Westerns have never enjoyed much of a highbrow audience or much literary distinction.  Many people tend to sneer at the traditional form, because it seems to represent something obvious and a little dumb.  As one of my students responded to my discussion of western historical fiction as a viable and valuable category of popular culture, “How do you account for the success of such truly stupid and old television programs as Bonanza, The Rifleman, and The Lone Ranger?”  I told him that he had to consider several points before judging such programming.  For example, The Lone Ranger was adapted from a radio serial.  So were Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, and others.  As radio programs, these were initially created (or adapted from other media, such as comic books and comic strips) as popular parallels to the Western films of the 30’s and 40’s, particularly the early work of John Ford, William Wyler, Howard Hawks, and others.  Such popular representations of the West were predicated less on authenticity and historical accuracy than on the legendary derring-do of famous historical figures as they played out against the picturesque landscape of the frontier.  A Western offered early filmmakers plenty of action with lots of moving figures at a very small budget; additionally, there were blazing firearms and colorful costuming, much of which was easily found, since much of the West was still a frontier when the motion picture was young.  When heroes and villains of lore and legend had been sufficiently “done,” fictional counterparts such as Red Rider and Marshal Matt Dillon were created to fill the gap.  The West, after all, was a big and amorphous place; there was always room for invention.

Television was in its developmental stages when films made the transition to the smaller visual medium.  Trite and naive programming was more often the rule than the exception.  Restrictions on what could be depicted also were severe, so almost everything appeared with a veneer that concealed any objectionable material; but at that time, Americans were not ready for a realistic depiction of the West (or anything else) to be broadcast into their living rooms.

Nor were they seeking much authenticity in motion pictures.  Attempts at more sophisticated cinema were not always well received.  High Noon and Shane were both castigated for being too violent and for failing to uphold the moral values and wholesome images audiences associated with American ideals.  Even such a relatively benign Western as Destry Rides Again (1939) was singled out for criticism by the Hays Office, since it seemed to promote the idea that a hero might succumb to the charms of an unscrupulous and blatantly immoral femme fatale.

In the decades between the world wars, Americans were increasingly fearful—of communism, of fascism, of the Depression.  The era saw an enthusiastic resurgence in evangelical religion, indicating Americans’ need to locate spiritual solace.  There was, as well, a national need to bolster a faith in American “ideals,” a kind of cultural back-trailing to a time that provided a moral foundation as an inspiration for hope.  Stodgy philosophes such as the Founding Fathers in their powdered wigs and short breeches seemed too remote and long-winded to provide the needed iconography.  But a taciturn frontiersman, gun-toting cowboy, or buckskin-clad Indian fighter—these were images Americans could get behind.

The true frontier and its denizens, taken wholesale, were not quite so romantic and heroic or particularly inspiring.  As a result, writers began to construe the West in ways that seemed to respond to a public need.  This was nothing new.  In the late 18th century, when the British Empire first began to show signs of eroding, Sir Walter Scott’s novels and poems about heroes of the past captured the imagination, although they had little to do with the established facts of British history.  So, to some extent, did Jane Austen and Samuel Richardson.  In the antebellum United States, what Nathaniel Hawthorne called “that damned mob of scribbling women” were penning romances by the reams to do the same thing in the face of a rapidly developing crisis that would ultimately bathe the entire nation in blood.

For a long time in the 20th century, then, it was natural for legend to outweigh attempts to present the West in a factual, accurate way.  Certainly, there was much to recall with pride: the Erie Canal, the Transcontinental Railroad, the opening of the frontier to homestead settlement, the expansion of American-owned soil from coast to coast.  And there was plenty of action and adventure: intrepid pioneers, ranching empires, gold rushes, boom towns, ferocious animals and hostile Indians galore.  But looking at the novels of the West produced from the 20’s forward, it is hard to find more than a handful that do not present almost laughable scenes of naive behavior and preachy passages affirming the virtually divine rights of (mostly white male) Americans to be where they are and to do what they did, no matter who got hurt in the bargain.  In many of these renditions, vestiges of reality still emerged: Indians were heathen savages; Chinese were cheap and disposable labor; Negroes were awkward and painful reminders of a bloody war; Mexicans were displaced and childlike peons or vicious pistoleros; outlaws were unconscionable brigands; women were to be venerated or desired; wild animals were to be exterminated out of necessity, if not profit.

Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, were upright and honest; preachers and priests were gentle and wise; mountain men were amusingly rustic and astonishingly witty; ranchers’ daughters and saloon girls were uniformly lovely and virginal; cowboys were sweet and shy; lawmen were chisel-jawed, chaste, and almost always Caucasian.  They also wore white hats, carried nickel-plated revolvers that fired silver bullets, and were adept at shooting guns out of bad guys’ hands in ways that seldom or never drew blood.  Chicanery, exploitation, corruption, greed, mountebankery, perfidy, calumny, fanaticism, bigotry, humbug, fraud, extortion, and outright murder and theft—to say nothing of rape and pillage—were the province of villains who could be quickly subdued, mostly by shooting the guns out of their hands or sternly advising them to vacate the territory.  Vigilantes were misguided and overanxious citizens, never drunk and irrational mobs.  Lynchings, draggings, and whippings were all off stage, and no one but road agents and cattle thieves ever failed to shave closely each and every day.

America’s love affair with the West was not born in this era, by any means.  James Fenimore Cooper’s novels presented a wild frontier and a protagonist who became the model for countless American heroes of novel and film.  Honest, insightful, schooled in woodcraft, tolerant, and compassionate, Natty Bumppo represents the prototypical icon of “truth, justice, and the American way,” although, for the most part, he is British.  That he winds up his life disillusioned and lost on the empty plains of a nascent nation’s frontier is irrelevant.  David Crockett, hero of stage and printed pamphlet, was extolled as a latter-day Daniel Boone, intrepidly traveling to Texas to fight for freedom and independence.  That he was a failed politician who abandoned his wife and family and may have been summarily executed after falling more or less accidentally into a death trap also does not mitigate.

The iconic image of the West was born when the West was still young.  Buffalo Bill and Pawnee Bill proved that during the last 20 years of the 19th century, while the frontier was in the process of closing; their traveling shows were just two of hundreds of Wild West spectacles that made the West “real” for millions who had never seen a living buffalo, grizzly bear, or red Indian and still regarded everything west of the Mississippi as the “Great American Desert.”  In a sense, early writers and impresarios “formulated” the American West, gave it dimension by presenting a version that would endure for a hundred years.

Even so, the image of the West was refined in the 20th century; it became better organized, cleaner, and more selective in how it presented itself.  No one wanted to think of the millions of immigrants who died miserably in mines and along railroad beds, who faced gross discrimination in employment and housing for nearly a century.  No one wanted to think about broken treaties, disregarded promises, about the Trail of Tears or the Long Walk or Wounded Knee or the starvation and hopeless deprivation on reservations that existed and continues to exist throughout the West.

Instead, new heroes were discovered—or, in some cases, rediscovered—in what today would be regarded as unlikely guises.  James Butler Hickok, a myopic fop and stone killer, was elevated from dissipated gambler and chronically unemployed hired gun, a drunk, probably dying from gonorrhea, who never had a sidekick named “Jingles” but was playing cards with utter lowlifes when he was murdered in a seedy mining camp’s gin mill, to the status of knight errant, riding hither and thither, handsomely dispensing frontier justice with his pearl-handled six-guns.  Wyatt Earp, a ruthless opportunist, land speculator, saloon owner, political hack, sometimes pimp and notorious philanderer, provocateur and accessory to manslaughter, was raised to the status of law-and-order champion.  Billy the Kid was altered from psychopathic juvenile delinquent and hired killer to a sweet, misunderstood youth, shot down by a jealous rival after an unsuccessful bid for amnesty and the almost casual murder of an abusive jailer.  Jesse James evolved from a cold-blooded killer who left a path of gore across Missouri and Kansas when he rode with Bloody Bill Anderson into the family-values-centered Mr. Howard, gunned down from behind by a “dirty little coward,” who himself was a pimp and opium peddler.  Curiously, no one wanted to consider how Bat Masterson, buffalo killer, saloon owner, gambler, and pimp, could wind up a respectable sportswriter in New York City.  Sins of the flesh are supposed to be atoned for, after all.  When that didn’t happen, the best plan was to ignore them and replace them with virtues.

Others were revived from dusty demises and rehabilitated.  Early explorers and mountain men became the apotheoses of bold adventurers, when some had simply abandoned family and responsibilities because they were unable to function within a structured society.  Most Americans today would find such men to be unsavory, obnoxious, and even dangerous individuals with dispositions ranging from the impetuous to the insane.  The lifestyles that brought them to drug addiction or alcoholism or venereal disease, and often to bloody ends, hardly reflected the ideals of a later time, so their histories were modified, abridged, even sanctified as models for modern behavior.

Melodramas, penny dreadfuls, magazine serials, and dime novels started the trend long before the 19th century ended and the frontier closed; but when the 20’s and 30’s brought far more dismal prospects to the country than it had ever seen before, and World War II confronted the entire globe with an unimaginable number of dead and the very real prospect of literal world destruction, the natural trend was to look to legendary precedent as a foundation of national values.  It is no accident that the National Anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance, and other national icons were formalized in this same period, that our contemporary notions of patriotism were codified and ingrained in children almost from the time they could walk and talk.

The sad fact, though, is that there are no such things as “national values.”  We share several, maybe many, national notions, but values are as various as we are as a people.  Moreover, few if any of the real men behind the legends celebrated in Westerns would have practiced or embraced anything like what we claim to be “our values”—indeed, many would be appalled by them, see them as symptoms of weakness, if not stupidity; but for almost a century, we simply ignored that and pretended that they would give us their blessing and see us as the natural heirs to their higher ambitions.

When the Western is discussed as a literary endeavor, people tend to bring up Owen Wister and Zane Grey as the bedrock writers of the category whose works seem to underscore our need for value-affirmation, but no one really reads them.  If they did, they would have to face the brutal homicides that form their stories’ climaxes and to recognize that, even though these works lack the kind of verisimilitude that might elevate them to a level of sophistication, they actually are dealing with a West that is hardly the fountainhead of goodness or a model for society.  Myth dies hard, especially when it contradicts reality.  Extrapolations and embellishments are required to make the archetype useful to a modern sensibility.  As John Ford pointed out years ago, where legend is concerned, facts have little cachet.

The bicentennial celebration of the mid-70’s was bolstered in no small part by a kind of revived Emersonianism, translated (or perhaps twisted) and disseminated by the “Great Communicator” (sometimes depicted in his white hat, astride his white horse), whose vision of American goodness and the quality of past values informed our culture well into the 80’s.  The Western enjoyed a brief resurgence of popularity, highlighted by Larry McMurtry winning the Pulitzer Prize.  It fostered a whole new romanticism, as well, particularly in such films as Unforgiven and Dances With Wolves, idealistic and improbably plotted stories that provided an intoxicating, heady tonic to cure the suspicion that things were not so well with us as we wished them to be.

In the cold gray light of resumed reality, however, the hangover came quick, and it continues.  Americans no longer want naive recreations that push well-polished legends, even those created from the whole cloth of writers’ imaginations, ahead of grittier accuracy.  Just as children have traded backyard games of “cowboys and Indians” for video games with graphic depictions of violence, readers have drifted away from sanitized recreations of innocent heroines and handsome heroes.

Over the years, some writers have sensed this and responded with a more graphic display of the American West, warts and all.  From Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s indictment of frontier justice, to E.L. Doctorow’s depiction of hopelessness in the face of utter evil, to Elmore Leonard’s graphic illustration of racial intolerance, to Gregg Matthew’s gruesome stories of frontier depravity, to Cormac McCarthy’s grisly portrait of a wilderness prowled by homicidal maniacs, to Thomas Berger’s comic but somehow telling suggestion that the frontier was a nasty and uncertain place, a different vision of the American West has been revealed in books that have reached for and sometimes attained literary acclaim.  But such works have had little impact on the public perception of the frontier period as a kind of American Camelot, populated by knights-errant in boots and chaps, riding aimlessly about to ensure that justice and goodness will always triumph.

Not only were the real men and women of the Old West just as far from perfect as we are, but they also back-trailed, seeking analogues for their own actions, their own worthiness and goodness in the icons and heroes of their own history, their own past.  It was their era that dubbed George Washington “the father of his country,” rather than “Burner of Villages,” as Indian lore described him.  Hence, the difference between Wister’s Virginian and Cooper’s Leatherstocking is more a matter of presentation than personality, just as the difference between John Wayne and David Crockett is more a matter of what we demand to be true than what the truth might actually be.  When examined closely, John Wayne and David Crockett had much in common.  Both were inveterate actors, playing it large and to the back row, ignoring who they truly were in favor of the image they too often came to believe in as genuine.

What happened to the American Western, then, is that nothing happened to it.  It is still there, and it is still doing what it has always done. But we, as a culture, have changed.  There were good people in the West, to be sure, probably more good people than bad.  But in a post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, post-September 11 world, we have come to understand that the good guys do not always win, and that sometimes, the enemies they go out to do battle against are elusive and hard to define.  Sometimes, when it is found, “evil” is not even evil at all; sometimes, the “good” isn’t that much better.  And sometimes, as Pogo reminded us years ago, our main enemy, when met, may be uncomfortably familiar—may, in fact, be ourselves.

The Lone Ranger and the Cartwrights belong to an older, simpler era, and the vision of the West at that juncture was better scrubbed.  No one stank, carried vermin, had diseases, or harbored dark and scary secrets.  No one drank too much, smoked opium or marijuana, or availed themselves of cankered prostitutes and grimy gambling dens.  Everyone had clear skin and white teeth; everyone had perfect eyesight and excellent taste; everyone was well groomed and well educated.  No one ever broke a sweat, died in childbirth, or fell off a horse, and everybody wore six-guns in the house and dressed up for church, which they naturally attended every Sunday.  Everyone in the right was wholesome and positive.  Only outlaws looked scruffy and were as obnoxious and ugly as they were ill mannered and ungrammatical.  Hotel rooms and saloons were clean, capacious, well-lighted places; meals were nutritious, delicious, and always served on white linen with no fear of E. coli or trichinosis; and no one at the table ever uttered a racial slur or vile profanity, or spoke a discouraging word.

The West, of course, was not like that.  For that matter, neither was the East.  A quick glance at a volume such as The Gangs of New York confirms that the difference between Tombstone and Manhattan in the same era had more to do with the alternate fashions of wearing firearms than with much of anything else.  The West of the American imagination, though, was not located in the gritty streets of Gotham.  It was, instead, a wonderland created in a time when wonders were needed to sustain hopes and dreams.  Today, we have a different vision of our world.  It is not necessarily a better vision, but it is more honest.  While there are lots of stories of honesty, integrity, goodness, and heroics in the West, they require balance and a candid depiction against a backdrop that carries the sensations of a frontier where desperation and fear were often daily companions, and where concerns about upholding values were of a lower priority than merely surviving for one more day.

Too often, Western writers forget that the people of the American West who offer the models of the characters they want to create were mostly concerned with their own moment and had no idea of what was to come.  They were stunned by invention and progress, just as we are today, but they were not sitting around waiting for the 20th century to show up and transform them into men with more modern sensibilities.  Indeed, they thought that they were modern and sensible.  The future was a hazy thought, seldom studied.  They believed firmly that the way things were, more or less, was the way they always would be, with only slight modification, and that pretty much they were about as good as people would ever become.  Their attitudes, prejudices, biases, and beliefs were not temporary adoptions they knew were incorrect and that they would cast aside when they became enlightened.  They believed they already were enlightened and that their civilization was probably about as advanced as human beings were capable of making it.  There was room for improvement, naturally, but not for dynamic change.  Vision, in sum, was concept, not fact waiting to be revealed.  Most of them, if brought to our time, would be shocked, even repulsed by our social and political attitudes, by our hand-wringing over social inequality and guilt for overt measures taken in the name of economic or political expediency, by our attention to sensitivity and justice, just as we are often shocked and repulsed by their apparent ignorance of our heightened humanitarianism.  But it is not proper to try to change them, in our fictions, to make them more sensitive or prescient or somehow alert to our vision of the backwardness of their time and place.  We can only accept them as they were and, by depicting them faithfully, hope to learn from their behavior.