On the real and mythic West

Maynard Dixon, "Open Range" (1942). "I do not paint Indians or cowboys merely because they are picturesque subjects, but because through them I can express that phantasy of freedom of space and thought, which will give the world a sentiment about these people which is inspiring and uplifting."

Wallace Stegner on the cowboy myth:

I spend this much time on a mythic figure who has irritated me all my life because I would obviously like to bury him. But I know I can’t. He is a faster gun than I am. He is too attractive to the daydreaming imagination. It gets me nowhere to object to the self-righteous, limited, violent code that governs him, or to disparage the novels of Louis L’Amour because they were mass-produced with interchangeable parts. Mr. L’Amour sells in the millions, and at times has readers in the White House.

But what can one say, and be sure of, is that even while the cowboy myth romanticizes and falsifies western life, it says something true about western, and hence American, character.

Western culture and character, hard to define in the first place because they are only half-formed and constantly changing, are further clouded by the mythic stereotype. Why hasn’t the stereotype faded away as real cowboys become less and less typical of western life? Because we can’t or won’t do without it, obviously. But also there is the visible, pervasive fact of western space, which acts as a preservative. Space, itself the product of incorrigible aridity and hence more or less permanent, continues to suggest unrestricted freedom, unlimited opportunity for testings and heroisms, a continuing need for self-reliance and physical competence. The untrammeled individualist persists partly as a residue of the real and romantic frontiers, but also partly because runaways from the more restricted regions keep reimporting him. The stereotype continues to affect romantic Westerners and non-Westerners in romantic ways, but if I am right it also affects Westerns in real ways.

In the West it is impossible to be unconscious of or indifferent to space. At every city’s edge it confronts us as federal lands kept open by aridity and the custodial bureaus; out in the boondocks it engulfs us. And it does contribute to individualism, if only because in that much emptiness people have the dignity of rareness and must do much of what they do without help, and because self-reliance becomes a social imperative, part of a code.

* * *

Even in the cities, even among the dispossessed migrants of the factories in the fields, space exerts a diluted influence as illusion and reprieve. Westerners live outdoors more than people elsewhere because outdoors is mainly what they’ve got. For clerks and students, factory workers and mechanics, the outdoors is freedom, just as surely as it is for the folkloric and mythic figures. They don’t have to own the outdoors, or get permission, or cut fences, in order to use it. It is public land, partly theirs, and that space is a continuing influence on their minds and senses. It encourages a fatal carelessness and destructiveness because it seems so limitless and because what is everybody’s is also nobody’s responsibility. It also encourages, in some, an impassioned protectiveness: the battlegrounds of the environmental movement lie in the western public lands. Finally, it promotes certain needs, tastes, attitudes, skills. It is those tastes, attitudes, and skills, as well as the prevailing destructiveness and its corrective, love of the land, that relate real Westerners to the myth.

– “Variations on a Theme by Crèvecoeur,” Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West

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