Argumentative 2010 1st Place
Professor: Edward A. McNicoll
“People from all levels of society read Westerns,” wrote author and Western lover Jane Tompkins. “In one way or another, Westerns . . . have touched the lives of virtually everyone . . . . They carry within them compacted worlds of meaning and value, codes of conduct, standards of judgment, and habits of perception that shape our sense of the world and govern our behavior without our having the slightest awareness of it” (6-7). If this is true, the lives of most Americans have been shaped by the myth of the old West. Some historians question whether or not this influence has been beneficial. They question if there are any good lessons and values embedded in the myth. They also wonder if perhaps some parts of the myth are outdated and potentially harmful. Therefore, they have asked if the Western myth should be abandoned altogether.
Well, I agree with President Ronald Reagan when he said, “If we understand this part of our history, we will better understand how our people see themselves and the hopes they have for America” (qtd. in Murdoch 1). So, I say no, we should not abandon it. It is our past, our mistakes, our victories. With a few tweaks and adjustments, the Western myth is what embodies the characteristics, values, and lessons that make us the Americans we are today.
Many stories of the old West offer valuable lessons that can still be applied today. Some stories are full of trials, hardships, and disappointments. Stories like these show that faith, perseverance, and hope can go a long way: “Carrion Spring” by Wallace Stegner, for example. At the verge of giving up after losing everything, a young couple instead chose to grasp onto the smallest inkling of hope. They have some small hope that they can start again and make it work in the West. The couple expressed their hope: “We’re never goin[g] to have another chance like this as long as we live. . . And we can sit out here . . . with good hay land and good range and just make this God darned country holler uncle” (161). Some historians would say that these stories just show how many failures there really were, and how disappointing the West was. However, everyone goes through hardships and disappointments, and I believe it is good that we can look to our past to find some encouragement and hope when we find ourselves at a cross-road or up against opposition.
Similarly, there are stories telling of taking risks and standing up for what is right. For example, “We Shaped the Land with Our Guns” by Louis L’Amour tells the story of two partners who traveled far and worked hard to start a homestead. They took a chance opposing the powerful, but criminal, men who ran the town. In the end, their bravery and courage prevailed. Now, with this type of story a historian might point out the over-dramatics and exaggerations, summing it all up to another story encouraging violence. Yet they dismiss the important values and themes embodied in the story. Yes, they may have resorted to the use of guns, but it was their courage and willingness to stand up for justice that should be taken into account. These are characteristics that are exemplified in heroes of the West over and over again, and I say these traits are definitely worth keeping around today. Also worth keeping are lessons of community cooperation, individualism, and democratic integrity shown in Western myth.
Unfortunately, the myth does need a few adjustments concerning some outdated and potentially harmful ideas. Violence, for example, is littered all throughout the Westerns. Violence is used to solve disputes, carry out justice, and even just for pure entertainment. They had shoot-outs in the streets, fights in the saloons, and all-out civil wars between rivals. As one historian puts it, “The Western is a story as ancient as warfare, about solving problems with violence, the great simple solution” (Kittredge xix). Violence will always be a part of life, but it does not need to be used so excessively today. In the old West they did not have a very strong justice system, and the people took the law into their own hands. In America today, we have a much stricter government and many more resources to help diminish the prevalence of violence.
Racism is another aspect of the old West that is outdated and harmful. The treatment of the Native Americans during that time was especially despicable. One historian explains the roles of Indians in the old West:
By the time [the Indian] had stopped oscillating between the roles of noble savage and fiendish redskin which public opinion had assigned him, he had become dehumanized. Much of the story presents the Indian as alien, implacable and irredeemable, an aspect (perhaps the most fearsome aspect) of the untamed land to be conquered by the march of progress. (Murdoch 9)
This is a sad fact of American history, but the worst part is that they were treated as “less than human.” Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy tells the story of a group of white bounty hunters who brutally massacred a village of Indians just for money. Journalist Jim Stiles also discusses the horrible treatment of the Native Americans. “We could not see the value in a way of life that didn’t mirror our own,” Stiles explained, “and so Americans chose to destroy it, by any means possible” (13). Fortunately, this is one mistake from our past that we can and have learned from. This is not the attitude most have toward Native Americans in today’s society. Now, we believe that they should be treated as equals, and that they should be respected as such.
Not only were there ethnic clashes involving the Native Americans, but also the Chinese, Japanese, Hispanics, and European immigrants. Some of these people were even left out of the Western myth altogether, when in reality they all played a part in America’s past. For example, “White fears of Chinese job competition inspired the West’s virulent anti-Chinese movement” (Brown 417). There was also conflict between Indians and Hispanics, and Hispanics, Whites and Europeans (Brown 416- 18). Most of these conflicts led to more violence, riots, and massacres. We definitely do not want these actions and attitude to continue today.
Another outdated tradition of the Western myth is sexism. Women were just stuck in the background most of the time. They were usually bound to their gender roles, and these roles were seen as almost meaningless. “That the qualities devalued here are associated with women,” explains Jane Tompkins, “is essential to the way Westerns operate as far as gender is concerned” (14). The roles of women in America now are taken much more seriously. They can still be doing some of the same things they did in the old West, like taking care of the home and doing the shopping, but the everyday things women do are more valued today. Not only are the simple things they do more valued, but the tasks some women accomplish as individuals are highly valued as well. The attitude toward women today is much like that toward the Native Americans, that they should be treated as equals and given more important roles in society.
For all the bad, there is much more good in the Western myth, and it should never be abandoned. It is part of our history, and just like any other part of history, we need to examine and learn from it. I am not completely convinced by some historians that the old Western myth cannot offer some good influences on our society. Granted, there are parts of the myth that could use a make-over or an update. Yet, we can learn just as much from the mistakes of the past as we can from the successes. We all have different interpretations of the Western myth. These interpretations give us a different perspective on life issues. This is what makes our country so diverse and unique. So, instead of abandoning the Western myth, we should embrace it as an essential part of our American culture.
Brown, Richard Maxwell. “Violence.” The Oxford History of the American West. Ed. Clyde A. Milner II, Carol A O’Connor, and Martha A. Sandweiss. New York: Oxford UP, 1994. 393-423.
Kittredge, William. “West of Your Town: Another Country.” Introduction. The Portable Western Reader. Ed. Kittredge. New York: Penguin, 1997. xvi-xix.
L’Amour, Louis. “We Shaped the Land with Our Guns.” Valley of the Sun. New York, NY, USA: Bantam Books. 1996.
McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York: Ecco Press, 1985. 154-61.
Murdoch, David Hamilton. “History through the Looking Glass.” The American West: The Invention of a Myth. Reno: U of Nevada P, 2001.
Stegner, Wallace. “Carrion Spring.” The Portable Western Reader. Ed. William Kittredge. New York: Penguin, 1997. 147-62.
Tompkins, Jane. Introduction. West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns. New York: Oxford UP, 1992. 2-19.