How violent was the wild west? Hollywood and the writers of pulp fiction who came before have long presented a picture of massacres and gunfights as the norm, and that’s to be expected, since given a choice between a shootout and washing clothes in the local stream, it’s clear that laundry won’t sell many tickets. But the reality isn’t always so simple or exciting. The violence that did happen was concentrated in specific times and places – the hell-on-wheels camps along the route of the transcontinental railroad, for example. One constant was the eradication of Native Americans as whites spread throughout the lands west of the Mississippi, while the settlers made compacts among themselves that acted as the law until more formal systems could arrive.
Stories about the Old West were being told when the events were contemporary, as all the fanciful tales about Wild Bill Hickok illustrate. But the western comes into its own with Zane Grey and other writers in the first half of the twentieth century. In part, this was a literary reaction to the closing of the American frontier, the moment acknowledged in the 1890 census that there was no longer a continuous line separating the settled lands from the wilderness. In America’s self-image, the idea of always being able to go west to freedom is an important safety valve and an essential symbol of our independence.
Is the western a dead genre? Novelist Dennis Miller, writing for The Huffington Post, seems to think so, at least for him. His objection to the tales of traditional westerns? They’re filled with uneducated and armed white males who go out into the “vast wilderness to combat evil, almost always single-handed, relying on his moral code, courage, and his six-shooter.” In his view, this is carried over into today’s culture, at least among some of us, people he believes “must have their guns to preserve the American Way of Life. Their “enemies” are black men, non-Christians and LGBT folks.”
Myths have standard characters, and those are often turned into stereotypes in a cursory reading. That, however, does not negate the meaning that we find in the myths. I’ve argued for some time that the western is the definitive American genre. Westerns give a good playing out of our hopes, fears, potential, and wrongs. How we see ourselves and our place in the world is found in the stories of exploration, expansion into, and conquest of the left half of the continent. As long as we don’t ignore the bad things we’ve done, there’s nothing wrong with celebrating the good or in creating narratives about who we believe ourselves to be.
It may be the wish of gun control advocates that the western disappears. I don’t know what Miller’s position is on guns in America. Those who are opposed to gun rights, though, frequently use the word, cowboy, as a term of disparagement. John Wayne is their symbol for everything that is wrong with this country. But the trend in popular culture gives me cause for hope. Western movies haven’t disappeared, especially if we expand the time constraints to bring in the days before the Civil War – The Revenant being the example that I have in mind. The remake of True Grit and television shows like Hell on Wheels and the contemporary Longmire tell me that the taste for the genre is strong.
As someone who has written several western short stories and a novel, I’m pleased to say that Miller’s obituary is premature. And as someone who values the independent spirit found in such tales, I think it will be good for us – for our rights and for our leaps into future frontiers – if the western lives on.
The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of Guns.com.