In Defense of Cowboy Culture - Claremont Review of Books

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Gambling cowboy impairment

Postby Tygoktilar В» 20.01.2020

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For the American hero, the frontier never closes. For a quarter century, observers from Robert Bellah to Robert Bork have warned of America's imperiled mores. Popular culture, usually described as increasingly hedonistic and nihilistic, is often blamed for the decline of our national character.

While there is a lot to dislike about popular culture, it also produces a torrent of heroic fare whose significance hasn't been sufficiently appreciated. In Iraq, for example, embedded reporters traveling with the rapidly advancing American columns marveled at our forces' bravery and decency; somehow these young men and women, certified members of the slacker generation, were battling down Freedom's Road, not slouching toward Gomorrah.

Where do we get such heroes? One answer is: American popular culture. Although high culture is a different story, in mainstream America, heroism is alive and well. Thousands of heroic movies and television programs are viewed by millions of Americans every month, though intellectuals of all stripes typically disdain them.

Conservatives are more interested in high culture, great books, and great men, than in mythical appeals to the masses. And modern liberals argue that heroism encourages violence at home and militarism abroad, not to mention "fascistic" prejudices like racism, sexism, and love of force.

The huge popularity of heroic movies shows that Americans are little troubled by such intellectual criticism. They believe that calling the United States a "cowboy culture" pays it a compliment. To the average ticket-buying Joe and Jane, the cowboy in his many forms is the idealization of democratic virtue, especially of its relentless pursuit of justice. The identification of America with frontier life is longstanding in politics as well as popular culture.

Presidents like Andrew Jackson, William Harrison, and Abraham Lincoln invoked their vigorous frontier origins in order to increase their democratic stature.

A century later, Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush continue to embrace the cowboy way. The pioneer spirit has also been conjured in order to gain support for policy initiatives.

Woodrow Wilson exhorted America to join World War I in order "to make the world safe for democracy"—as the pioneers had once made safe the American West.

John F. Kennedy made the "New Frontier" the motto of his administration, promising to land a man on the moon within the decade. Given the supposed timidity and self-interestedness of modern democracy, what sustains this manly devotion to justice and noble achievement so long after the actual pilgrims and pioneers went to their reward?

In "Democratic Vistas," Walt Whitman argued that a heroic literature is necessary for a heroic people. According to Whitman, the Homeric epics provided that noble standard for Greeks and Romans, as the Arthurian legends did for later Europeans. To become a great nation, America had to create an equally noble, albeit democratic, literature. For "[great] literature penetrates all, gives hue to all, shapes aggregates and individuals, and, after subtle ways, with irresistible power, constructs, sustains, demolishes at will….

Greece immortal lives in a couple of poems. The chivalric romances were as important to Whitman as the Homeric epics. Like the frontier myth in America, Arthurian poetry was self-consciously nostalgic. It renewed or created the memory of a golden age, the better to hearten its people to war anew. If formally Christian, and allies of King Arthur, they too do pretty much as they please.

Independent landholders, the knights freely withdraw from Arthur's service whenever it suits them. Moreover, Arthur causes the civil war within his loosely organized company by attacking his greatest knight, Sir Lancelot, for his too open dalliance with Queen Guinevere. Here the parallel with Homer is clear. The Trojan War began with Paris's abduction of Helen, even as the later conflict among the Achaeans results from "King" Agamemnon's jealousy at Achilles' possession of the beautiful concubine Briseis.

But Malory combined these pagan themes with the great, countervailing Christian theme of the Grail quest, first described by the French poet Chretien De Troyes. According to this new legend, Christ served the Last Supper from the Holy Grail, and it received the blood from His wound on Calvary; a vision of the Grail was tantamount to becoming one with the Savior.

The Grail knights selflessly pursued justice in order to obtain spiritual purity, not women, wealth, and lands. Almost four centuries later, Sir Walter Scott mined a similarly heroic chapter in English history. In contrast to Norman tyranny and moral corruption, the Saxon Ivanhoe is a gentleman.

Against the previous heroic tradition, Ivanhoe rejects the right of the powerful to possess the fair. In Scott's more Protestant and democratic England, there is no natural right of the strong to rule over women and the property of the weak.

But unlike the American hero, Ivanhoe fights to establish himself within the nobility. He is betrothed to the daughter of a great Saxon lord, and fights to restore his own lord, King Richard, to the throne of England.

In addition to his superhuman fortitude, incomparable martial skills, and perfect knowledge of the wilderness, Natty is a true Christian. He avers that "a man without conscience is but a poor creatur'…. I trouble myself but little with dollars…if a man has a chest filled with [them], he may be said to lock up his heart in the same box.

The 'arth is the temple of the Lord, and I wait on him hourly, daily, without ceasing, I humbly hope. Written near the peak of the Second Great Awakening, these novels stress Natty's chivalric and Christian qualities. The heroic Bumppo even surpasses his teachers in martial prowess. Killdeer is the best rifle on the frontier, and Natty is a superhuman marksman. Above all, Leather-Stocking is the Chosen One.

A friend observes: "the man will never die by a bullet. Cooper identifies a cardinal principle of the American knight-hero: the economy of violence. Natty believes all life is divinely created and must be preserved, especially that of innocent women and children: "life is sweet and not to be taken marcilessly [sic] by them that have white gifts. Returning the fire of a hidden enemy, Natty mortally wounds him.

Grieving, he holds the dying Indian, effectively reenacting the Pieta. The economy of violence became a staple of the American knights. In the early cowboy movies and television shows, the death count was reduced by the conceit of having guns shot from villains' hands. This trope turned "shoot-outs" into a kind of bloodless joust. But this moral restraint disappeared in the s when a nihilistic realism replaced the Christian prohibition against taking innocent life.

In every novel, Natty is a righter of wrongs. While he sometimes rescues fair maidens, his great quest is to protect Americans as they journey into the lawless frontier. Cooper understood that a mobile, immigrant society of myriad sects and social conditions requires an everyman and outsider for its hero.

Natty, an itinerant, orphan bachelor, fits the bill. The model of the democratic knight-errant, he is from no place, with no close relations other than his Mohican comrades in arms. More ideal than human, Natty lives as a holy hermit on the frontier, worshiping the Maker of all things.

His perfect virtue makes Leather-Stocking the complete American Adam. Free from earthly sin, he serves his fellow democrats by protecting them from their fallen fellows in the Lord's Garden, i. Once the western frontier moved beyond the mountains, lakes, and forests, and crossed the Mississippi, a new vision of the democratic knight-hero was needed.

Thus, the mounted rider arose to defend democracy on the open plains running to the Rockies. Hollywood made the cowboy hero universally popular. The new film industry was greatly aided by the dozens of novels, primarily by Zane Grey, available for movie development. Few films were easier to make than the early Westerns. Shot within a brief car ride from Los Angeles, they required few actors who could act, while filling the screen with the kind of action that movie audiences craved.

Moreover, like most Arthurian tales, the characters' isolation on the broad plains created a totally melodramatic setting. No law limited the hero, or villain, in his acts of good and evil. Perhaps the clearest example in film of the tension between the democratic, Christian knight of the American ideal, and the natural or aristocratic warrior seen in Homeric and Arthurian legend, is found in "Shane" The heroic Shane defends homesteaders against a local cattle baron.

While believing in the justice of the family's claim, he is even more attracted by the beauty and interest of the farmer's wife. Her love suggests to the lonely Shane a powerful new possibility. He can either risk his life in order to defend justice—or safely gain the love of a beautiful woman, not to mention lucrative employment with the "baron" of cattle and thus, like Ivanhoe, secure his place in the social order. Shane's native nobility, reinforced by a child's the farmer's son hero worship, tips the scale.

In a fair fight, he kills the baron, his brother, and their hired gunfighter—a just result after their murder of two homesteaders. After restoring justice, the wounded Shane, without a word of thanks or a kiss goodbye, heroically returns to his long trail, forgoing the rewards of the earlier code of chivalry. But he does hear the heartfelt cries of love and admiration of the young boy who had witnessed his bravery and sacrifice.

The critic Richard Slotkin notes that Shane and Marian's "sublimated romance reproduces the exact Western equivalent of chivalric love, with Shane as a stainless Lancelot and Marian a chaste Guinevere. Long before Hollywood captured the Western hero on film, a new "frontier" had opened in America.

Several decades elapsed before writers caught up to this new social reality. But by the time of the Depression and New Deal, this urban frontier began to be populated by democratic Christian knights. Raymond Chandler, the creator of the first truly heroic detective, Philip Marlowe, was born in America but educated in England.

Philip Marlowe, originally named Philip Malory after Thomas Malory, incarnates yet another version of the American knight-errant. Chandler was influenced by T. Chandler describes Marlowe in this way:. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it…. If he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things.

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Postby Fenrizahn В» 20.01.2020

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Retrieved May 20, Douglas had an unhappy childhood, living with an alcoholic, physically abusive father. RyderHarry D.

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Postby Zukasa В» 20.01.2020

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