PRINT November 1993


the West-as-Metaphor

Richard Slotkin, The Myth of the Frontier of Twentieth-Century America (New York: Atheneum), 850 pages.

Jane Tompkins, West of Everything (New York: Oxford University Press), 245 pages.

Reading Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation and Jane Tompkins’ West of Everything reminded me of a line Lindsey Buckingham sang years ago, on his album Law and Order. Donning imaginary chaps and jingle-jangle spurs, the Hollywood cowboy slumped dreamily back in his saddle: “I’m just a shadow of the West.”

That mythic landscape—wide-open spaces and closed caskets, Monument Valley and Wounded Knee—casts a tall shadow indeed. As Gunfighter Nation shows, here is where America explains its his-tory to itself. But as West of Everything insists, it is something more than simply the place where white-male ideology goes to mystify (and redeem) itself. There are agencies of romance and contradiction at work behind the western’s rugged, implacable facade—interzones of “nature” where law meets disorder, each wooing the other.

As a critical history, Gunfighter Nation tries to be all-encompassing: spanning a century’s worth of political doctrine and cultural effusion, it demonstrates how leaders (JFK and his “New Frontier”) and icons (John Wayne) have spoken the same language, occupied the same mythic spaces, sparked mutually reinforcing fantasies. West of Everything is more modestly scaled, exploring the Western primarily (though not exclusively) as a literary mode: one that invites both feminist scrutiny and leaps of what has to be called faith. But each work is informed by a sense of the West as a preeminent pop domain, not merely in retrospect, but even as the events in question were played out: “Custer’s Last Stand” passed into pulp fiction almost before the blood was dry, and Jesse James emerged as a pop hero—seen as an aristocrat of violence, the subject of star-struck biographies and dime novels—even before his own assassination.

Buffalo Bill Cody was the apotheosis of such instant mythology, opening up the frontiers of celebrity for all who would come after. A pivotal figure for both Slotkin and Tompkins, he juggled a career as a U.S. Cavalry scout with one as a beloved entertainer on the Eastern stage—turning history into theatrical bunk and vice versa. His legend was a self-perpetuating publicity machine, in which vividly exaggerated versions of his real exploits authenticated massive historical fabrications. Gunfighter Nation emphasizes the ideologically constructed nature of Buffalo Bill. The elaborate Wild West spectacle he took across North America and Europe—part didactic circus, part live-action precursor of movie westerns—was a microcosm of the ritualized imperialism at the core of the expansionist myth. It even went so far as to use vanquished Native American warriors—Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé—as performers.

Tompkins, however, tries to get to the source of Cody’s “irresistible” appeal—the personal charisma that made him a “secular messiah” (Elvis on horseback), the imagery he manipulated, which would shape pop culture’s imagined West forever. A bottomless source of inspiration, he blazed a trail into uncharted psychic territory, those “lost parts of the self symbolized by buffalo and horses and wild men.” For her, Cody stands for the dream of a different, fuller, more intense existence, “the possibility of living a life that does not deny the body and the desires of the body.” The question she asks is whether, inasmuch as Buffalo Bill was both product and agent of the wrong side of history, we should discard as tainted all that he represented.

As one peruses Gunfighter Nation’s diligently amassed evidence of pervasive racism and violent subjugation in the American West, there seems to be little doubt what the answer to this question should be. Here the imagination of the frontier takes on a Social Darwinian cast, fascism in a ten-gallon hat: in a series of race wars sanctified under the auspices of civilization, successive “redskins”—not only Native Americans, but blacks, ethnic workers, labor agitators (“reds”), women—are rolled over by the Iron Horse of capitalist progress. Yet as the book moves nearer our own time, Slotkin’s schematic reading of every Western trope in geopolitical terms increasingly produces ideas like this: the gunfighter embodies “the central paradox of America’s self-image in an era of Cold War, ‘subversion,’ and the thermonuclear balance of terror: our sense of being at once supremely powerful and utterly vulnerable, politically dominant and yet helpless to shape the course of crucial events.” There’s something eminently reasonable about such sociological claims, but they narrow the field of events (actual or imagined) down to a storage locker for self-fulfilling prophesies: Vera Cruz parallels the formulation of Eisenhower’s Third World counterinsurgency strategies, The Magnificent Seven offers a blueprint for their implementation in Vietnam.

Slotkin’s account leaves no loose ends, even as it culminates in a 20-page analysis of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch—a film that is nothing but mangled, bloody loose ends. Reducing its currents of irrationality and poetry to a tidy allegory of Vietnam (“destroying the city in order to save it”), Slotkin pointedly misconstrues the central, defining gesture in the picture: that frozen moment when the vastly outgunned Bunch find themselves in a standoff with the Mexican army, then gleefully open fire, he interprets as a strategic miscalculation—a failure to understand Third World political culture—rather than the spasm of self-destructive bravado Peckinpah intended. (It would be more accurate to say of this romantic/psychotic convulsion that the Bunch had to destroy themselves in order to save their souls.)

Gunfighter Nation ends with a chapter on “The Crisis of Public Myth,” the last roundup: the imaginary West used up, its dispossessed audience in need of new ways to conceptualize the past. But as the frontier closes down, one can see it turning back on itself. Looking beyond Slotkin’s frame of reference, the craving for “regeneration through violence” resurfaces in Vietnamized urban ghettos: gunfighters and marauding Injuns conflated into rap’s gangster Other, Wild Bunch posses as so many circular firing squads blasting their way into the spectacle-commodity economy’s bosom.

Because West of Everything is attuned to the ironies of desire—those of identification, repulsion, and attraction—it affords us a richer sense of how murderous and heroic impulses have gotten tangled up in the public domain. Tompkins finds an uneasy coexistence in the western between a fierce life-instinct and a transfixed gaze upon death. The solemn, ascetic tableaux, where “someone dies and someone rides away,” carry within them a different longing: to become one with the landscape, merge with the rocks and dry ground, fade into the sunset, Dead or alive, the figure of John Wayne is surrounded by darkness and doubt. He learns what those honorary scions of the West, the Mekons, swore all along: “Hard to be human again.”

Howard Hampton, who lives in the same town as Roy Rogers, is writing a psychogeography of the Reagan Era to be published by Harvard University Press.