Sunday, May 18, 2008

Go West, Young Men

In any assemblage of novels that have shaped, described, or attacked our manifest destiny as a species, names such as Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and, to move away from the Russians, Thomas Mann, George Elliott, Herman Hesse, Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck, Nadine Gordimer, Willa Cather cry out for attention. The cries are so strong, so articulated, so insistent that they sound like the famed Sirens, drowning out the writers, admittedly mostly male, who chronicled the mythology and shifting sands of consciousness of The American West.

It could be argued, even with a certain panache, that the subtext of the American Western novel is the manifest destiny of Imperialism. People taking what was someone else's property, product, perhaps even livestock, oh, and yes, let us not forget women and slavery.

Pretty much the mould force of the American Western was Owen Wister's The Virginian which, considering Wister's own background, was a kind of Stover of Yale on horseback. an observation that has more weight to it than the mere looking for the humor of exaggeration.

The West was as feudal and wild as Central Europe, the horse being a tremendous social and work force. The concept of chivalry, which draws from the French word for horse, thus people on horseback practice a different social code, versus people who walk or who use mules or oxen.

Ah, the Comanche, those splendid horsepersons, able to ride horses to the extent of being able to steal better from their neighbors, thus giving a subset of the Western novel, cowboys and Indians, and another inevitable subset, Indians and the U.S. cavalry.

Okay for now, gotta go, but before I do, think of A.B. Guthrie's The Way West. Forget Shane, Jack Schaefer's stunning Monte Walsh was getting at the fulcrum of the west. Think of Wallace Stegner. Think of Oakley Hall's Warlock, which is what got this thinking going.

Think also of how much fun it wold be to look at some of the pulp Western fiction the Zane Gray stuff, for instance, and see how neatly it fits into a pattern developed some years later by Karl Marx.

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