PRINT May 1988


American Myths

THERE'S A CERTAIN IRONY that those youngsters growing up under Ronnie le Cowboy will be the first American kids of the 20th century to reach adolescence without receiving a thorough indoctrination in the ethos of the frontier, the spectacle of marshals and rustlers, the drama of cowboys and Indians—and in this the quality of American-ness will have changed. For the now-defunct western was typically the way that, however honestly or meretriciously (and always refracting the past through the lens of the present), America used to explain itself to itself. Who makes the law? What is the order? How do you know when a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do?

It used to be that each western, no matter how banal, was a little Fourth of July. There were years between 1940 and 1960 when westerns consumed as much as 25 percent of Hollywood’s total output. All of these movies wound up on television, plus

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