading African American novelist Leon Forrest—felled before his time of cancer in 1997. His Introductions to Forrest's novels, with their South Side worlds, and especially the compendious Divine Days and posthumous Meteor in The Madhouse, together with editorship of a Calaloo Special Issue on Forrest (1993), and then of the essay-collection Leon Forrest: Introductions and Interpretations (1997), bring all his best expository flair to bear.
Cawelti on the West, as on the culture of other American regions, has had a wide ambit. Unsurprisingly, the Journal of Popular Culture has been a regular magazine, outlet for his voluminous publications, along with journals like Western American Literature and The American West. He has also carried his skills and interests beyond America. Visiting lectures (and professorships) have been frequent, whether at Dutch universities like Groningen or Utrecht, or at The University of Reading, England, or in 1978, at the American Studies Research Center in Hyderabad, India.
In fall 1980, he gave the keynote address at a conference on "The Western" at the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyoming. It brought together the two kinds of "West" which have most interested Cawelti: the actual, historic West and the West of myth so often and engagingly addressed in his different writings.
You've long been an established name in studies of the West as amply born out in The Six-Gun Mystique—now in its third revised edition as The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel (2000). Yet you had a Chicago suburban upbringing. What led to the interest?
Like many American males born in the first half of the twentieth century, I knew the mythical West and the tourist West long before I had any idea of the actual West. I suppose my first memory of the mythical West is one I used to begin The Six-Gun Mystique. I must have been six or seven, which means it was around 1937, when I became an avid listener to the Lone Ranger. The program itself began in 1936 from station WXYZ in Detroit, and if I remember rightly it came on at 6:30. I still remember sitting in front of the old Philco radio in our living room, enraptured by the masked man's adventures while fending off my mother who wanted me to come to dinner.
Not long after this, I started going to the Saturday afternoon movie matinees at the Winnetka Community House. Winnetka didn't have an actual movie theater but, mainly for younger children, put on a weekly show of cartoons, serials, newsreels and a film. The film was often a Western. I think that's where I first saw Stagecoach, for example, but almost always one of the serials was a Western, including the first movie version of the Lone Ranger.
Around the same time that I started going regularly to the movies, my father spent two summers, one in New Mexico and the other in Oregon, teaching a summer course for teachers of Native Americans. Many of the teachers were not Native American, and I had little opportunity to get to know actual contemporary Native Americans. Our family, however, spent a good deal of time at the great western tourist sites, which included a few special Native American places like Taos and Acoma Pueblos.
I don't remember ever being bothered by any discrepancies between the mythical West and the land of Yellowstone Park and the Grand Canyon, perhaps because they seemed completely unconnected in my mind. This must have been my first experience with the way in which one can hold a mythic reality and a very different actuality in one's mind at the same time and not even think about the contrast between them.
These early experiences gave me a permanent interest in the West. Much later, in the 1960s and 1970s, I had the opportunity to teach in Wyoming, Nebraska, and New Mexico. This, along with my reading, began to give me some sense of the complexity of the actual West in contrast to the grand simplicities of the mythic West and the overwhelming spectacle of the great tourist sites. You'll note that I said the "actual" West rather than the "real" West. This latter phrase is related to one of the persistent mythical themes of the West. Actually I had written the first edition of The Six-Gun Mystique before I had any of this first-hand adult experience of the West, though I had certainly become aware, through my reading in Western history and contemporary Western
literature, of the discrepancies between mythic, tourist, and historic Wests.
What do you think have been the main shifts, in history, in high and popular culture, in how we think of the West?
Revisionist Western history increasingly shapes the way in which the West is presented in popular culture. The main themes of this new approach to Western history are nicely summed up in Patricia Conquest's The Legacy of Conquest. Three of these themes were particularly central in Ken Burns' great television series about the West, a series that reached millions of people. First of all, there is the idea that, pace Turner, the West was not a unique experience that transformed people, but something linked in many ways to the rest of American history. Second, the most important thing about the history of the West was an encounter between many different cultures rather than the clash between civilization and savagery. Finally, the Americans who "won the West" were not moral crusaders but thoughtless and greedy exploiters of nature and of the rich Native American and Hispanic cultures they found in place, and that we all bear some burden of guilt for their depredations. In short, the conquest of the West was not a grandly simple matter of Lone Rangers bringing outlaws to justice and Indians to civilization, but a complex, dirty and ambiguous proceeding like the rest of human history. Westerns have struggled to accommodate this new perspective, and it has not been easy to give some play to these ambiguities and still retain the great sense of great and simple conflicts that made the Western such an effective form of film. In many ways, the new vision of the West has led to a decline in the production of Westerns. Instead, more and more films deal not with the mythic West but with the contemporary West as a theater of much more murky and complex actions.
You recently published a wonderfully challenging piece entitled "Post(Modern) Westerns." What, most, did you have in mind? What do you see happening to the screen Western?
My essay on the "Post(Modern) Western" that appeared in Paradoxa in Summer 1998 was actually a preliminary version of a chapter on this topic in The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel (2000). In this chapter I tried to give a more complex answer to the question about recent changes in the treatment of the West that you just asked me. In essence I suggested that the myth of the West and the popular genre that carried it on into the twentieth century were so well established that they, themselves, became a subject of writing. Contemporary writers and filmmakers were able to use the conventions of the genre in a variety of different ways: ironic, satirical, debunking, recreating. Many postmodern writers see the Western as one of the key myths that shaped America. For this reason they feel driven to expose and deconstruct it in their work, as Ishmael Reed did in Yellow Back Radio and John Sayles did in a different way in Lone Star. In fact the last words of that wonderful film might be taken as summing up the general attitude toward the Western in
postmodern fiction and film: "Forget the Alamo."
Few issues, of late, have become livelier than how gender and ethnicity have entered consideration of the West. Has the West been feminized? Do we now have a multicultural West?
As you suggest, one of the central concerns of the postmodern treatment of the West is the reconstruction of the role of women, and of Hispanics and Native Americans, in the history of the West. This dominates Ken Burns' series, for example. As far as the traditional Western is concerned, women and ethnics tended to be reduced to a few simple stereotypes, often set up in a system of contrasts: the schoolmarm and the dance hall girl, the savage Indian and the noble savage, the happy-go-lucky Mexican and the sinister Spaniard, etc. Ironically, this did not do justice to the actual West, which, with the tragic exception of the situation of the Native American and of Asian Americans, was actually much less sexist and racist than many other regions of the country, especially the South. Many Western states gave the suffrage to women much sooner than the rest of the country, with Wyoming leading the way. Women professionals also often found more opportunities in the West, probably because the need for skills was so great that male hostility had to give way to necessity. Ironically, one of the few successful television Western series of the last decade was Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.
While Hispanics were expropriated on a large scale in California and Texas, this was more a matter of greed than prejudice. Actually there was a great deal of intermarriage between Hispanics and Anglos, and in the twentieth century, Spanish descent became a matter of pride. Of course, the twentieth century immigration of Mexicans generated a new kind of prejudice and hostility. Everywhere one looks at ethnics in the West, the situation is clearly more complex and fluid than it was in other parts of the country, particularly because, with the exception of Texas and Arkansas, the West never had the institution of slavery as the South did.
Little of this historical complexity appeared in the traditional Western. Indeed, up until the 1950s, the Western simply did not confront issues of sexism and racism in any significant way. It was, above all, as Lee Clark Mitchell has so richly shown, a genre devoted to the exploration of white masculinity. John Ford's The Searchers (1956) and another later Ford film, Cheyenne Autumn, indicate that the tradition's indifference to matters of racism and ethnicity was beginning to come under scrutiny. The Searchers, a film many consider the greatest Western of all time, may be so just because its presentation of the traditional Western theme of Indian captivity is so ambiguous, even confused at times. In the 1960s and 1970s, many Westerns tried to tackle the themes of sexism and racism with some very strange and interesting results, like Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar and The Ballad of Billy Joe. Nevertheless, the Western never seemed comfortable outside the sphere of traditional masculinity, as if there
were something inherently sexist about the genre. The decline of the Western as a genre certainly reflects the spread of an antisexist, antiracist consciousness in America.
This would connect with revisionist thinking about the West and whiteness?
Yes, Westerns tended to be not only about masculinity, but as we see more clearly today, about whiteness. Thus, though cowboying was virtually invented by Hispanics and is still pervaded with terms like "rodeo," "riata," and "ramada" derived from Spanish, Hispanics were most frequently cast as comic sidekicks like the Cisco Kid's Pancho or as doomed female lovers of white men in the tradition of Helen Hunt Jackson's Ramona. A few Latino actors like Cesar Romero and Duncan Reynaldo played heroes in Westerns, but they were utterly outnumbered by anglos and anglo-Irish like W. S. Hart, Tom Mix, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, James Stewart, Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott, Henry Fonda and Steve McQueen. And when Latinos sought to create a presence in American literature, it was not to the Western that they turned. In fact, the writer generally considered the godfather of Chicano literature, Rudolfo Anaya, began his career with a classic modernist coming of age novel, the wonderful Bless Me, Ultima. And in recent years his interest in creating within a popular genre turned not to the Western, but to the detective story, a genre that has proved to be much more adaptable to new cultural themes than the Western.
One can hardly have a Western without someone playing the role of Indian, though, in the twentieth century, outlaws frequently played that role. However, as the genre developed further, the limitations of these traditional roles became more and more evident. Since 1950 and Broken Arrow filmmakers have attempted to create within the form of the Western a richer and more complex and sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans. Some of the films in this vein, from Little Big Man to Dances with Wolves, have even been big hits at the box office. Yet such films have remained essentially individual works and have not created significant traditions within the Western genre. Like Rudolfo Anaya, Native American writers have felt compelled to turn away from the Western in order to create their own literary forms, and they have succeeded to the extent that in writers like Momaday and Silko the Western virtually disappears. A few younger writers have occasionally turned back to the Western to deconstruct it. In Fools Crow and his nonfiction book on Custer, James Welch involved himself in a serious historical reconstruction of the plains wars from the Native American point of view. Sherman Alexie, on the other hand, has demolished the Western tradition, both comically and seriously, in Indian Killer and The Lone Ranger Fistfights Tonto in Heaven.
What of the urban West, the frontier of the city and the street, in literature and film?
An urban West there is—to be sure. It's the West of Dashell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald,
James M. Cain and Jim Thompson, i.e. that of the hardboiled detective story and of the "noir" novel and film. The tradition of the urban frontier created by these writers has continued on into the contemporary action-adventure film—the influence of Westerns on Japanese samurai films and Hong Kong kung fu films has often been noted—and into the contemporary science fiction film. The latter involves not only direct references to the Western, but the pervasive use of Western themes. Westworld (with Yul Brynner as an android version of the gunfighter he played in Westerns) and Outland (High Noon in futuristic garb) illustrate the former, while the "Terminator" films with their spin-out of the hired gunfighter figure illustrate the latter.
However, when we start talking about urban frontiers or the frontiers of space, we should realize that we are drawing on the myth of the West for our rhetoric. In a way, it's very odd to talk about urban frontiers, since the original idea of the frontier, at least in its American mythic form, was that point at which civilization encountered the wilderness and was in turn transformed and regenerated by this experience. The mythic errand into the wilderness involved two apparently contradictory encounters: one was with openness—the possibility of a better future—the other was with savagery, which looked back to a "primitive" past that man was struggling to escape from. Yet, in the myth of the West, it appeared that these two contradictory themes were somehow united. The New Man had to overcome and absorb into himself the power of savagery in order to gain the strength to move into the promised future. Thus, the destruction of the "savage" Indian somehow enables the new moral utopia of the pioneers. In the same way, Americans dealt with the land, exploiting and destroying the landscape in order to create a better world. Of course, since the end of the West, Americans have become increasingly aware of the ambiguities of this great mythic narrative.
How does the Western frontier become the urban frontier? One would think that the city is the antithesis of the frontier and the wilderness, but this is not the case in the twentieth century American mind, shaped as it has been by the ideological assumptions of whiteness and racism. Because the crumbling core of our inner cities has become largely racial and ethnic ghettos, Americans, who tend to identify non-white groups as savage and primitive, see it as wilderness. Thus, the urban frontier becomes a new landscape of adventure and conquest. The urban wilderness and the cultures it sustains must, in the minds of most middle class Americans, be destroyed and purified in order to be redeemed. Thus, for much of the twentieth century, American attempts at urban redevelopment consisted largely of massive destruction of older buildings and the massive construction of new high-rises. As Jane Jacobs pointed out long ago, this also involved the destruction of the often quite viable cultures that were sustained by the older buildings. Shaped in part by the myth of the frontier, the program of inner city redevelopment as high-rise public housing dominated the mid-century urban landscape. The result was
disaster and the creation of a human wilderness far more destructive than the natural wilderness the American pioneers destroyed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We can only hope that our approach to the "frontier" of space will be less destructive. It would probably help to stop thinking of it as a frontier, at least in the American sense of a place whose emptiness must be filled by civilization.
Though the myth of the West has been extremely influential in Europe as well, it's noticeable that it has never had the same kind of impact on the urban landscape. Perhaps this is because Europeans think of the frontier as a place of dreams that is far away, while Americans view it as their own landscape. In any case, the pattern of European urban redevelopment has been significantly different from America's. In Europe, the landscape of the inner city is usually kept as unchanged as possible, while new development and the construction of modern high-rise buildings takes place on the periphery. Thus, the inner city is never conceived as something to be destroyed. Instead of being an expendable primitive past, the "old city" is the heart of tradition and meaning.
In the last two decades, a few American cities have begun to take historical preservation seriously, and the idea of historic districts in which changes are limited is beginning to spread. The influence of the myth of the West as the basic explanation of American uniqueness gave way, in the latter part of the twentieth century, to new treatments of the West in history and fiction and a growing recognition of other factors in American history, most notably, immigration.
You mention the influence of the myth of the West in Europe. Certainly the West has long fascinated many Europeans—the movies and western clothing especially. Latterly there have been western theme parks, quick-draw clubs, re-enactments of Native American encampments. Why do you think this has been the case?
It's certainly true. In fact, it sometimes seems like the Western may be more popular in Europe than in America where it is no longer an important cinematic or television genre. In fact, the life of the American Western was probably prolonged by the effectiveness and influence of European versions of the Western, particularly those made by the Italian director Sergio Leone, though there have been Westerns made in many other countries in Europe and Asia. In addition, Western novels and comic books written by Europeans and largely consumed by Europeans are also still widely popular, though I have no idea what the comparative statistics would be between European and American versions of the Western. Actually, a comparative study of European and American Westerns and their versions of the myth of the West would be of great interest, though difficult to carry out because of the many languages and cultures involved. Christopher Frayling's superb book Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans, from Karl May to Sergio Leone is the only significant attempt to treat this topic that I am aware of.
It's not surprising that Europeans would be fascinated with the mythic West, for, after all, they created it. Long before there was an actual American West, there were European visions of what it would be. Many of the key elements of the Western myth, such as the clash of savagery and civilization, the creation of the redeemed community, the heroic explorer and the noble savage were clearly based on European prototypes. Even before there was an American Western novel of any significance European writers like Chateaubriand had envisioned a mythical West. Nineteenth century European Westerns by writers like the French Gustave Aimard and the German Karl May developed along with the American Western as it emerged from the writings of James Fenimore Cooper and others. Indeed, one might say that the very evolution of the American Western reflected this pattern, since most of the major developments of the genre were created by Easterners, often before they had any Western experience. Cooper was a New Yorker; Owen Wister, whose Virginian recreated the Western novel for the twentieth century, was from Baltimore; John Ford, who became the greatest Western movies director, was from Maine; William F. Cody, who as Buffalo Bill created the great spectacle of the Wild West Show, was from Iowa; Frederick Faust, who as Max Brand became one of the most prolific writers of popular Western novels, was from California and wrote many of his epic Western tales while living in a Renaissance villa in Florence. One could find innumerable examples of ways in which the Western and the myth of the West were created by Easterners and Europeans and thus reflected their fantasies more than any historical actuality.
My impression is that for the people who dreamed the myth of the West, it stood, above all, for openness as symbolized by the vastness of the Western landscape. This vision of openness could become an expression of some fantasy of flight from the restrictions of civilization into a more natural and freer kind of existence, or it could serve some hope for a future state of society better than the present. Today, when I talk to Europeans about the West, the thing that seems to fascinate them the most is the idea of small populations in huge spaces. It's amazing to Dutchmen, for example, where the typical farm is less than fifty acres, that Western ranches can be thousands of acres. They are not aware, of course, that in much of the West the land is so arid that it takes forty acres to support a single cow. I think also that Europeans fantasize the West as a more classless society more open to individual success on a very large scale, though it can certainly be argued that many European countries are actually more democratic than the United States and that the life of the average person is more secure and prosperous there than here, at least in the second half of the twentieth century. But myths exist to simplify and dramatize reality, not to express its complexity.
The cowboy on horseback embodies the fantasy of a purely free spirit bound by no restrictions of past or present and able to ride wherever he wishes. Various forces seek to contain or restrict his freedom. On the one hand, there are the savages and outlaws who would turn the individual's freedom into social and moral chaos. On the other, there are the representatives of civilization who would repress and reduce the cowboy's élan vital to orderly and banal routine. The heroic cowboy must engage himself with these repressive forces and find a way to resist them, while still maintaining his own freedom. This, it seems to me, is the essence of the Western genre and as such is one of the more effective literary expressions of that deep sense of unease and ambiguity that Europeans have felt about their civilization since the Renaissance.
You've often discussed the work of Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry as representative of contemporary Western writing. Why do you consider their work important, and how does it reflect the myths of the West?
McCarthy is probably the most powerful narrative poet since William Faulkner. His command of language is overwhelming, and his style has the rich and complex elegance of Renaissance poetic drama made into an effective instrument of contemporary storytelling. But from the standpoint of our discussion the interesting point about Cormac McCarthy is how and why he needed to make himself into a Western writer. Though born in Rhode Island, McCarthy grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee and his first novels are very much in the Southern Gothic mode of his literary predecessors, most notably Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor. However, even in these early novels, McCarthy is fascinated by the figure of the lone wanderer who tries to maintain his freedom in the face of the increasing restraints and complexities of modern society. His development of this figure in the Southern context reached a peak in his Joycean modern epic Suttree, in which the central figure is a homeless wanderer in the decaying urban blight of a small modern city. Having rejected the life of the prosperous middle class, Suttree seeks to find freedom first among the other homeless outcasts of the city and then through an excursion into the remaining vestiges of the older Appalachian mountain culture beyond the city. He finds that he still cannot escape from the terrible limits of human existence. In the end, as the slums where he has lived with other outcasts are turned into a modern expressway, Suttree flees again, this time to the West, echoing the odyssey of his creator. Around this time, McCarthy himself pulled up stakes and moved from Knoxville to El Paso, Texas. At the same time, with his next novel, Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West, he began his transformation into a western writer, significantly changing not only the locale of his fiction, but his style.
This transformation was complete in McCarthy's next three novels constituting his "Border Trilogy." Significantly, the two heroes of these three novels are cowboys, struggling to maintain their way of life and their sense of freedom in a world in which the kind of life and work they seek is becoming increasingly obsolete. In this figure McCarthy found the ultimate embodiment of the ironic though the heroic fate of the lone wanderer and seeker whose failure he had chronicled in his earlier, Southern fiction. While he eschewed many of the verbal pyrotechnics that marked his earlier fiction, McCarthy found in the more laconic style of Western writing an equally moving way of evoking his profound sense of nostalgia for a way of life and a freedom of spirit that is being ground away by the machinery of modernity. In addition, McCarthy turns in the Border Trilogy to another source of transcendence, the Hispanic tradition. It's one indication of his extraordinary command of language that he is able to incorporate large passages in Spanish into his narrative in All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain.
And Larry McMurtry?
Larry McMurtry is a much more prolific and facile writer than McCarthy, though they share some of the same concerns. McMurtry is a less profound writer than McCarthy, and the texture of his work doesn't have the same richness of allusion and complexity of language. Nonetheless, it is a remarkable accomplishment. Just as McCarthy has transformed himself from a Southern writer into a Western one, McMurtry has put on one narrative genre after another like changing a suit of clothes. He began with the modernist coming-of-age novel in Horseman, Pass By and The Last Picture Show, moved into a kind of hybrid between the modern realist novel and the sentimental romance in stories like Terms of Endearment, and finally returned to the Western epic for a wonderful series of novels about two heroic Westerners and their friends beginning with Lonesome Dove followed by two sequels and two prequels. Still more recently, he has turned to writing about Native Americans (Crazy Horse) and pioneers (Boone's Lick).
McMurtry shares with McCarthy a sense of nostalgia for a freer and less restricted past and for the lone wanderers who adventured across it. His vision however, is more satiric than tragic, more nostalgic than ironic. Gruesome as they are in some of their details, Commanche Moon and Dead Man's Walk deal with genuinely likeable (or supremely detestable) and ultimately very simple heroic figures. In comparison, characters like the Kid and the Judge in McCarthy's Blood Meridian are complex and contradictory and ultimately insoluble like Shakespeare's most powerful characters. While McMurtry encourages us to lose ourselves in a fantasy of the adventurous freedom of the Western past, qualified only by his mordant sense of satire and his realistic fascination with pain and dirt, McCarthy more deeply engages us in the struggle between the human spirit and the relentless limits of humanity. He deals with the cultural myth of the West on the level of universal myth, while McMurtry uses it to divert and entertain. McMurtry is one of the most entertaining and enjoyable writers of the second half of the twentieth century, while McCarthy is one of those craggy geniuses whose fullness must be grappled with.
A writer you've already mentioned, like Ishmael Reed in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969), not to mention films like Little Big Man and Blazing Saddles, opened the west to pastiche. What do you make of this comic West?
There's a rich strand of Western humor that began in the early nineteenth century with figures like Davy Crockett and tall tales like "The Big Bear of Arkansas" as well as a long tradition of parody of the Western itself. We can see both of these at their peak in Mark Twain. Roughing It is a great classic of Western humor, while "The Literary Offenses of James Fenimore Cooper" is a classic parody and putdown of the Western. Ishmael Reed's Yellow Back Radio and Berger's Little Big Man and Blazing Saddles add contemporary themes of racism, sexism, homophobia and guilt for the expropriation of Native Americans to their comic mix, just as recent serious Westerns have attempted to deal with these themes, though perhaps less successfully than these satirists. The serious Western cannot accommodate much doubt or ambiguity without losing its dramatic intensity, and that's one reason why it has always been such a great target for burlesque and satire.
What about women writers and the West? In the past, women writing about the West have got pretty short shrift. Who, for you, most invites attention among recent figures?
Part of the problem in dealing with this question is the still unresolved issue of defining Western literature. Is Willa Cather a Western writer or a midwestern realist? Blake Allmendinger recently took a crack at this problem and came up with an interesting new way of defining Western literature that makes Pearl Buck a Western writer. But, short of such a redefinition, it would seem that in the past, just as the Western is clearly a sexist or masculinist genre, Western writing has been dominated by men. There is nothing comparable to the tremendous richness of contributions by women to Southern literature, for example. Few Western women writers compare with Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, or Carson McCullers. This does seem to be changing. However, it is notable that of the most interesting recent women writers with a connection to the West, the great majority are Native American, Hispanic or Asian—Leslie Silko, Louise Erdrich, Sandra Cisneros, Maxine Hong Kingston. In her useful essay "Feminism, Women Writers and the New Western Regionalism: Revising Critical Paradigms" in the indispensable and encyclopedic Updating the Literary West, Krista Comer lists these writers as the first who come to mind, as indeed they do. She goes on to mention a few others, such as Barbara Kingsolver who, like Cormac McCarthy, is a transplanted Southerner, and Terry Tempest Williams who is more an ecofeminist essayist than a novelist. Actually, if one leafs through the pages of Updating the Literary West, surprisingly few women writers of any sort turn up. For some reason it seemed to be difficult for non-ethnic women to define an area of literary creativity for themselves in the West.
This may also be connected with the fact that, even if we look at contemporary male Western writers, by far the most interesting are also the Native Americans, the Hispanics and the Asians. I think we're dealing here with the fact that the myth of the West and the literary genre that embodied it so dominated Western writing for such a long time that it was very difficult for writers who wanted to turn away from that myth and deal with the West in more realistic terms. Even earlier writers like Vardis Fisher who wanted to write more realistically about the Western experience ended up writing novels that read more like inflated versions of popular westerns than modern novels. The finest serious Western novelist of the twentieth century, Wallace Stegner, struggled with this problem throughout his life and finally created his masterpiece Angle of Repose about the long and difficult marriage between an engineer who had given himself up to the conquest of the West and an artist and writer who could never quite work out a harmonious relationship between her Eastern cultural ideals and her Western experience. Though written by a man, this is still perhaps the most moving account of an Anglo woman's experience in the West. What has liberated the creativity of Native American, Hispanic and Asian women and men in the second half of the twentieth century has partly been their relative freedom from the ideological and creative limits of the myth of the West. Their own cultural experience makes them see the myth for what it is and enables them to approach western life from a fresh perspective.
Given the "New Western History" of Patricia Limerick and others, do you see it as still possible to speak of a single, unitary West?
Only in a consciously mythic sense. One of the ironies of Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier thesis was that though he began as a historian of American regionalism, his thesis de-emphasized the significance of different regions in favor of a single overall pattern that recurred, he argued, in all the American regions. This grand vision erected the myth of the West into a myth of America. During the middle of the twentieth century when America was fighting two world wars and emerging as a dominant imperial power, it was vitally important to have such myths to affirm America's unique destiny as something "worth fighting for." Significantly, during this period the popular Western in film and on television was one of the leading cultural genres. This cultural predominance has been increasingly eroded as Americans have become more and more aware of the difficulties and limitations of power, and have also found themselves increasingly confronted with a very different vision of the American past. Just as the once seemingly "solid South" has increasingly fragmented into different regions with very different political and cultural concerns, so the West, and our awareness of it, is more and more shaped by the enormous economic, political, historical and cultural differences between the West Coast, the Rocky Mountain States, the Southwest, and the Great Plains. I'm sure that in the future our history and our literature will more and more reflect these differences. For example, one of the most interesting recent books on Western literature, J. Douglas Canfield's Maver
icks on the Border, defines a distinctive Southwestern genre that includes both American and Mexican novels that come from and deal with the border region.
Guns, gun control, the issue looms as large as ever. How do you see the politics of that discussion, especially in connection with the West?
Another enormously complicated issue that one can hardly do justice to at the tail end of an interview. Clearly the myth of the West has been one of the main ideological underpinnings of the opposition to gun control in America, and the role of guns in the "heroic" conquest of the West one of the reasons why gun advocates can confidently assert that opposition to guns as un-American. Actually, violence in American history, even apart from the Civil War, has always been more a result of racism and of ethnic prejudice than of the frontier. Since the middle of the nineteenth century there has always been more violence in the South and in our large cities than in the West. However, associating guns with the Western frontier adds an important aura of heroism and masculinity to their use. For a long time these ideological justifications of gun ownership were never seriously questioned, and it has been necessary, I think, for the myth of the West to undergo the kind of dismantling and erosion we have talked about for any serious gun control movement to develop. Just as a personal example, I have a close relative who moved West many years ago for his health. On most political issues we are in full agreement, but he has become adamantly, even fanatically, opposed to gun control. I can't help but think that he has absorbed these aspects of the Western ethos into his own political unconscious, though he would be as skeptical as anyone about the myth of the West in a conscious way. Myths and ideologies are deeply embedded in our consciousness and very slow to change.
The frontier myth is only one of many American ideologies that supports individual gun ownership, and these attitudes are deeply embedded in our historical traditions. Moreover, the problem has been further intensified by the deep strains of melancholy in American individualism that were so insightfully observed by de Tocqueville in the nineteenth century. As prosperity and affluence become more widespread in America, those who do not feel that they share in the general happiness become more desperate, and the result is the outbreak of shootings in schools and workplaces that has so disturbed the American public. But this public concern must somehow lead to a wider awareness of the negative effects of some of our most important myths, if concern is to lead to effective legislation. Whether this can come about, I don't know.
You have under way a new study about changing images of the South and the West in post World War II America. What's its line of argument?
My honest answer to this question is, "I wish I knew." At the present stage of my work I don't have so much an argument, but a few insights and a few lines of inquiry that I hope may eventually become an argument. My essential insight is that in what might be called the ideological history of American regions, the South and the West held different but related positions of otherness until World War II. However, with the transformation of the American economy and the large migration of people to the Sunbelt in the second half of the twentieth century, the South and the West have increasingly laid claim to being the true center of American traditions. The Northeast and the Midwest, once the virtual center of Americanism, are increasingly perceived in terms of otherness. In essence, I am investigating the way these changes have affected our perceptions of the South and the West and the way these are represented in literature and popular culture.
It sounds right up to the mark, a rethinking of the South and the West as cultural geography. I won't be alone in looking forward to its publication. Thank you.