The new true West

From Larry McMurtry and Thomas Berger to "Deadwood" and the gay cowboys of "Brokeback Mountain," the American West is alive and wilder than ever.

Published June 12, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

"There's no such thing as the West any more. It's a dead issue." -- Austin, "True West"

The West a dead issue? Perhaps to a hack screenwriter in a Sam Shepard play. What world does this guy live in? The America I live in looks to the West with its vast, and still, to the naked eye, unpolluted and unexploited spaces, a natural stage from which to present dramas that reflect our ongoing national debates on race, sex, politics and our common cultural heritage. The western is more with us than ever.

The "classic" western film, the one described by Robert Warshow in his famous essay "The Westerner," where "It is always about 1870" and in which the hero "is the last gentleman," is no longer a staple of Hollywood. But what traditional movie genre is alive and well? Surely not musicals, despite an occasional "Chicago" or "Moulin Rouge"; surely not the classic detective or horror story, which have melded and evolved into teen-slasher flicks. By those standards, the so-called classic western is doing no worse than any other genre. What has happened to the western is that it has mutated into several new species, many of them the topic of hot discussion by you and your friends even if you thought you weren't talking about westerns but something else.

"Brokeback Mountain" has been such a shock to the system that the conventions of the old western may never recover. (Good.) But it's merely one of a spate of new films that might be loosely headed up under the title of "Contemporary Art House Western," with Tommy Lee Jones' "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," Wim Wenders' "Don't Come Knocking" and David Jacobson's "Down in the Valley" as current examples.

If there was any way of measuring such things, it would probably be shown that over the last 20 years or so westerns, in one form or another, probably comprised as big a slice of the Hollywood production pie as ever. Of course, that pie takes in everything from Kevin Costner's neoclassic "Open Range" (2003) to Antonia Bird's grisly cult favorite "Ravenous" (1999), with Guy Pearce -- the first western to feature cannibalism -- and the recently released Australian western "The Proposition."

That's just on the big screen. Whether in the form of made-for-TV movies (an amazing number of which star Sam Elliott, the Randolph Scott of the last two decades) or miniseries (such as Walter Hill's "Broken Trail," with Robert Duvall, premiering June 25-26 on AMC), westerns rule on television. And with the exception of "The Sopranos," David Milch's "Deadwood" has elicited more heated discussion than any cable series in the last two years.

Then there's the so-called classic western, the one that supposedly died around the time of the Vietnam War. It may indeed be dead, but a quick turn around your television dial will reveal precisely how much it is still with us, or perhaps you didn't know that John Wayne is still hands-down the most recognizable movie star in the world?

The western isn't undergoing a resurgence, because interest in the West has never waned. But its suddenly high profile does follow a remarkable proliferation of fiction on the West that somehow has managed to go unnoticed by the Eastern literary establishment. In fact, it's been largely unnoticed by literary critics anywhere. In the series of lectures published as "An Introduction to American Literature" (1967), Jorge Luis Borges wrote: "Compared to the 'poesia gauchesca'" -- or poetry inspired by the exploits of the gauchos in his native Argentina -- "The North American Western is a tardy and subordinate genre." Tardy and subordinate, Borges meant, compared to the western movies of Hollywood.

It's a curious and never satisfactorily explained fact that for most of the 20th century, America's writing about its own frontier lagged behind (usually by a decade or so) the path already trodden by movie westerns. In the first 60-odd years after the closing of the frontier -- if we want to use the date of 1893 chosen by historian Frederick Jackson Turner in his landmark thesis "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" -- there was very little work that rose far above the level of regional interests. In fact, except for "Roughing It" by Mark Twain -- new journalism before "new journalism" -- and a handful of stories by Bret Harte, the Old West produced precious little in the way of true literature for about half a century from 1870, when it was at its wildest, to around 1920. (Some would argue a case for Owen Wister's 1902 novel, "The Virginian," which produced an iconographic figure when Gary Cooper played the title role in the popular film version. However, the book's reputation doesn't survive a reading through its stilted prose and late Victorian morality.)

In the wake of the popularity of movie westerns came the western pulps, most notably those of Zane Grey and then Louis L'Amour, who has been identified many times as the most popular living writer in the world. L'Amour, in particular, has his champions, but no critical sleight of hand can turn L'Amour's simplistic fictions into literature. Better writers like Jack Schaefer, who wrote "Shane" and "Monte Walsh," never quite succeeded in escaping the pulp corral either: Their books are too steeped in the lore of the movie western to stand on their own as literature. Even Schaefer's admirable "Shane" (1951), which is a darker and more complex work than George Stevens' film, reads as if it was inspired more by three decades of western movies than by the real frontier West.

Not that there haven't been exceptions, but they are always mavericks rather than trailblazers. Wallace Stegner, born in 1909, established a solid reputation as a writer of fiction and nonfiction as well as that of staunch environmentalist. But it wasn't until he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972, 35 years after his first published novel, that he began to garner real critical appreciation. (He died in an auto accident in 1993.) The painfully slow arc of Stegner's career probably illustrates the problem with most serious writers on the West: There isn't enough of an audience in their own environment to support them, and it takes a long time for the nation's literary nerve centers to find out about them.

This is even more the case in the curious career of an even greater writer: Willa Cather. Cather, born in Virginia in 1873 and raised in Nebraska, fought her way out of the spell of Henry James -- the worst possible influence for a writer who aspires to write about the West. (In the words of Larry McMurtry, "Prose  must accord with the land. A lyricism appropriate to the Southwest needs to be as clean as a bleached bone and as well-spaced as trees on the llano. The elements will dominate here, and a spare, elemental language, with now and then a touch of elegance, will suffice. We could probably use Mark Twain, but I doubt we're yet civilized enough to need a Henry James.")

She didn't attract major attention until "O Pioneers!" which was published in 1913 when she was already 40 years old. For the next 34 years, until her death in 1947, no one wrote with more compassion and insight about the Great Plains and its people. Though she found a substantial readership that she has maintained to this day, the West was of no urgent interest to her friends and colleagues in the New York literary circles. However, her contemporaries knew how good she was. William Faulkner paid her homage, and when Sinclair Lewis rejected the Nobel Prize in 1926, he raised eyebrows by saying that Cather should have won it. So many disparate groups have embraced her -- surely she is the only writer to be claimed by political conservatives, lesbians and the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas -- that she has always seemed outside of literary fashion. Though all of her greatest work, including "O Pioneers!" "My Antonia," "The Professor's House," and "Death Comes for the Archbishop," is set in the Southwest, I've met few western journalists or novelists who have ever read her.

"How many centuries of settled urban experience," Larry McMurtry asks rhetorically in "Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen," "does it take to produce a Proust or a Virginia Woolf?" I don't know, but, aside from Willa Cather, whose novels of the West were as isolated in American literature of that period as McMurtry's "Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen," it took us about four generations to produce the great novels of the American frontier. Though the fact escaped the attention of critics, virtually all of the finest novels about the legendary West have been written between 1964, when Thomas Berger's "Little Big Man" was published, and now.

Since the time of the Vietnam War, the old and new West have provided the subject matter for many of America's leading writers, including Sam Shepard, Richard Ford, Jim Harrison, Thomas McGuane, Rick Bass and, more recently, Sherman Alexie, who is dragging palefaces kicking, screaming and laughing into seeing the West from an Indian perspective -- it seems as if we didn't "win" the West after all. With one slim short story, merely one among many others just as good, Annie Proulx has irrevocably altered our vision of the cowboy.

My reading list for Modern Western Novel 101 would include Charles Portis' "True Grit" (1968); Michael Ondaatje's collection of "left-handed poems," "The Collected Works of Billy the Kid" (1970); Ron Hansen's novel of the Dalton Gang, "Desperados" (1979) and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (1983), which has just been made into the most anticipated western film of the year starring Brad Pitt; Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic "Blood Meridian" (1985); Pete Dexter's elegiac twilight-of-the-god novel of Wild Bill Hickok's last days, "Deadwood" (1986); N. Scott Momadays "The Ancient Child," which juxtaposes the legend of a young Kiowa boy with the legend of Billy the Kid; Robert Coover's phantasmagorical "Ghost Town" (1998); Philip Kimball's sweet, sad and savage "Liar's Moon" (1999); and Bruce Olds' bracing postmodernist portrait of Doc Holliday, "Bucking the Tiger" (2001).

A second, hardly less worthy, list could be made from E.L. Doctorow's "Welcome to Hard Times," an amusingly nasty revisionist take on the pulp western; Susan Dodd's heart-rending novel of Jesse James' mother, "Mamaw" (1988); Daniel Woodrell's 1987 "Woe to Live On" (which Ang Lee made into the film "Ride With the Devil"); and David Thomsons witty and original "Silver Light," which straddles the lines between western fiction, film and history by mingling the destinies of a real-life and movie frontiersman and which was wrongly dismissed by some critics after its 1990 publication -- including, I must now admit, myself.

Of course, Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove" belongs at the head of that class; the only problem is in deciding which of his other westerns belong there with it. McMurtry is the lone eagle (or lonesome dove?) of American letters, unclassifiable even though much of his enormous reading public regards him as the leading exponent of the traditional western genre he has helped to subvert. He has mocked his own status -- he reportedly once wore a T-shirt with the legend "Minor Regional Novelist" emblazoned across the chest, but through his novels, screenplays and essays he has probably shaped more people's vision of the American West than any man since John Ford. McMurtrys West, though, is infinitely more expansive and inclusive than Ford's. One hesitates to call McMurtry's vision revisionist if only because his visions tend to feel more authentic than the visions he is supposed to be revising.

"Lonesome Dove," which won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize, is, maybe, the second best western ever written (more on this in a moment) as well as the basis for the hugely influential 1989 miniseries with Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall. But its unrelenting non-romantic vision turns most of the comforting clichés of the western on their heads. In "Lonesome Dove," its prequel "Comanche Moon" (1997), and sequel "Streets of Laredo" (1993), "Anything for Billy" (1988), "Buffalo Girls" (1990) and, most recently, "Telegraph Days," about a womans rise from telegraph operator in a small Southwestern town to Hollywood scriptwriter, McMurtry has achieved the amazing feat of demythicizing the Old West while presenting a version of it that is more enthralling than the original. Despite McMurtry's enormous success in film and television, this alchemy has, for the last 30-odd years, generally eluded Hollywood.

As for that best western: The lodestone for the modern western novel, by consensus, is Thomas Berger's "Little Big Man," acknowledged by many critics, Pauline Kael among them, as a major novel in any genre. Its protagonist and narrator, the 111-year old Jack Crabb, tells his life story to Ralph Fielding Snell, "a man of letters," who concludes that Crabb "was either the most neglected hero in the history of this country or a liar of insane proportions." There is plenty of ammunition for either conclusion: Having been kidnapped by Indians as a boy (he says) and spending his entire life moving back and forth between the two cultures, Jack meets nearly every famous character of the Old West, from Wyatt Earp to Wild Bill Hickok (whose murder in Deadwood Jack witnesses) to Sitting Bull and Gen. Custer. In the end, Jack becomes the only survivor of the battle of the "Little Big Horn." He makes no apologies for the incredulity of his tale: If you don't believe him "you can go to hell."

The book's appeal traces to two main currents: one, it's a tall tale in the great American tradition of Mark Twain, and, second, it's hip, modern and funny and anticipates appreciation and understanding of a vanished Indian culture by decades -- I know of no other novel by a white man that has such a favorable reputation among Indian intellectuals from Vine Deloria Jr. to Sherman Alexie. Unlike nearly every other white character in fiction or film, Jack never tries to judge Indians or explain them: "Indians simply never understood whites, and vice versa," he concludes. Sometimes his white chauvinism pops through. After arguing with one of his Indian relatives on the greatness of the Human Beings (as the Cheyenne refer to themselves), Jack looses his temper: "Whenever I ran into their arrogance it served only to remind me I was basically white. The greatest folk on earth! Christ, they wouldn't had them iron knives if Columbus hadnt hit these shores. And who brought them the pony in the first place?" Compared to the soggy piety of most white writers' accounts of native cultures, Crabb's crusty skepticism must strike most American Indians as refreshing.

Dismissively reviewed by the New York Times and ignored by most others upon publication, "Little Big Man" has metamorphosed into a classic, largely due to word of mouth, reputation among such luminaries as Henry Miller and, most notably, Ralph Ellison, who championed it to other National Book Award judges. (They said no; westerns need not apply.) It was reportedly one of Janis Joplins favorite books. John Cheever told Berger that on his visit to the USSR he noticed, "Everyone at the University of Moscow was reading 'Little Big Man' in the seventies and eighties." Marlon Brando was the first to want to make a film from it, but couldn't get the backing following the disaster of "Mutiny on the Bounty." Arthur Penn eventually brought it to the screen in 1970, but as a Vietnam-era allegory that gives off just a faint echo of the novel's resonance. The novel, reissued last year by Delta, is timeless, as is the 1999 sequel, "The Return of Little Big Man," which expands Jack's adventures to include the gunfight at the O.K. Corral and the Wounded Knee massacre. Sadly, "The Return of Little Big Man" is currently out of print, though easily available from online booksellers. An energetic filmmaker looking for a fresh new subject for an epic western could do a lot worse than giving both books the screen treatment they deserve.

Ultimately, though, as Larry McMurtry observed some time ago in his essay "Cowboys, Movies, Myths, & Cadillacs": "The Western is not a responsible genre. Within the last 25-years, the writers of the West have done more with the mythic materials than the filmmakers have done, though unfortunately the work of most Western writers reaches only a limited audience and has only a limited impact. The film, if only because of its distribution and the power it achieves through pure repetition, continues to carry the myth to the mass audience."

As McMurtry's and Diana Ossana's script for "Brokeback Mountain" has helped to prove, there is no longer "the myth" to be distributed but a vast prairie full of myths. There are so many classic stories of the western frontier that haven't begun to be told yet, from the legendary black cowboy and bulldogger, Bill Pickett; to the California gold rush bandit Joaquin Murrietta, whose life and death were the subject of a book-length poem by no less a poet than Pablo Neruda; to Lottie Dano, the female Doc Holliday who lost her aristocratic Southern past and survived as a career gambler in the roughest mining and cattle towns of the West. Perhaps some daring and shameless filmmaker will even try to film the fabled gay porno novel from the 1960s, "Song of the Loon," about the ultimate forbidden love -- gay cowboy and gay Indian -- thus shattering the racial and sexual barriers of two great mythologies. (I even have a title they can use: "Brokeback Arrow".) The sky is the limit, and that western sky is awful big.

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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