In Defense of the Classic Western

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I
grew up on Westerns. I would sit on Saturday mornings in a darkened
theater, along with several hundred other boys — we did not recognize
the existence of girls on Saturday mornings — to root for guys
in white hats or black hats, but only if the guys wearing black
hats were wearing nothing except black, Lash Larue being the archetype,
with Buster Crabbe’s Billy the Kid close behind.

My
father’s generation had done the same. By his day, the Westerns
were an established genre. The first major movie was The
Great Train Robbery
(1903), the first narrative film. It
was based loosely on Butch Cassidy’s Hole in the Wall Gang.

This
fascination with Westerns did not begin with the movies. In 1860,
the publishing firm of Beadle & Adams began issuing what later became
known as dime novels. These were stories of the American revolution,
the early frontier, crime fighting, and the wild west. They were
immensely popular for the remainder of the nineteenth century. They
were aimed at adults at first, but found child readers (boys) after
1870.

In
a brief introduction to dime novels, the author writes: “Dime novel authors
had strict guidelines to follow — stories had to be exciting, entertaining,
and moral.” As mass literature of the Victorian era in the United
States, these novels, while of no great literary value, reflect
the ethics of the era.

A
popular author after 1870 was Ned Buntline (E. C. Z. Judson). Buntline
introduced easterners to a real-life scout, William F. “Buffalo
Bill” Cody. He suggested to Cody in 1872 that they jointly produce
a traveling stage play about the Wild West, which Buntline wrote
in four hours. The show was successful. Cody later went out on his
own, creating the cowboys and Indians road show that became world
famous.

The
literature of the wild west did not flourish in upper-class Victorian
circles. New York and Boston social scions would not have wanted
to be found reading Ned Buntline’s novels. But the literature of
the Wild West flourished among the common people, who were price-sensitive.
A dime novel was at the high end of their budgets. There were nickel
novels, too.

College
classes in nineteenth-century American literature do not include
even one dime novel. University-trained Scholars who wax eloquent
about “literature” rarely tell about the actual market for the books
selectively defined as literature. Show me the sales figures before
you tell me what literature was popular. The first book published
by Beadle and Adams sold 300,000 copies.

The
Western dime novel was fantasy literature, and this never changed.
It had a huge market in the late nineteenth century. Lower-class
adults and children of the middle class with a dime to spend on
a book dreamed of individual courage. The Western novel provided
a geographical setting and good reasons for men to display such
courage. Far, far away is where we live our youthful fantasies of
courage and honor, for life-risking courage and honor do not seem
to flourish among shopkeepers’ sons. We later trade courage and
honor for peace and prosperity. But then, from time to time, our
peace is threatened. Then the market for courage and honor increases,
overnight.

Because
middle-class women had leisure in the nineteenth century, they had
time to read. Thus, there was a large market for women’s novels
written by women. Novels from the beginning were women’s literature,
from Fielding to Jane Austin. The dudes who today control English
departments are our era’s version of the schoolmarms who tried to
get farm boys to delight in the poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson. I
side with the schoolboys.

The
Western remained popular in American culture during the first two-thirds
of the twentieth century, but it had become a mainstay of popular
culture no later than 1875. It was a reflection of Victorian American
males’ dreams of personal, individual glory in a world geographically
safely distant from the cities, a world that did not survive the
blizzard of 1888, which wiped out whatever remained of the West’s
non-corporate cattle empire.

Cool,
Clear Water

The
Western as we know it tells the story of a specific era, 1865 to
1888, in a geographically limited region: the cattle country of
the Western plains. The classic Western took place west of Edgewood,
Texas, 55 miles east of Dallas. East of Edgewood, the pine trees
begin and stretch to the Atlantic. There are few trees in a classic
Western movie, except in the high country of Colorado.

In
a classic Western, trees have only two important functions: to attract
lightening during a cattle drive and to string up innocent men,
who will be avenged.

The
classic American West stretched west from Dallas to California and
north to Montana. It took in Oklahoma and Kansas, but not the Dakotas
or Iowa. The West was cattle country, not sodbuster country. The
soddies were where poor farmers lived, and when they got enough
money, their wives insisted that the family move into poorly insulated
wood frame houses.

The
West was where the rain wasn’t. It was where water rights were crucial
to establishing a business. It was the place where small wars erupted
over unowned (Federal government-owned) open range and free-flowing
streams. But these wars were not fought by civil governments. They
were fought by entrepreneurs who had difficulty establishing and
enforcing property rights.

Once
property rights were established and enforced predictably by the
courts, the Western died. The Western was about the Victorian era’s
desire to establish civilization in a land without the central economic
institution of the Victorian bourgeois era: enforceable private
property.

The
gunslinger existed as a literary phenomenon only where predictable
law had not been fully established. The wild west was wild because
private property grew out of the barrel of a gun — a fast gun.

Civilization
and the Law

The
fact of the matter was that in the midst of the wild west was civilization.
A town had its cattlemen’s district, where saloons and brothels
flourished. Eastern seaboard towns had similar districts that catered
to sailors. Ned Buntline had begun his adult life as a teenage cabin
boy. This should not surprise us.

The
cattlemen knew their territory; they did not stray north of some
street that marked the edge of enterprises that catered to their
demands. Sometimes, the two societies mixed for special occasions.
In Tombstone in Wyatt Earp’s brief era (1880—81), a young seminarian
got Earp to donate some card-playing money to build an Episcopal
church. Earp told the other players to put some money into the hat.
They did. The young man’s name was Endicott Peabody. Later in his
career, he headed Groton and officiated at the marriage of Franklin
and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Always
in the history of the American West, there has been a tension. Was
the pioneer escaping from civilization, or was he bringing it? Was
Daniel Boone a lone wolf in revolt against civilization or a property
developer? The case for either role can be made. Robert Hine taught
me Western history back in 1963. Hine returned to this seeming antinomy
repeatedly. The same theme can be found in the histories on colonial
America. Was America a self-consciously new society, as the Puritans
insisted, or an extension of European Protestant culture, as the
Episcopalians insisted?

The
Victorians recognized that, in the absence of predictable law, it
takes individual courage to defend what is right. It takes honor.
It takes a moral code. The code of the West was a moral code in
Victorian Western literature and also in twentieth-century books
and movies until the late 1960s.

When
Representation Is Disputed

Who
guards the guardians? This theme is as old as the Western literary
tradition. When the guardians become tyrants, a good man is hard
to find. But he is always there. He comes to the aid of the poorly
represented citizenry. Read the Book of Judges if you want an introduction
to this literary tradition. Read the story of King Eglon and Ehud,
the left-handed judge with the sword strapped to his right leg.
This is also the story of a lazy bureaucrat — never actually mentioned
— who decided to save time by checking for concealed weapons by
patting down only left legs, since most men are right-handed (Judges
3).

The
good gunfighter in a popular Western movie may be outside the civil
law structure or part of it. The bad gunfighter may also be inside
the civil law structure or outside it. In Silverado (1985),
the sheriff of Silverado is a thief and a robber, a former outlaw,
who is hired by a rich cattlemen to enforce the cattleman’s interests.
He is finally killed in a gunfight with a former member of his gang,
who sides with the sodbusters. There is nothing new here. What is
new is that both men’s headquarters is the same local saloon. “I
love the smell of a saloon,” the hero says. In this sense, this
was a 1985 Western.

In
every classic Western, the background is moral. The foreground is
a battlefield: the loss of authority of the righteous and the replacement
of justice with power. The question is: How will power be broken
and replaced with lawful authority?

The
greatest Western is Shane
(1953). Why is it the greatest? Because the constant theme is the
life of the common farmer, seeking to live his life peacefully,
confronted with a well-armed cattleman. The cattleman got there
first. What the movie never says is this: the land was owned by
the Federal government. There was a conflict because there were
no property rights to land and water.

Who
had the right of ownership? The cattleman or the farmers? The nearest
marshal was a hundred miles away. Each side was represented by a
gunfighter: Shane vs. Wilson.

Shane
knew his era was over. So did farmer Joe Starrett’s wife. But little
Joe, the pre-teen, dreamed of the continuation of life with Shane,
the righteous hero who could shoot fast and straight. “Shane! Come
back!” is the call of pre-teen boys of every era, especially the
Victorian era. Heroism had a ready market in 1890. Read any of the
100+ boys’ novels written by G. A. Henty in the late nineteenth
century. (www.henty.com)

The
classic Western presents the representational showdown between good
and evil. Both sides represent order. The question is: Whose order?
This means: Whose authority? Whose law? Whose sanctions? Whose future?
These are what Calvinists call covenantal issues. They are
always settled by representatives: God vs. Satan, Eve vs. the serpent,
Abel vs. Cain, Moses vs. Pharaoh, David vs. Goliath, Elijah vs.
Ahab, Jesus vs. Israel’s leaders.

A
Man’s World

The
Western is opposed by little old ladies of both sexes. This is because
it is the story of men. Men represent women. This has been a theme
of the West ever since Moses wrote the Book of Genesis. Women seek
protection. Men provide it. The ultimate protection is physical,
having to do with rape. Conquering soldiers have raped women for
as long as they have conquered. This has to do with the exercise
of power, not the sex drive. Every army has had camp followers.
Sex is usually available at a price — the free market in action.
What conquering armies want is to display their power. Rape is a
traditional means.

You
do not get rid of pillagers by switching to Capital One.

The
bad guys in B-Westerns meet the dude at the stagecoach to have a
little fun. They shoot at his feet. “Dance, dude.” Sooner or later,
the good guy intervenes on the dude’s behalf. The good guy defends
the values of peace by means of the gun. But it is peace that he
defends. He recognizes that he lives in an anomalous era and that
civilization will reduce gunplay when it arrives and takes hold.
But, in the meantime, there are dudes to defend, maidens to defend,
families to defend.

As
a teenager, my favorite Western was The
Searchers
(1956). I saw it repeatedly. I still do. I even
read the book. The movie radically re-structured the book’s ending.
In the book, the hero is a vengeance-driven maniac who seeks not
only revenge but also to kill his kidnapped niece. She has had sex
with an Indian and therefore deserves killing, he thinks. He dies
appropriately. He swoops down on horseback from behind to scoop
up his niece in the cavalry raid. It isn’t his niece. It’s an Indian
woman. An Indian woman with a gun. One shot ends his self-appointed
vengeance project. Message: he who lives by the sword dies by the
sword.

John
Wayne’s character repents at the end — in actions, not words. He
has tried to kill her, and the man who accompanies him — her adopted
brother — intervenes. “No, you don’t, Ethan! No you don’t!” Then
an Indian shoots an arrow into Ethan’s shoulder. The two men hide
in the tall rocks. Somehow, they get away. The movie never shows
how. Finally, Wayne’s character changes. At the end, he scoops her
up and takes her home. The family is restored. The script writers
knew enough to re-write the ending for a pre-1965 American audience.

The
movie is about the clash of cultures: American vs. Indian. It is
about the inability of either side to impose order. The Indians
are raiders and thieves. The Army is distant. The rangers are not
numerous enough. Two men do the searching. Both they and the Indians
they pursue are outside the law.

At
the end, the cavalry finally shows up and is led into battle by
Wayne and his partner, followed by the local rangers, followed by
the army. The defining scene after the battle is where the captain
of the rangers is having his rear end swathed in some stinging solvent.
He is looking furiously at a young lieutenant. He had constantly
told the youth regarding his sword, “Boy, watch out for that knife!”

There
is no question that two lone men cannot administer justice. It takes
the rangers and the army. Two men had to do the years of tracking.
They cannot bring the conflict to a conclusion.

Warfare
Is Not Bourgeois (Except for the Swiss)

There
is no literature about the typical day of a shopkeeper, unless he
is a secret agent, a secret gang leader, or a super-hero on the
side. We do not go to movies about the day-to-day affairs of people
like us. Nobody on TV ever spends an evening doing what most people
do: watch TV. All popular literature is fantasy.

We
are bored with our lives. So, we read novels and watch movies about
people decidedly not like ourselves.

To
the extent that we identify with the hero, we can do so only by
pretending that our bourgeois lives can have a break. This is why
millions of men marched off to war joyously in 1914. Then their
lives became decidedly non-heroic. Robert Nisbet once said to a
class that there is no sociological literature on boredom. If I
had been faster on the uptake, I would have replied, “That’s because
it’s a really boring topic.” Of course, a boring topic has never
stopped academia, but it still would have been a good one-liner.

Yet
there is an exception: a fusion of two cultures. The Swiss are an
armed camp. Bankers take pride in their marksmanship. Yet no nation
is more bourgeois than Switzerland. Hitler was wise enough not to
invade. Napoleon wasn’t, but he wisely pulled out his troops after
the “conquest” of Switzerland. The Swiss recognize that bourgeois
values depend occasionally on non-bourgeois values: honor, courage,
and personal self-sacrifice rather than personal self-interest.
To the degree that a nation is ready to implement these non-bourgeois
values when invaded, it can spend most of its time — century after
century — in supremely bourgeois pursuits. A nation of clock makers
and bankers, when fully armed and trained, can produce lots of clocks
and balance sheets.

Meanwhile,
little old ladies of both sexes want gun control.

There
is nothing primitive about a Swiss officer. There was nothing primitive
about John Wayne’s characters, either. There was nothing primitive
about Hopalong Cassidy or Buster Crabbe’s Billy the Kid. Rarely
is there a Western hero who is illiterate. He may be on the cattle
trail with illiterates, but he probably has a Bible or a copy of
Blackstone’s Commentaries to teach any illiterate compatriot
who wants to learn how to read.

But
they are all men — Victorian men. Is there any feature of the Victorian
age that is more fundamental than this: A man taking risky action
to defend women? A man who was not willing to risk his life for
a woman was not considered a man. A man who fled all violence, unless
he was a Quaker or an Amish farmer, was not a man. The essence of
the Victorian mindset was this: bourgeois values of peace and justice
must sometimes be defended by force of arms — masculine arms.

In
an era — ours — in which women serve as equals in the
military, such an outlook is politically incorrect. The Western
has faded in popularity. Private Lynch has overcome Gary Cooper’s
Sergeant York and John Wayne’s Col. Yorke (Rio
Grande
).

Westerns
vs. Bankers

One
of the best things about B-Westerns is that bankers are so often
the bad guys. Those of us who understand fractional reserve banking
and central banking in general would be overjoyed to see Bruce Willis
in Diehard 4 go after the people at 33 Liberty Street, New York
City, rather than act on their behalf, as Willis did in Diehard
3
.

Bankers
are thieves again and again in Westerns. This theme began no later
than Andrew Jackson’s war against the Second Bank of the United
States. As Murray Rothbard points out in The
Panic of 1819
, Jackson learned early what fractional reserve
banks could do to destroy the economy. He opposed the system throughout
his career.

Some
banks get robbed in Westerns. The good guys go after the bank robbers.
The common people had their savings in those banks. But good guys
go after thieving bankers, too. The bankers always hire gunmen to
do their dirty work, along with lawyers.

B-Westerns
were wonderful. Bankers and lawyers were assumed to be guilty until
proven innocent. Every kid in the theater could instantly recognize
the #1 bad guy if a banker had a moustache. If a banker or a lawyer
was not a villain, then he was impotent — someone to be protected.

Conclusion

The
classic Western was a defense of individual heroism in a transitional
culture, where law and order are distant or corrupted by local special
interests. It was self-consciously a literature of men, written
for men and boys, about the life-and-death issues that only rarely
face a man in organized society, but which every man in every society
should be willing to face.

The
Western, like the war movie, faded after 1965. Some of the reasons
overlapped; others didn’t. Some of the reasons that overlapped were
these: a loss of moral certitude (white hats vs. black hats), a
cynicism regarding moral issues generally, a cynicism regarding
life-and-death issues (see Roe v. Wade, 1973), and a spreading
social pessimism.

Women’s
literature is only rarely about life-and-death issues outside the
home, and virtually never about the defense of right by force of
arms. It is about hearth and home, as it should be. Jane Austin
had one story, re-written over and over, or so it seems from the
endless re-makes of movies based on her books. Her stories are about
talented but unmarried young women of one class worrying about marrying
men from another class. Victorian novels are not my cup of tea —
a distinctly English Victorian phrase. Somehow, I have never been
in a group of men where someone asked: “Have you ever seen Pride
and Prejudice
?” I have seen it. I just can’t distinguish
it from Emma.

Bourgeois
values encompass hearth and home. On the frontier, the hearth is
replaced by the campfire. Home is replaced by cattle drives. Women
are not there. They will be there, once the cattle drive reaches
Dodge City. But they won’t be wives and mothers.

The
Western is about a transitional era in a treeless environment. It
is about a world without clear and enforceable property rights.
It was clear to Shane that this judicial world was coming to an
end. That does not mean that we cannot celebrate Shane’s role in
the transition.

Shane
to Wilson: “I’ve heard about you.”
Wilson to Shane: “What have you heard, Shane?”
Shane: “I hear you’re a low-down yankee liar.”
Wilson (putting on his shooting glove): “Prove it.”

Shane
did not prove it, exactly. But Wilson’s days of lying were over.

Much
as I appreciate bourgeois values, I am not interested in a sequel,
Little Joe Grows Up, the heartwarming story of a Montana life insurance
salesman and his six children.

October
28, 2005

Gary
North [send him mail] is the
author of Mises
on Money
. Visit http://www.garynorth.com.
He is also the author of a free 17-volume series, An
Economic Commentary on the Bible
.

Gary
North Archives

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