True grit

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 45, Winter 2015

Page 10

The image of the cowboy has always been fed by myth. Rich Hall attempts to divide the truth from the tales

I once watched a film called Meek's Cutoff, directed by Kelly Reichardt. Six Oregon-bound pioneers find themselves stranded and nearly waterless in the desert. The film's composition is stark, the characters framed microscopically against an endless alkaline landscape. There are no High Noon showdowns. No adenoidally constricted sidekicks. No heart-of-gold whores. There is not even dialog for the first ten minutes of the film. All we hear is the tremolo whine of turning wagon wheels and the panicked silence of a clutch of stragglers realizing they've made a catastrophic wrong turn and are slowly running out of options. It's the kind of western that must have made a certain kind of outré film critic salivate. "A deconstructive masterpiece." "A bold new take on the Old West."

It's not. It's just another western. All westerns are myths. They never happened. And you cannot deconstruct something that never happened. The cowboy – our notion of the cowboy, that is – was invented to heal the schism of the American Civil War. After the Confederate surrender at Appomattox in 1865, the South was humiliated, the North desperate to pretend the whole thing had never happened. So, like a pair of squabbling parents, they forced themselves into a bitter reconciliation for the sake of the kid. That kid was the American West. And oh what a strapping boy he was; handsome and rugged and wild with potential. The cowboy would facilitate what you might call a collective amnesia for America: a neutral figure, neither Northern or Southern, who could draw attention away from the nation's recent breakdown. Nowadays we have a term for it. Rebranding.

And so, into our collective consciousness rode the American cowboy: chivalrous, an isolate whose mythic identity and backdrop were carefully shaped by authors, artists, and political figures. If you're British, you might notice the qualities ascribed to him seem vaguely familiar. That's because the cowboy is the American incarnation of the English knight. We've just replaced the armor with a ten-gallon hat.

The novelist Owen Wister did much to promulgate this image. Wister was a pampered Pennsylvania writer who, after succumbing to the triple whammy of vertigo, hallucinations and splitting headaches, took the advice of his doctor and alighted on a dude ranch in Wyoming. (Presumably, paracetamol had not yet been invented.) Wister tried his hand at cowboying, much to the amusement of his compatriots. They ridiculed him, branded him a simpering clod, and returned him to Philadelphia. There he began accumulating stories and observations from Wyoming and, in 1901, published The Virginian.

The book, with its raw, half-civilised setting and profane, whisky-soaked, gun-toting ranch hands, was an immediate success for the city-slickers back east. Its central character, never named other than 'The Virginian', demonstrates his superior skill in feats of horsemanship, practical jokes, gunplay, and, most famously, in facing down an enemy ("When you call me that, smile!"). The novel sold nearly 200,000 copies in its first year.

The Virginian served as the template for the cowboy myth. No one was more enamored of the book's ideology than President Theodore Roosevelt. When he wasn't portraying himself as a great white hunter, rough-riding cavalryman, martial-arts expert and oppressor of many small nations (an act since ripped off to good effect by Vladimir Putin), Roosevelt liked to portray himself as a cowboy. After reading The Virginian, he delivered a national speech called Manhood and Statehood. "More and more as the years go by, this Republic will find its guidance in the thought and action of the West", he thundered.

The Westerner possessed the "iron qualities that must go with true manhood". That pretty much sealed the deal. The cowboy became for Roosevelt, and by extension the nation, the desired image for America.

Where Wister articulated this image, Frederic Remington visualized it. Remington was an illustrator from Canton, in New York state, who, like Wister, fell for the allure of the West and bungled it spectacularly. In 1883, he went to rural Peabody, Kansas, and invested his inheritance in a ranch. He soon found it to be a rough, boring, lonely occupation which deprived him of the finer things of Eastern life. He went back home, borrowed more money and returned to Kansas to become half owner of a ramshackle saloon. His wife Eva, unwillingly dragged into this squalid deal, remained singularly unimpressed with the sketches of saloon inhabitants Remington regularly showed her. She left him and returned to New York State.

With his wife out of the picture, Remington began to sketch and paint in earnest, bartering his work for essentials. He was soon successful enough to envision art as an actual career. Eventually he moved back to New Rochelle, New York, purchased an estate with servants, a lush European-style garden and studio, and became America's pre-eminent Wild West artist, earning the lifelong admiration and friendship of – you guessed it – Theodore Roosevelt.

None of these three men, in the remotest sense, was a true cowboy. Still, they were seduced by the lifestyle. Remington so much so that in his Self-Portrait on a Horse (1890), he imagines himself as a tough, lean wrangler astride his trusty steed. In truth, he was 300 pounds of East Coast lard.

Thus, by the beginning of the 20th century, the cowboy was America's pre-eminent icon. Never mind that he had always been a paradox of capitalism: aloof, solitary, answering only to himself, but whose real job was, essentially, to help domesticate the landscape. Those cows were never his. He was just there to protect them, the mall security guard of his day. And sadly, by the time he'd been designated a hero, he was extinct. The interlinking of the trans-continental railroads and Gustavus Swift's invention of the refrigerated railway car put paid to his usefulness. The entire era of the cowboy lasted roughly 20 years – from the end of the Civil War to the harsh storms in 1886, which caused the English to withdraw capital. If you spliced all the Western films and TV shows ever made and ran them in continuity, they would last longer.

I, like most modern residents of the West, am a transplant, drawn there by its bogus romantic past. To quote the drily evocative songwriter James McMurtry, "I'm not from here, I just live here". I arrived in 1988 in a town called Livingston, Montana. I didn't know a soul. I'd read a lot of Thomas McGuane. I wanted to see what the fuss was about. I pulled up at a real estate office and saw a picture of a very run-down "original homestead" for sale. I drove out through a spectacular valley that tapered toward the Yellowstone River, turned up a dirt road, through sagebrush and broken fence, and there it was: an aged log battlement of Swedish joinery and chinking, surrounded by the relics of the West, some dead, some still alive. Rusted spools of barbwire, an abandoned Dodge pickup, a massive sheltering cottonwood growing alongside a small running creek that, when the place was built, must have sounded to its settlers like gurgling money.

The place is mine now. But I still call it 'The Homestead'. And that is the true allure of the American West: its air of redemption. You're always aware you are living in a shadow that someone long before you cast.

Rich Hall is a comedian, writer and musician.

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