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Twilight Cowboys

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Riders of the Purple SagePurple Sage 1
By Zane Grey
Penguin, 1990

Valdez is Coming
By Elmore Leonard
HarperCollins, 1970

Lonesome Dove
By Larry McMurtry
Simon & Schuster, 2005

What makes a genre die? For more than half a century, the Western was a staple of American fiction, providing a ubiquitous presence in film, television, and fiction of every variety. Magazines with titles like Western Story, Wild West Weekly, Cowboy Stories, Gunsmoke, and 2-Gun Western supplied a steady stream of highly dependable (if not always highly original) short fiction, while writers from Zane Grey, to Owen Wister, to Oakley Hall became household names with their stories about quick-shooting cowboys and taciturn outlaws.

And then, quite suddenly, it all came to an end. Seemingly overnight, the the cowboy novel moved from a national touchstone to an embarrassing relic of a bygone era. There were — and are — holdouts, to be sure: deconstructionist neo-Westerns from the likes of Cormac McCarthy, or periodic Hollywood dabblings in remakes of True Grit or 3:10 to Yuma. But these revivals always carry the whiff of a Renaissance Faire, or a costume-dress folk dance performed for tourists: they intrigue not because they are a vital, living art form, but because they evoke the memory of a cultural form that has long since passed away.

What brought about the twilight of the cowboy story? How did a genre that once spoke so forcefully, and seemingly so eternally, to something in the American spirit abruptly lose its voice? Or, to put it another way: what was it that the Western once said to us, and why did we stop listening?

****

Purple Sage 2It would be foolhardy, in the space of one essay, to attempt a complete survey of the imposingly vast landscape of Western fiction. A few representative samples, from the genre’s birth to the years after its death, will have to suffice. We may as well begin at the beginning. Published in 1912, Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage is (along with Owen Wister’s similarly venerable novel The Virginian) as close as the Western novel comes to an ur-text. Here we find, in early but vigorous form, the elements that will recur in shifting permutations throughout the next fifty years of genre: the silent, dangerous hero dressed in black; the innocent but resilient women who grows to love him; the long, loving, sometimes tedious evocations of the Western landscape itself. All are hereat the moment of the genre’s first maturity.

Maturity being, in this case, a bit of a descriptive stretch. The primary plot of Riders of the Purple Sage concerns Jane Withersteen, a hardy young woman living on her late father’s ranch on the 1870’s Utah frontier. Jane has lately run afoul of her Mormon neighbors because of her friendship with Bern Venters, a strapping Gentile cowboy who tends to Jane’s herd. The opening chapter drops us head-first into a tense confrontation between Jane, Venters, and their Mormon accusers, led by Jane’s thwarted suitor Elder Tull. The dialogue wastes no time in introducing us to Grey’s inimitably purple prose — not to mention his decidedly unreconstructed opinions of the Mormon church:

Tull always blunted her spirit, and she grew conscious that she had feigned a boldness which she did not possess. He loomed up now in different guise, not as a jealous suitor, but embodying the mysterious despotism she had known from childhood–the power
of her creed.

“Venters, will you take your whipping here or would you rather go out in the sage?” asked Tull. He smiled a flinty smile that was more than inhuman, yet seemed to give out of its dark aloofness a gleam of righteousness.

“I’ll take it here–if I must,” said Venters. “But by God! –Tull you’d better kill me outright. That’ll be a dear whipping for you and your praying Mormons. You’ll make me another Lassiter!”

Who is this mysterious Lassiter? Quite literally on queue, a rider in black arrives on the scene, ready to defend the innocent and deal violent justice to the wicked:

“Listen! He stays.”

Absolute certainty, beyond any shadow of doubt, breathed in the rider’s low voice.

“Who are you? We are seven here.”

The rider dropped his sombrero and made a rapid movement, singular in that it left him somewhat crouched, arms bent and stiff, with the big black gun-sheaths swung round to the fore.

“LASSITER!”

It was Venters’s wondering, thrilling cry that bridged the fateful connection between the rider’s singular position and the dreaded name.

This Lassiter, we soon learn, is a man on a mission. Years earlier, his sister (like him, a Gentile from Texas) was lured away from her family and forced into degradation at the hands of polygamous Mormon elders. Lassiter has made his journey to Utah for the singular purpose of shedding Mormon blood in vengeance for his sister’s stolen life. A simple enough premise, and of a piece with the blunt, pulpy melodrama of Gray’s style. The modern reader, acculturated by a half century of blood-soaked westerns from the likes of Sergio Leone and Quentin Tarantino, therefore knows just what to expect: Lassiter will track down the men who stole his sister, and exact his retribution (preferably in the form of a single, bullet-riddled showdown).

This is what we expect, but it is not what we receive. Jane Withersteen, we soon discover, has alternative plans for this novel. Filled with a Christian compassion even for her persecutors, and fearful of Lassiter’s violent plans, she contrives a scheme to hold him in check: she will feign love for him, even to the point of accepting marriage, in a quest to transform his bloodlust into lust of a more palatable sort. Thus, instead of a blood-soaked epic, we get, remarkably, a hundred pages of quiet, domestic, cowboy bliss. Caught up in the net of kind-hearted Jane and her adorable adopted daughter Fay, Lassiter foreswears his purpose and puts down his pistols. The resulting passages seem to have wandered in accidentally from the romance aisle:

“…You poor woman! Still blind! Still faithful! Listen. I know. Let that settle it. An’ I give up my purpose!”

“What is it–you say?”

“I give up my purpose. I’ve come to see an’ feel differently. I can’t help poor Milly. An’ I’ve outgrowed revenge. I’ve come to see I can be no judge for men. I can’t kill a man jest for hate. Hate ain’t the same with me since I loved you and little Fay.”

“Lassiter! You mean you won’t kill him?” Jane whispered.

“No.”

“For my sake?”

“I reckon. I can’t understand, but I’ll respect your feelin’s.”

“Because you–oh, because you love me? Eighteen years! You were that terrible Lassiter! And now–because you love me?”

“That’s it, Jane.”

Purple Sage 3It’s all an authorial feint, of course. Grey is setting us up for the real showdown in this novel: not between black hats and white hats, but between manly struggle and effeminate tranquility. Being a cowboy means rejecting the quiet lures of effete, Eastern civilization, and embracing the rough potency of the frontier. Only by picking up his guns and rejecting the quiet life of husbanding can Lassiter become the sort of man that Jane would truly, rather than connivingly, love. Herein lies the odd paradox of Zane Grey’s fiction: for his heroes, being a married head-of-household is tantamount to being a eunuch; only by becoming cowboys can they become blue-blooded men. (Not for nothing, we might notice, is the name Lassiter poised halfway between “lassitude” and “lasso.”)

The trouble here (as from Grey’s dialogue, which sounds as though it were copied verbatim from a small child playing with a toy six-shooter) is that the author’s heart is never really in it. Whatever Grey might want to argue about the virtues of manly violence, his action scenes are inevitably brief, dutiful, and unconvincing: when Lassiter finally does gun down the man who shamed his sister, the confrontation is (incredibly) made to happen off-stage, and only reported secondhand to the reader and Jane alike. By contrast, when Grey gets to write about quiet moments between men and women in love, his prose seems to take on new life.

This is nowhere more true than during the book’s long, digressive subplot, during which Venters (having stumbled on a gang of rustlers while tracking Jane’s stolen cattle) wounds one of their riders, only to learn to his amazement that his erstwhile enemy is actually a kidnapped young woman named Bess. Having decided to rescue his victim-cum-love-interest, and looking for a place to hide while she recovers, Venters makes an even more astonishing discovery: a lush, untouched, valley paradise hidden deep within a rugged canyon. The long passages in which Venters and the recuperating Bess domesticate the newly-dubbed Surprise Valley are some of the most heartfelt and fervent of the entire novel:

To rekindle the spark that had nearly flickered out, to nourish the little life and vitality that remained in her, was Venters’s problem. But he had little resource other than the meat of the rabbits and quail; and from these he made broths and soups as best he could, and fed her with a spoon. It came to him that the human body, like the human soul, was a strange thing and capable of recovering from terrible shocks. For almost immediately she showed faint signs of gathering strength. There was one more waiting day, in which he doubted, and spent long hours by her side as she slept, and watched the gentle swell of her breast rise and fall in breathing, and the wind stir the tangled chestnut curls. On the next day he knew that she would live.

For most of the middle third of the novel, Venters and Bess act out their lengthy subplot in jarring discontinuity from the main story. But this is no mere authorial distraction: Surprise Valley is Grey’s answer to the puzzle of cowboy manhood. At the close of the story, Jane, Lassiter, and little Fay, pursued by enemies, retreat into Surprise Valley, which they seal off by way of a conveniently-sized boulder (Grey dubs it “Balancing Rock”, but considering its loomingly obvious presence throughout the novel, it may as well be called “Chekhov’s Stone.”) Here, hidden from the outside world, they can at last live as true men and women ought to: united in the matrimonial bliss that Gray so clearly appreciates, yet free from the decadent and emasculating influences of civilized society. Only by taming a wilderness can a cowboy put down his pistol yet still be a man. The lady and the lasso have made their peace at last.

******

Some writers struggle to understand and rationalize the violence of the Old West. Others just embrace it with a visible relish. Elmore Leonard was a proud exemplar of the latter camp. Of the handful of golden-age Western writers who could reasonably described as “great,” Leonard may have been the most obedient to the genre’s classical conventions and clichés. In his writing, one finds no attempt (as in the contemporaneous novels of Charles Portis or Glendon Swarthout) to subvert, undermine, or otherwise break free of the reader’s expectations. As a rule, Leonard’s heroes are tight-lipped and quick-drawing; his villains are mercenary and covetous; his backgrounds are dry, rocky, and sprinkled with Apaches.

Valdez is Coming 1His stories are also marked by the ubiquitous presence of violence: usually enacted, sometimes prevented, but always an inescapable fact of life. In “Three-Ten to Yuma,” a taut, tense short story from 1953, a deputy sheriff attempts to escort a dangerous convict to a train connection without falling prey to an ambush. For a dozen pages, Leonard persistently builds the suspense almost to its breaking point, until, paragraphs from the end, the story finally releases in a paroxysm of gunplay. In 1956’s “Moment of Vengeance,” on the other hand, the withholding of release becomes the story: here, the hero is very nearly murdered by his lady-love’s husband, only to thwart the attempt by delaying their confrontation until “the bitterness between them…had worn itself to nothing.” But the great apotheosis of Leonard’s Western came late in his time with the genre: 1971’s blood-spattered masterpiece Valdez is Coming.

Leonard’s novella is an expanded version of an older short story, “Only Good Ones,” from 1961. In that story, Bob Valdez, a mild-mannered town constable, is called to intervene in a hostage situation involving a Negro man holed up in a cabin with his Lipan Apache wife. As the situation plays out, Valdez realizes that the man is innocent of the crime of which he’s been accused. But things get out of hand: the man’s accuser, a vile, rich landowner named Tanner, prompts his men to open fire, and Valdez winds up killing the guiltless man and leaving his wife a pregnant widow.

Here, the original story ends. But Valdez is Coming takes this simple, one-act tragedy, and spins it out into the stuff of epic. Troubled by his role in the man’s death, and worried for the fate of his widow, Valdez becomes fixed on the notion that some small restitution is in order:

“I don’t know how much you pay a woman for killing her husband, but we’ll think of something, all right? There were many men there; I don’t know them all. But the ones I do know I go to and ask them to give me something for you. A hundred dollars. No, five hundred dollars we get and give it to you so you can do what you want with it. Have your baby and go home, wherever your home is, or stay here. Buy some, I don’t know, somthing to grow, and a cow and maybe some goats, uh?”

Valdez is Coming 2Twice Valdez goes to Tanner with his humble plea, and twice he is rejected, humiliated, and brutally abused by the rich man’s henchmen. If the clever reader begins to detect a certain gospel-tinged metaphor in these proceedings, Leonard makes sure we get the point: on his second encounter, Valdez is tied to a literal wooden cross, forced to carry his burden into the scorching wilderness, and abandoned to his fate.

But Leonard has evoked Christ only to reject him: the unarmed prophet has no place in this tale. In the wake of this experience, Valdez undergoes a transformation into a radically different sort of man — one capable of embarking on a protracted, merciless crusade until his demands are met. Leonard is concerned here with the ruthlessness hibernating within every human character, and his meditations on the subject bring out a Chandleresque flair for hard-boiled philosophy. Just listen to the way his dryly factual narration slowly builds toward the revelation of Bob Valdez’s hidden character:

A man can be in two different places and he will be two different men. Maybe if you think of more places he will be more men, but two is enough for now. This is Bob Valdez washing his hands in the creek and resting in the willows after digging the hole and lowering Orlando Rincon [his accidental victim] into it and covering him with dirt and stones, resting and watching the Lipan Apache woman who sat in silence by the grave of the man whose child she would have in a month.

This is one Bob Valdez…

Another Bob Valdez inside the Bob Valdez in the willows that evening had worked for the Army at one time and had been a contract guide when General Crook chased Geronimo down into the Madres. He was a tracker out of Whipple Barracks first, then out of Fort Thomas, then in charge of the Apache police at Whiteriver. He would sit at night eating with them and talking with them as he learned the Chiricahua dialect. He would keep up with them all day and shoot his Springfield carbine one hell of a lot better than any of them could shoot. He had taken scalps but never showed them to anyone and had thrown them away by the time Geronimo was in Oklahoma and he had gone to work for the stage company, Hatch and Hodges, to live as a civilized man…and this was the Bob Valdez that Mr. Beaudry and Mr. Malson and the others knew. They had never met the first Bob Valdez.

Valdez is Coming 3Valdez decides to kidnap Tanner’s lover, a woman named Gay Erin (she seems only ambivalently troubled by the turn of events), and to forcefully repel all of Tanner’s attempts to retrieve her until Valdez’s demands are met. The remainder of the novel is a series of bloody confrontations and growing body counts, as both sides find themselves unwilling, and increasingly unable, to back down. Valdez is Coming is a kind of Western Iliad; a story of seemingly endless battle, deeply concerned with the the reasons, methods, and consequences of men’s violence toward one another. And like the author of that poem, Leonard can describe acts of brutality with a voice that is at once clinically detached and viscerally alive to the moment’s excitement:

Valdez reached the woman and pushed her over. He turned, moving crouched through the brittle-bush, at the edge of it now, and stepping out of it as the first rider came at him from thirty yards away, drawing his revolver as he saw Valdez and the barrels of the Remington, then seeing nothing as the ten-bore charge rocked him from the saddle. The second rider was down the arroyo coming fast, low in the saddle and spurring his horse, his handgun already drawn, firing it off from the side of his horse. Valdez raised his walker. He thumbed the hammer and fired and thumbed and fired and saw the horse buckle and roll, the rider stiff, with his arms outstretched in the air for a split moment, and Valdez shot him twice before he hit the ground. The horse was on its side, pawing with its forelegs, trying to rise. Valdez looked down the arroyo, waiting, then stepped to the horse and shot it through the head. He walked over the man, whose death’s head face looked up at him with sunken mouth and open eyes.

“I hope you’re one of them Diego wanted,” Valdez said. He turned toward the yellow brittle-bush, loading the Remington.

In a sense, Leonard (again, like Homer) is trying to have it both ways here, both lamenting and reveling in the bloodshed. But the theme of which this poet sings is the almost cosmic inevitability of violence: Valdez and Tanner fight it out because they must fight it out; because any other decision on the part of either man would be contrary to their own natures and perhaps to nature itself.

The peaceful, feminine element so vital to Zane Grey has no home here. The Apache woman whose welfare had initially provoked the conflict becomes a source of increasing irony: as the story goes out, Valdez finds that he remembers and cares about the woman less and less, eventually failing even to picture her face. And while I hesitate to reveal key plot twists, even in a novel more than four decades old, suffice it to say that a late-story revelation about Gay Erin calls into question the genre’s most basic premises of womanly innocence.

What is left is simply the thrilling, terrible, necessary reality of gore. In the end, when the dust has cleared, the surviving players pause to make sense of what has just taken place. None of them can summon even a partial rationale; only an awareness that these things have happened and could not be controlled. “You get one time, mister, to prove who you are,” Valdez tells Tanner. But who Valdez is, who we all are, turns out to be startlingly empty at the core.

*****

Leonard’s novel was written just at the end of what we now remember as the golden age of the Western genre, at a time when the author himself had already migrated to more fresh and vibrant varieties of potboiler. Since then, time has passed, John Wayne has died, and the image of a ranch-dwelling man on horseback has been requisitioned by a series of decreasingly plausible American presidents. Yet the Western itself has never quite gone extinct. It lives on in the form of the neo-Western, the backward-looking descendant of the original species, distinguished above all by its self-awareness as a genre out of time. That is to say, the neo-Western knows that the Western is a dead genre, and it knows that we know it, too. And so it must somehow attempt to answer (implicitly or explicitly, through serious reflection or through mocking parody) the question of how this came to be.

Lonesome Dove 1The neo-Western has produced a few great novels and several good ones, but only one true cultural phenomenon. Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, first published in 1985, has since given birth to a sequel, two prequels, four authorized television miniseries, and two separate, rogue TV series produced without McMurtry’s involvement. Yet the novel itself remains that rarest of literary commodities: a franchise property that is also a masterpiece.

If Valdez is Coming is the Iliad of Westerns, Lonesome Dove is the obvious candidate for its Odyssey. Our Odysseus taking the form here of two men, Woodrow F. Call and Augustus “Gus” McCrae, aging ranchers and former Texas Rangers who (for reasons not quite clear to either man) decide to embark on a massive and improbable venture: to round up their herds, hire a set of cowhands, and set off on a 1,000-mile trek to the Montana frontier. This journey, which seems simultaneously imbued with significance and devoid of it, becomes the trunk around which McMurtry expands a thousand branches of plot. The cast of characters multiplies; plots meander, intersect, and diverge again; and, in the end, a vast panorama is assembled that seems to take in the whole, broad canvas of Western life, from cowboys and outlaws, to buffalo skinners and faithless wives.

It is easy, on a first reading of Lonesome Dove, to be overtaken by the grand, adventurous spectacle of the thing. McMurtry’s most memorable passages are those that most resemble the classic Westerns of yore, vividly evoking the untamed and unpredictable wildness of the open plains. An early description of a sand and thunder storm, as experienced by the young cowboy Newt, does justice to the novel’s virtuosic ability at scene-setting:

The wind had become fitful, gusting and then dying, and instead of beating steadily at his back, the sand was fitful too, swirling around him one moment and gone the next. In the flashes of lightning he could see that the sky was clearing high to the east, but a wall of clouds loomed to the west, the lightning darting underneath them.

Almost before the last of the sand had stung his eyes, it seemed, the rain began, pelting down in big scattered drops that felt good after all the grit. But the drops got thicker and less scattered and soon the rain fell in sheets, blown this way and that at first by the fitful wind. Then the world simply turned to water. In a bright flash of lightning Newt saw a wet, frightened coyote run across a few feet in front of [his horse] Mouse. After that he saw nothing. The water beat down more heavily even than the wind and the sand: it pounded him and ran in streams off his hat brim. Once again he gave up and simply sat and let Mouse do what he wanted. As far as he knew, he was completely lost…

But always the focus of the novel returns to the dogged, loyal friendship between Gus and Woodrow, as true a depiction of longtime male friendship as literature has ever created. These are men who have grown to be institutions in one another’s lives, and whose conversations now consist more of meaningful silences than spoken words. It is Lonesome Dove 2probably going too far to cast (as critics inevitably have) a homoerotic light on this relationship. It is enough to see that these two men have taken on a deep, unconscious bond that they can never quite recognize as love.

I do not mean to paint Lonesome Dove in sentimental shades. Just as Odysseus’s journey led toward the underworld, so too does this story grow steadily darker as the first cowhands become casualties to the to wilderness, and as the very sanity of the scheme is called ever more into question. It is clear, we come to see, that Woodrow and Gus are trying to recapture one last, glorious revival of their halcyon days, when they and the West were young. But were those days so glorious to begin with? McMurtry begins to make us wonder. In one scene, midway through the book, Woodrow and Gus stop into a bar, but feel disrespected by the young bartender, who is unimpressed by the old-timers’ reputations. What follows is a jarring and unexpected reminder of Western realities:

Augustus pitched a ten-dollar gold piece on the bar and as the young man took it, suddenly reached out, grabbed his head and smashed his face into the bar, before the young man could even react. Then he quickly drew his big Colt, and when the bartender raised his head, his broken nose gushing blood onto his white shirtfront, he found himself looking right into the barrel of a very big gun.

“Besides the liquor, I think we’ll require a little respect,” he said. “I’m Captain McCrae and this is Captain Call. If you care to turn around, you can see our pictures when we were younger. Among the things we don’t put up with is dawdling service. I’m surprised Willie would hire a surly young idler like you.”

We have grown, until now, to to see Woodrow and Gus as fundamentally lovable characters: rough and tumble, to be sure, but cowboy heroes at heart. The shock of the scene comes from the sudden realization that we have, perhaps, been fooling ourselves all along: is the heroism of these cowboys just another word for licensed bullying and cruelty? If so, then Lonesome Dove is a Western that casts doubt on the very idea of Westerns. It suggests that the implicit values of personal honor and accepted violence on which the genre was built are not ultimately worthy of our nostalgic gaze.

The darkness on display here begins at the fringes of McMurtry’s story, but spreads gradually toward the center, until it has come to envelope the entirety of the novel’s world. I call Lonesome Dove a masterpiece, but it is a flawed masterpiece, and its imperfection comes in exactly this form: McMurtry ultimately cannot disguise the loathing he feels for his heroes and villains alike. Character after character is exposed as venal, corrupt, or deceptive at their core. One character, an old companion of Call and McCrae’s, finds himself tempted step by step into the world of outlawry, until (to his own surprise) he becomes a fugitive killer of innocent families. Another character, through his own careless neglect, permits his three traveling companions to be murdered in the night. The character of Blue Duck, a single-mindedly homicidal monster who has eluded Gus and Woodrow’s grasp throughout their careers, seems to stand in for the entire tableau. At one point, he sardonically comments on Call’s many attempts to bring him in:

“I raped women and stole children and burned houses and shot men and run off horses and killed cattle and robbed who I pleased, all over your territory, ever since you been a law,” he said. “And you never even had a good look at me until today.”

Here is the true, lurking spirit of the Old West: terrifying and twisted, and always just out of sight.

Lonesome Dove 3If there is a sympathetic man among McMurtry’s cast, it is 17-year-old Newt Dobbs, youngest and most insecure of the cowboys, whose coming of age parallels the advance of the plot — our Telemachus, if you will. Indeed, Newt is the unacknowledged son of Woodrow McCall (a result of his one, brief flirtation with romantic normalcy), a fact of which nearly everyone is aware, but no one will openly discuss. Newt’s adventures swing from lighthearted and comic (as in his first encounter with a small-town prostitute, recounted at length) to gripping and emotional, but they, too, ultimately play out as tragedy. The more Newt understands and adjusts to the ways of his companions, the more clear it becomes that he will turn out no purer or more innocent than they, in the end. His persistent failure to achieve emotional connection to Woodrow is of a piece with this: love and acceptance are simply not elements in the world to which he has been born.

It is left to the women of this story to present some kind of model for a better and less brutal world. McMurtry turns out to share with Zane Grey an abiding interest in the feminine inclination toward peace and tranquility. But unlike Grey, he does not present this alternative merely to dispense with it. Rather, he offers it up as the only plausible escape from the nightmarish frontier that the men of this story have fashioned. We can see this alternative made manifest in characters like Lorena Wood, a kindhearted prostitute who dreams of escaping to a new life of happiness, despite the horrific violence she experiences on her journey. Above all, we see it manifest in Clara Allen, Gus’s lover from happier days, who has built a rough but civilized life for herself and her children on a small horse ranch in Nebraska. Clara’s ranch is an oasis of peace amidst the maelstrom of the frontier, where several of the novel’s characters eventually find refuge and some measure of harmony.

Clara is our story’s Penelope, but one with the wisdom and confidence to do the one thing that faithful wife never could: refuse to take back her wandering and faithless man. Clara, alone among McMurtry’s characters, can see the misery these men bring on themselves and each other, and she has the strength and grace to take no further part in it. Near the end of the novel, she shares a quiet moment with Augustus, who is passing through on his way to Montana:

“I like your girl [Lorena],” she said. “What I don’t like is that you spent all these years with Woodrow Call. I detest that man and it rankles that he got so much of you and I got so little. I think I had the better claim.”

Augustus was taken aback. The anger in her was in her eyes again, this time directed at him.

“Where have you been for the last fifteen years?” She asked.

“Lonesome Dove, mostly,” he said. “I wrote you three letters.”

“I got them,” she said. “And what did you accomplish in all that time?”

“Drank a lot of whiskey,” Augustus said.

Clara nodded and went back to packing the picnic basket. “If that was all you accomplished you could have done it in Ogallala and been a friend to me,” she said. “I lost three boys, Gus. I needed a friend.”

“You ought to wrote me that, then,” he said. “I didn’t know.”

Clara’s mouth tightened. “I hope I meet a man sometime in my life who can figure such things out,” she said. “I wrote you but I tore up the letters. I figured if you didn’t come of your own accord you wouldn’t be no good to me anyway.”

Clara can recognize what none of these other men or women can: that the mythic lifestyle of the West that seems so glamorous on its surface — the independence, the gunslinging, the blithe disregard for civilized life — are, in the end, forces of self-destruction. The West can only survive by devouring itself. And faced with this reality, she makes the only rational choice available to her: she simply turns her back on it.

And maybe that’s what we all did, too, when it comes to the Western novel: maybe we all just decided to turn our backs. And maybe the nature of the genre made that decision inevitable. How much violence could we take, after all — how much righteous bloodshed, and cold-eyed revenge, and face-saving fistfights — before it all became too much to bear? Look at it that way, and the Western was bound to start dying from the moment it was born. Every cowboy was riding into the twilight right from the beginning.

____
Zach Rabiroff is an Editor at Open Letters Monthly. He lives in Brooklyn and works for a consulting firm during his daytime hours.

4 Comments »

  • Perhaps the reading public has lost its taste for the “operatic” West, but there ought to be room for historic novels set in the 19th century. “Lonesome Dove” comes the closest of these three.

    I always felt that the “purple sage” genre had as much to do with the real old West as the opera “Carmen” has to do withthe 19th-century Spanish cigarette industry.

    • Faith Clendenen says:

      The basic story line of Lonesome Dove is Charlie Goodnight’s opening up of Wyoming for cattle ranching. He and Oliver Loving drove cattle up what came to be known as the Goodnight Trail, and after Loving died, Goodnight carried his body back to Texas from New Mexico. So much of the story of Lonesome Dove is a slightly altered version of a true story. Lonesome Dove is one of my favorite books. I would be reading along and look up and have to reorient myself out of 1880’s Texas and back to 1990’s California because writing was so evocative of time and place.

  • Faith Clendenen says:

    The Virginian is an absolutely classic and well written book, Owen Wister being a great friend of Teddy Roosevelt. It won’t support the thesis of ultimate violence being the hallmark of Westerns which may be why it wasn’t included in this rather distorted analysis (in my view) of Western novels. Certainly there are many Westerns where the protagonists have extreme streaks of violent behavior, but I don’t think that is the reason Westerns are no longer popular. More likely it is that many Westerns are basically romantic with cowboys playing the role of chivalrous knights, and that is something our debased age scorns, since many of our contemporaries hold nothing in higher esteem than their own needs and pleasures. Noble characters who are self-sacrificial are considered to be deluded chumps at best. Consequently there is no sense that one should make any effort to improve oneself morally, ethically or spiritually if it means forgoing immediate gratification. Self-control and self-discipline are now ridiculed as “inauthentic.”

  • P.J. Giordano says:

    As described in the article, I see many of the same themes in a James Lee Burke novel. Perhaps the Western hasn’t departed altogether, but jumped to another genre as in disguise.
    Burke’s recent novels now include Montana and Texas characters. The two former NOLA cops, Dave and Clete are very much similar to Gus and Woodrow.
    (With events in Dallas this week, I did wondered how they would handle that situation, and the cop hate festering in the country. Use their .45s or an oyster Po’boy with a bottle of Jack?)

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