“Let sixteen cowboys come sing me a song. . . .
For I’m a young cowboy and I know I’ve done wrong.”
—Anonymous, “The Cowboy’s Lament”
The American West has become a place of simultaneous myth and reality. There is a West where zesty young men mounted on noble steeds occasionally rounded up some cattle to be driven to market, but for the most part these cowboys never seemed to work. Instead, they sat in saloons with women of easy virtue but hearts of gold. These Westerners did little except drink, gamble, and act as witnesses to the violence which was “as American as apple pie.” The towns of this American West featured shoot-outs at high noon between good guys wearing white hats and riding white horses and evil men wearing black hats and riding black horses.
There also is a West where entrepreneurs in cattle risked their investment dollars to build ranching empires that provided beef for a hungry nation. Simultaneously they gave employment to thousands of young cowboys who came to the occupation filled with romantic delusions that they were going to sleep under azure skies and beside limpid streams, sing songs to lowing cattle, and ride horses that would reciprocate their riders’ love and understanding. Newly minted cowboys quickly learned that horses could be mean, shifty-eyed little brutes whose major goal in life was to kill or maim their riders, that cattle were stupid to the point of self-destruction, and that the life of the cowboy was short, hard, and dangerous.
These cowboys and cattlemen of the real West were genuine pioneers who fought loneliness and isolation, the searing heat of summer, the freezing blizzards of winter, and early death from the unremitting toil demanded to transform the region from a frontier into a vital part of the United States.
In the earliest stages of settlement, most people moving to this American West were young men willing to risk the privations either because of romantic delusions or else because they saw opportunity for self advancement. When these young, lonely men did get to town, some of them sought solace from prostitutes, whose life was equally difficult, for they existed in a world where they served both as victim and victimizer. For the most part such women were hardened and cynical souls, who had chosen this life out of economic necessity. They lived in cheap shacks cluttered around the saloons. They had no form of medical inspection, and venereal disease was rampant. Because of the amount of cheap liquor they consumed, the drugs many of them took, the diseases they contracted, and their hard living conditions, they usually died young, particularly from pneumonia. Most of these “soiled doves” had little compunction about rolling drunks and were filled with contempt for their customers; yet, some were surprisingly honest—and even gentle. In short, they were human.
In the past, books about the American West also could be divided into the same two classes of myth and reality—one with pasteboard characters participating in a morality play, the other reflecting a region of unremitting toil and of economic contribution to the building of America. Perhaps because of our infatuation with the horse and all this animal has come to symbolize, thousands of books of both kinds have been written about cowboys and cattlemen—with more than a few of them noting the prostitutes in the saloons they frequented.
Now a third category should be added to this list: books rehashing known facts but larded with sociological and psychological jargon and motivated by economic prejudice against the entrepreneur. The Real American Cowboy and Daughters of Joy, Sisters of Misery are typical of such works. Writers who live in Massachusetts or Washington, DC, and whose views of the West derive from the Western movie, economic determinism, and the cloistered research library, churn out works about cowboys which refer to the occupation as a “trade fraternity.” These books speak about the friendships of the bunkhouse in terms of “male bonding” and portray prostitutes as “enmeshed in a complex web of human attitudes, defined with scorn and jocularity, and circumscribed by rigid societal responses.”
Publishers whose offices are congregated in the East (or, in the case of university presses, are staffed with imitators of New York houses) sign contracts with these Ivy League academicians because they all talk the same language—something that makes both of them comfortable. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship. Publishers need manuscripts to fill their spring and fall catalogs, and professors need publications to justify their nonprofessing in the classroom (that is, released time for research). Moreover, each helps reinforce the prejudices the other already has about the West, either real or mythic. Another way of saying the same thing is that I have never seen a book whose subtitle is Prostitutes in the American East.
These publishers and authors remind me—perhaps because most of them are from that generation—of college students of the 1960’s who liked to wear blue work shirts and overalls to show their sympathy for the working class. As a friend of mine commented, “If only they had earned those work shirts. Those of us who grew up in them couldn’t wait to get out of them.” I do not believe these Eastern authors need to have worked as cowboys or prostitutes to gain an understanding of them, but a closer association than sympathetic reading and listening to academic lectures is needed to attune the writer to the regional rhythms and work patterns of the West of reality.
Let me illustrate my point with some stories.
Many years ago I was talking with an old-timer who related to me an anecdote told by his great-uncle about herding cattle in the Cherokee Outlet in the 1880’s. A crew of six was working a herd when one of them, a young cowboy, was killed. His horse stepped in a hole, threw the young man, and then rolled on top of him. The crew dug a shallow grave on top of a nearby hill and gathered around it, hats in hand. After several moments of awkward silence, the foreman asked, “Anybody have anything to say?” When no one responded, the foreman told them, “Well, throw some dirt on him, and let’s get back to work.”
On another occasion I recall listening to a salty old cowboy in San Angelo, Texas, tell a few of his cronies about the death and funeral of one of their number. The deceased was brought into a nearby small community and properly laid out in church, dozens of his friends coming for the service. The young minister preached a long sermon, perhaps in the hope of making a few converts among people who did not normally attend church. Finally, in a fit of oratorical flight, he thundered, “Old Jake’s not really dead. He’s just gone to a better world.” At this moment from the back of the room came a whispered comment from one of the salty—and realistic—cowboys seated there, “I’ve got a hundred dollars says the son of a bitch is dead.”
I gained greater understanding and insight about cowboys and cattlemen from these two stories than from some two dozen years of academic study, just as I learned what prostitution must have been like from another story I heard dating from the 1890’s. It involved a 17-year-old prostitute weeping because she had been working at a two-dollar establishment until a miner, in a drunken fit of amorousness, had bitten off one of her ears; this automatically had demoted her to a 50-cent-house.
I cannot recommend either of these books as good reading for anyone who really wants to know what the West of yore was truly like. The writers have uncovered no new facts, and they have disclosed no great insights. The author of a best-selling American history textbook once told me, “Show me an American history book, and I can tell you within 10 years when it was written.” He meant that by examining what was emphasized in a particular text, he could tell the era from which it came by recalling what was fashionable at any given point in our history. These two books exemplify the sociological-revisionism of the 1980’s and those writers intent on raising our racist/sexist/economic consciousness.
Daughters of Joy, Sisters of Misery is feminist literature designed to prove that prostitutes in the West were used by the “legal, military, church and press establishments” to “maintain their authority,” while The Real American Cowboy tries to have us believe that cowboys, filled with racial prejudice, were “exploited by their corporate employers.”
[The Real American Cowboy, by Jack Weston (New York: Shocken Books) $19.95]
[Daughters of Joy, Sisters of Misery: Prostitutes in the American West, 1865-90, by Anne M. Butler (Urbana: University of Illinois Press) $19.95]