The Wild West," wrote movie-maker John Ford, "is the only true American mythology."
True or not, the Wild West is definitely the stuff of myth. Gary Cooper and John Wayne were not only large men, they were larger-than-life men. And Western types - the gunslinger, the floozy, the dude - have been cast and re-cast in movies, books and bronze.Over the years people have gotten so used to seeing horsemen as a type, they seldom get around to seeing them as human beings.
Now that's changing. And this new look at the old cowboys has been both a blessing and curse.
The new Wild West hero is almost an anti-hero; a ranch hand who is confronted with mortgages, ex-wives and ulcers. More and more, writers are taking a dry-eyed, hard-nosed look at the working-class, blue-collar cowboy. They're taking him off his pedestal and rooting him in reality.
Larry McMurtry, Levi Peterson, even the old "horse opera" specialist Elmer Kelton are just a few of the writers giving us the "new cowboy." But the chief pin-holder in puncturing the myth is Thomas McGuane of McLeod, Montana. McGuane wrote the scripts to "Missouri Breaks," "Rancho DeLuxe" and "Tom Horn," but his real contribution has been as a fiction writer.
In McGuane's novels, Western renegades and land owners suffer from the malady of the modern world: existential loneliness. Patrick Fitzpatrick, in "Nobody's Angel," constantly battles "sadness for no reason" while trying to make a stand on his Montana ranch. And Lucien Taylor spends a good share of "Something to Be Desired" brooding over the fact that "the real story lay in his sense of getting nowhere, the functionary blues."
On a recent visit to Montana, I asked McGuane if anyone took him to task for undermining the Western myth.
"There was a woman from England who showed some concern," he said with a shake of his head. "but that's been about it."
One reason McGuane can "get away with" his earthy depictions is he has a tireless dedication to authenticity. He records details and dialogue so faithfully there's nothing to dispute. Truth is his defense.
Take W.T. Austinberry, a cowpuncher in "Something to Be Desired:"
W.T. Autinberry dogtrotted along with one elbow held out from his body like the old-timers one saw when Lucien was a boy. He had jinglebobs on his spurs, which tinkled merrily as he went. How Lucien loved this vaguely ersatz air of the old days! . .
Then McGuane undercuts the romance of the West with one, deft stroke:
"Maybe we ought to look further on," said W.T. Austinberry. "We only need six more to make a pot." Lucien suspected W.T. had run out of guts; so he rode Buck out, floundering in the pursuit onto the dangerous slide, and he soon turned the cattle back into the band. . . W.T. Austinberry dashed about returning the herd quitters, but they were on easy ground now and he must have known Lucien suspected him for a fool."
In their inner-lives, McGuane's wranglers never suffer from the burden of knowledge, they're burdened with having no answers. They get fixated on women, projects, landscape, but they never seem able to focus. They get shoved about by forces out of their control and are left quietly desperate.
In other words, McGuane's cowboys are like you and me. It's the ranch hand as a member of the American mainstream.
This new vision of the cowboy has come at a price, however. And some wonder if the price has been worth the effort.
In March of 1982 Rocky Mountain Magazine devoted an issue to the death of the classic "Western." The articles carried ominous titles such as "The Life and Hard Times of an American Dream" and "Hollywood Kills Off The Cowboy." Alan Prendergast of Colorado - one of few native Westerners to make it in the lofty literary market - mourned the death of the movie cowboy and the Saturday matinee:
. . .the western has become less a means of entertainment or reflection than a vehicle for parody, insipid sentiment, and outright absurdity. It has diminished in both quality and quantity, finally arriving, exhausted, at what may be the end of the trail. . .it is easier to mock a myth than to create a new one.
Prendergast goes on to ask the question, "Have we really lost something important?" His answer is "yes," though some people can be still be heard wondering why the question was asked at all.
Kay Lewis, for instance, is a Salt Lake City attorney with a voice deeper than the Grand Canyon. In a way - like the cowboy poets who gather in Elko each year and show up on Johnny Carson - he's part of a large, unofficial coalition. You could call them the WWAWA (The Wild West is Alive and Well Association).
"I think many people in the West may feel the western myth has faded, but people back east still look at this as a wild and wooly place," says Lewis. "To them this is still frontier."
Lewis has seen a decline in the number of Hollywood western movies, but feels if the right star came along, the "oater" could pop back into prominence.
Where he sees the real change is in Western genre literature. Lewis feels that when Louis L'Amour died recently, he took a lot with him.
"I've tried some of the younger Western writers," he says, "but I've been disenchanted because of the language and sex. L'Amour's books were for everybody. He did a tremendous amount of research and he had the age factor working for him. He was old enough to have had the opportunity to talk to many of the old timers before they died. Few young writers had that chance.
"But more than that, L'Amour wasn't afraid of `how-to-live' ideas. I've taken excerpts of his philosophy over the years and mailed them to my children. I've read about 80 L'Amour novels and plan to finish them all.
"I'd like to think what Louis L'Amour tried to do is still possible."
More than a few people feel the same. The Festival of the American West in Logan each year and the millions - maybe billions - of people who visit the various cowboy museums around the country each year are proof.
Still, there's an anxious feeling about the Old West. Attitudes have changed, whether we wish they had or not. Part of the concern is this: If we strip the American cowboy of his royal robes, and if - as John Ford claimed - the Wild West is our only mythology, where can Americans go to get the underpinnings of morality and inner strength that led to lines such as "a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do"?
For now, no one's answering.
And perhaps Prendergast has hit the reason why.
"The past is out of favor," he wrote. "So are heroes and myths about the past. The last thing a self-respecting citizen of the 1980s wants to do is look back. If he does, he might discover how small his world has become without the dreams and legends that nourished it for so long."