The Celtic-Southern Thesis and the Old West: Forrest Carter's 'The Outlaw Josey Wales'

by Jimmy Cantrell

Gary North has written an article titled "Hollywood Westerns, Guns, and Property Rights" that emphasizes the centrality of the western genre to the American grappling with freedom. As a sort of complement, I offer the following. As with seemingly countless other works I have written, it has received rejections from various journals focusing on American literature and/or cultural history. My favorite rejection for this article came from a woman teaching in Texas and editing a fairly prominent journal. She said that while she believed in helping to air new and unusual approaches, mine were simply too far-fetched. For example, she noted, my claim that Southern literature is a folklore-based storytelling was unproven and thus my whole argument was invalid; plus, I showed no sensitivity to the pressing race concerns.

A friend of mine later told me she was certain this non-biased, conscientious, tolerant editor-scholar was one of a group she had heard at a Modern Language Association convention discussing the ways to increase the teaching of texts written by lesbians of color in Freshperson [I made up neither the word nor the concept] composition and American literature survey classes. It may not seem possible, but it gets worse: the moderator of that panel was another woman teaching at a state university in the South, a professor whose u2018scholarly' presentation began with her overview of the importance of lesbian relationships in the old northeastern WASP establishment and concluded with her quoting and then analyzing her own love poems written to and/or about womyn of various darker hues.

Now, if that aint enough to make you both trusting and comfortable in sending your 18 year olds off to college and sing praises to George W. Bush for redistributing more of your money to u2018education,' then you might just be a redneck. If that possibility does not frighten you toward either Leftist PC Stateism or Prussian style corporate-militarist Stateism, then read on. If nothing else, it should help you focus on the principal cultural origins of that 2000 Presidential election map.

The 1989 publication of the 1,634 page, double-columned Encyclopedia of Southern Culture demonstrated yet again that Southern Studies is easily pre-eminent among American regional researches in both volume of academic scholarship and general reader interest. In the Encyclopedia's "Foreward," Alex Haley declares that many characteristic expressions of Southern culture, from folk and popular music and crafts to belletristic literature, are now "world wide." Especially given this international acclaim and influence, Southern studies should be central in the current trends to explore multiculturalism in American education, for not only is the South a militarily defeated region whose natives are routinely slurred ethnically and socio-economically, but Southern culture is very much an umbrella of several cultures: some regional, some racial or ethnic, some religious, all of them, however indirectly and/or small the degree, influencing and being influenced by the others. In short, Southern culture is the epitome of multicultural interaction rightly understood.

Perhaps the most controversial thesis in contemporary Southern historiography is the best way to understand the diversity in Southern culture, a diversity not restricted to simplistic black and white conflicts. Until the last decade, the cultural origins of the white South were accepted almost unquestioningly as exclusively English with borrowings from African-Americans. White Southerners were said to be Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Norman, and any aspects of their cultural ways that did not seem to fit with English patterns were attributed to African or Amer-Indian origin. This long unchallenged belief began to be disputed in the early 1980s by historians Grady McWhiney and Forrest McDonald, who developed the Celtic-Southern Thesis: that the majority white Southern culture, the one planted in the Piedmont and Appalachian foothills areas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and from there migrated west, is of Celtic origin (Irish, Scottish, and Welsh), not English. Implicit in the Celtic-Southern thesis is the Anglo-Norman cultural origin of the coastal white South from the Chesapeake to Charleston, and that the conflicts between these two principal white Southern cultural groups underlie all of Southern history and provide much of its tension.

Aware that Southern literature is essentially a folklore based story-telling, that the Faulkners, Gordons, Weltys, and Styrons are inspired by the tales of peoples and times past heard on porches and store and courtyard benches, that the best of Southern literature has been created "out of the rag-tag and bob-ends of old tales and talking" (Faulkner 303), I decided to read Southern novels to determine whether they supported the Celtic-Southern thesis. In short, they do. From the prolific antebellum writer William Gilmore Simms to the Southern Renaissance giants Ellen Glasgow and William Faulkner to the contemporary best-seller Pat Conroy, many Southern novelists, I have found, recognize the indispensable roles of Celtic immigrants and their descendants to the development, expansion, and perpetuation of Southern culture.

As I was concluding my study of Celtic heritage in Southern literature, I decided that the next step in my research must be American Western literature. Considering the myopic geographical tendencies in Southern studies, this may sound strange, but culture, as Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris note, is not bound by political lines drawn to facilitate government or defend imperialism. Culture is fluid, and Southern culture is found outside the geographic South in such areas as the "little Dixies" north of the Ohio River and in parts of southern California (xv). I chose the American West because the original "wild west" had been the old Southwest, which is today's Southeast: the trans-Appalachian South of Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. In a recent study of the literature of the Old Southwest, Ritchie Watson suggests that history and politics have combined to skew our view of the development of American Western culture so that we no longer recognize what antebellum Americans took for granted: that the American West and the trans-Appalachian South shared a "unified western consciousness. Even stranger to Americans living today would be the commonly accepted assumption that the roots of this new western culture were southern" (12).

Furthermore, McWhiney and McDonald have suggested obliquely that their Crackers, the majority white Southerners of Celtic ancestry, were a determining factor in the formation of an Old West culture. In "Celtic Origins of Southern Herding Practices," they praise Terry Jordan's Trails To Texas: Southern Roots of Western Cattle Ranching as "an excellent account of how open-range cattle raising moved steadily from its u2018hearth' in the seventeenth-century Carolinas to the Texas of the 1870s" (165). Accepting Jordan's contention that the livestock raising and herding practices of the Old West, which were integral to the development of a Western identity and remain central to its mythology, did not spring from Western soils without forerunners but were borrowings from the South, McWhiney and McDonald reveal that those animal husbandry folkways had been practiced in Celtic lands for centuries. Here, then, is an implied link from Celtic lands first to the colonial and antebellum South, and finally to the Old West of the post-War Between the States era. Just as Southern literature suggests that immigrants from Celtic lands and their descendants determined the folk culture of the majority white Southerners, American Western literature, if the corollary to the Celtic-Southern thesis proves true, will reveal the importance of Southerners, especially those of Celtic heritage, to the Old West.

In an article published in Eire-Ireland, I declared Gone With the Wind to be The Southern Epic. The primary component of the definition of "epic," I contend, has little if anything to do with form or style; it is primarily the audience response usually ignored in academic definitions. Put simply, the Iliad and the Odyssey are The Greek Epics, rather than failed attempts at epics like the Argonautica, because both Greeks and non-Greeks concluded that these works best defined essential characteristics of the Greek people. Similarly, the pioneer-cowboy-gunslinger western, whether novel or film, is the genre that best defines American Western culture for both westerners and non-westerners, as well as for the citizens of the world. The western, then, is not mere popular culture diversion that detracts from the more serious study of Western literature set in modern urban areas;1 the western reveals defining characteristics of American Western culture in its formative, heroic age, and if Southerners are indispensable to that culture, western novels will suggest their significance.

Initially published at the author's expense as The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales, Forrest Carter's Gone To Texas is the basis of the last cowboy, gunslinger western film to be both an unequivocal critical and financial success until Unforgiven. In the novel's "Preface," Carter declares that Missouri, due to the border War fought there from the late 1850s to approximately 1865, was the "'Mother of Outlaws,'" and "Texas was the Father . . . the refuge, with boundless terrain and bloody frontier, where a proficient pistolman could find reason for existence and room to ride" (vii). The gunslinger aspect of the Old West, Carter informs his readers, derives from the culturally-Southern Ozarks of Missouri and from Texas, a state whose culture was largely defined by the Southerners who primarily peopled it and, when forced to act to save their property and local freedoms, wrested its governmental control from Mexico.

In Gone To Texas Carter narrates Josey's flight from Missouri to southwest Texas, an escape from Federal Army officials who want him for bank robbery. Two events determine this fate, and in narrating each, Carter emphasizes the importance of Josey's heritage. First, Josey is a victim of the Kansas Redlegs, an anti-slavery, terrorist group. In 1858, he owns a small farm in Cass County, Missouri, and his wife and infant son are murdered in a raid, even though Josey is a subsistence hillfarmer who owns no slaves. He responds by joining a Missouri guerilla gang, eventually becoming a lieutenant under "Bloody" Bill Anderson during the War.2 In his description of his protagonist before he sees the burning cabin, Carter emphasizes Josey's mountain heritage:

ALL the way back through his great-grandfolk of the past in the blue ridges of Virginia; the looming, smoke-haze peaks of Tennessee and into the broken beauty of the Ozarks; always it had been the mountains. The mountains were a way of life . . . a philosophy that lent the peculiar code to the mountain man. "Where the soil's thin, the blood's thick," was their clannishness. To rectify a wrong carried the same obligation as being beholden to a favor. It was a religion that went beyond thought but rather was marrowed in the bone that lived or died with the man (5).

Carter's printing "ALL" entirely in capitals suggests that Josey's ancestry is homogenous. Each ancestor back before the American Revolution, when Appalachia was just beginning to be explored by whites, was a hill Southerner, and the hill South, I submit, was both the primacy of the majority white Southern culture and the most pristinely culturally Celtic area of the South and the whole of the Americas.

The second determining event in Josey's life is his rejection of amnesty at the War's conclusion, a decision that inevitably leads him into robbing a pro-Union bank.3 Though Josey may well have feared a trick, and he certainly would bristle at the implication that anything he had done during the war was sufficiently wrong under the circumstances as to require an amnesty, Carter emphasizes Josey's heritage as the principal reason for his rejection of the possibility of peace:

His family had been wronged. His wife and boy murdered. No people, no government, no king, could ever repay. He did not think these thoughts. He only felt the feeling of generations of the code handed down from the Welsh and Scot clans and burned into his being (11).

Southern mountain man Josey Wales is not only of exclusively Celtic ancestry, but the Celtic cultural heritage is undiminished in him at least a century after his forebears left Celtic lands. His ancestors fought English imperial annexations until they could resist no more, and then they migrated. But they never took "amnesty," which would have been tantamount to a declaration that they had been wrong to defend their homes and their folkways against imperial expansionist aggression.

At this point, we must consider the symbolism inherent in Josey's surname. The word "Wales" derives from the Anglo-Saxon "wealh," originally meaning "foreigner," and later signifying "slave" or "serf," as well as "Briton" or P-Celt (Sweet 201). To the barbaric Germanic tribes who invaded the island of Britain, and to their ancestors, the Celtic peoples were foreigners in their own lands. The same is true of Josey Wales, and like his ancestors who fled across the Atlantic hoping to find freedom from ethnic and national persecution, he will move west in search of a home where he will be free to determine his life.

When he reaches The Nations, the lands "given" to Southeastern Indian tribes in exchange for their forced removal from their homes, Josey meets Lone Watie, the sixty year old cousin of Stand Watie, the Cherokee Confederate general. Carter, himself a Southerner of part Cherokee ancestry, pays homage to the mountaineers who, on pain of government prosecution, aided the Cherokee who avoided the federal army round-up for the march west: Josey's "father had befriended many of them who had hidden out, refusing to make the walk" (58). Carter believes that the white hill Southerners, those who are of Celtic cultural heritage, have more in common culturally with the Cherokee than with their "racial brothers of the flatland," the white Southerners of English heritage who brokered the coastal Old South's political and economic clout. Lone Watie, the Cherokee whose family died on The Trail of Tears, who knows that the Federal Government will use Stand Watie as an excuse to plunder more land from the Five Tribes, is, like Josey Wales, a foreigner in his own country, and he chooses to ride with the outlaw. Carter's fictional coupling of the dispossessed Cherokee and the abhorred hillbilly as beleaguered foreigners in their own land may seem odd to those who lack knowledge of the long intertwining of the two, best evidenced in the red and blonde haired Indian chiefs bearing Celtic surnames like Ross and McGillivray, but to Carter, the pairing is natural. Not only is Carter's heritage both Cherokee and Tennessee-north Alabama mountaineer, but, in his semi-autobiographically based narrative The Education of Little Tree, the half Cherokee, half Scottish grandfather who partly raised him is called Wales, which emphasizes Carter's initial use of the name as that of Josey's clan (3, 64).

Lawrence Clayton agrees that Carter's "part-Indian heritage is also apparently authentic" (19). His article, however, is little more than a predictable liberal condemnation of Carter for opposing federally imposed integration. Apparently equating support of government sponsored social-engineering with valid interest in the injustices suffered by minority groups, Clayton does not believe that Carter is sincere in his sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans.

The Celtic-Southern thesis provides an ethnic understanding of Carter's attitude. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Celtic peoples suffered genocidal-type persecutions from the English, such as Cromwell's attempts to dispatch all Irish Catholics "To Hell or Connacht" and the post-u201845 Hanoverian laws against Scots wearing kilts or otherwise exhibiting their national heritage. The Southern descendants of these Celts, who include Carter and his Josey Wales, carry a cultural memory of their people being hunted to near cultural extermination by centralized governments justifying their actions as "progress" and "saving the nation." This, not cynicism as Clayton suggests, explains Carter's identification with Indian nations, for the federal government, enacting power-expanding social-engineering policies that were "politically correct" in their day, almost succeeded in exterminating the Amer-Indian nations from the continental United States. In Watch for Me on the Mountain: A Novel of Geronimo and the Apache Nation, Carter directly links the genocide inflicted on western Indians after the War Between the States with the Union victory of centralized federalism and hostility to the South: "Sherman's faithful apostle, Sheridan, echoed his leader with a vengeance: u2018The only good Indian is a dead Indian.'"

After violent adventures with would-be bounty hunters and Texas Regulators, a militia set up by the Reconstruction government to force order on the state, Josey and Lone settle eventually on a ranch in a fertile valley in southwestern Texas with its elderly owner and her granddaughter, whom they rescued from Comancheros. Far enough south and west to be free of the tentacles of the bureaucratic government, Josey Wales begins to plan for a life of peace as a rancher. The injustices of the Old West, however, intrude and threaten to destroy the dream. The Comanche chief Ten Bears, who hates all white settlers because "everything he loved . . . the free land . . . his sons . . . his womenfolk . . . all had been violated by the white man . . . most especially the blue coat" federal army troops (174), decides to destroy the people in the small farmhouse.

Josey prepares a defense, leaves Lone in charge, and then rides out to confront the chief, who is impressed by the display of courage and honor. Because he has heard of Josey Wales's hatred of the Federal soldiers, Ten Bears will allow him to ride away unharmed, an honor Josey declines. His purpose is to make an honorable treaty between equals with Ten Bears, and he persuades by condemning the intangible centralized government that in the name of progress would destroy both of their peoples:

"What ye and me cares about has been butchered . . . raped. It's been done by them lyin', double-tongued snakes that run guv'mints. Guv'mints lie . . . promise . . . back stab . . . eat in yore lodge and rape yore women and kill when ye sleep on their promises. Guv'mints don't live together . . . men live together" (177).

The Josey Wales treaty, which is between men who treat one another as equals willing to allow the other to live his culture in freedom and is not imposed at gunpoint by the Federal government on an Indian tribe, acknowledges the dignity and prior claim of the Comanche: they are permitted to stop on the ranch to make medicine during their migrations and to take cattle from the herd while there.

Free from Indian problems, Josey rides to the nearest town to find help to brand the herd. Pondering the peaceful life he hopes to live with his new "kin," his fiance Laura Lee Turner and her grandmother, Lone Watie and his Cheyenne woman, Josey realizes "it would be the bloody [and the reader here should recall Bill Anderson] hand of Ten Bears that gave it; the brutal savage Ten Bears. But who could say what a savage was . . . maybe the double-tongues with their smooth manners and sly ways were the savages after all" (181). The real savages of the Old West were not the Josey Waleses and Ten Bears, Carter's fiction affirms, but the impassive political and military bureaucrats of the Federal, territorial, and state governments who devised and implemented policies of destruction of the Amer-Indian nations and individuals who stood in their way as they forged Empire.

Gone To Texas concludes with Josey's world apparently secure. He has a ranch, a family, and friends in town, including the Irish saloon keeper Kelly, and Ten Spot, the derelict Virginia gambler who swears to a Texas Ranger that he saw the outlaw Josey Wales gunned down. The Ranger, aware that Texas needs men like Josey Wales, accepts this lie and leaves. After his marriage, "Josey thought of it . . . what might have been . . . if men like the Ranger could have settled with Ten Bears . . . as he had" (206).

In Gone To Texas, Forrest Carter portrays the fierce, uncompromisingly honest hill Southerner of Celtic heritage as both the Old West gunslinger par excellence and the settler who would bring some degree of personal amelioration to the Old West's injustices. In the novel's sequel, The Vengeance Trail of Josey Wales, Carter continues these themes. A band of Mexican Rurales crosses the Rio Grande and destroys the Lost Lady Saloon in a drunken brawl, killing Kelly and the prostitute Rose and taking Ten Spot hostage, intending to hang him as an American guilty of crimes against Mexico, which will serve as their excuse for their border raid. When Josey is told of the massacre, he decides to rescue Ten Spot, taking with him only Pablo, the Mexican peon who brought the news, and Chato Olivares, Josey's ranch hand.

"The question never rose among them," Carter writes, "should lives be placed forfeit for a tinhorn gambler named Ten Spot? They were, all of them, swept up in the loyalty code of Josey Wales. The Mountain Code" (38). Though he appears unaware that the Celtic lands are largely mountainous and principally so defined, Carter again declares Josey's heritage to be Celtic: "The Code was as necessary to survival on the lean soil of mountains, as it had been on the rock ground of Scotland and Wales. Clannish people" (38). This Code that Carter sees underlying the most honorable in Southern culture originated in Celtic lands and was "brought to the mountains of Virginia and Tennessee and the Ozarks of Missouri" (38-39). "Josey Wales," Carter declares, "was conceived of the Highland Code, born of the Tennessee mountain feud, and washed in the blood of Missouri" (39).

The Vengeance Trail of Josey Wales also contains a parallel to many Southern novels in the area of comparing the relative strengths and weaknesses of the culturally Celtic South with the culturally Anglo-Norman South. My study of Southern literature reveals that Southern novelists tend to see the Anglo-Norman coastal South and its culture as largely ineffectual, though beguilingly beautiful, and often as inherently unjust. This contrast between the two antagonistic white Southern cultures is often symbolized in characters. Just as Josey is Carter's symbol of the Southerner of Celtic heritage in the Old West, Ten Spot, though he is from the Scots-Irish Shenandoah valley of western Virginia, is of genteel English ancestry. Wilbur Beauregard Francis Willingham is his name (Gone 201), and before 1861 he attempts to live the ivory tower life of an eighteenth century Virginia squire: "His world was apart from the insanities of men and their mean current of politics blowing over the earth. He could, and did, live without them" (67).

Ten Spot's theoretically insulated world is destroyed by "Sheridan and his savages with their torches. Like Attila, they burned Shenandoah. Everything, every field, every home, every blade of grass or leaf of tree died in the flames of Shenandoah" (67). To use Ellen Glasgow's phrase, the Celtic Southerner, Josey Wales, has the Celtic "vein of iron" in his soul, providing him the inner strength necessary to survive catastrophe and rebuild afterwards. The Anglo-Norman Ten Spot, lacking the "vein of iron," becomes a drunk when he no longer has the property that marked him as a gentleman. He redeems himself as a brave, heroic captive, but as a symbol of a culture too abstract and ornamental to determine the future of the Old West, Ten Spot must die after being rescued (191). Josey Wales, in contrast, survives as a moral hero, a man who has the character of convictions to risk his life to attempt to right wrongs. In Forrest Carter's fictional re-creation of the Old West, the Southerner of Celtic heritage places a positive defining stamp on an emerging culture.

[1] _The standard American academic attitude toward the "Western" is presented in Sylvia Ann Grider's "Introduction: A Folklorist Looks at Katherine Anne Porter" in Katherine Anne Porter and Texas, edited by Clinton Machann and William Bedford Clark (Texas A and M University Press, 1990). Grider concludes that the Texas Institute of Letters decided to honor J. Frank Dobie's Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver rather than Porter's Pale Horse, Pale Rider because the "male-dominated and establishment oriented" (xvi) Institute preferred the "macho native strain" "cowboy mentality." Her clear implication is that the western is an inherently inferior genre. In the same volume, Don Graham ("A Southern Writer in Texas: Porter and the Texas Literary Tradition") declares, "the stigma of the Western label is just as strong today as it has ever been" (59).

[2]_ A real life model for Josey is, of course, Jesse James. In Civil War in the Ozarks (Pelican Publishing Company 1993), Phillip Steele and Steve Cottrell note that by the mid-1850s "Kansas abolitionists under the leadership of such religious fanatics as Jim Lane, John Brown and others began raiding farms along the Missouri-Kansas border country, stealing slaves and taking them to Kansas to be given their freedom. Often barns, homes, and crops were burned by such raiding parties who excused their treachery as u2018doing the Lord's work'" (111). Fifteen year-old Jesse was beaten with a bull-whip by Union soldiers in 1863 for refusing to tell Frank's whereabouts, and he crawled back to the house to find his stepfather hung, but alive (113). Bill Anderson responded to such Unionist tactics by killing captured Union soldiers (116).