Friday, August 22, 2008

Writers of the Purple Prose

Back in the day, when there was no Slate or Salon or Vanity Fair or New Yorker, there were their traveling equivalents, the troubadours. With a guitar or lute or mandolin, they strode about the countryside, the combined equivalent of Saturday Night Live, Bill Mahr, Steven Colbert, and Jay Leno, with perhaps a touch of Tony Bennett thrown in, and in some noticeable cases, more than a little Billy Collins.

Through the words and tropes of the troubadours, fifth- and sixth-century English audience got word of the exploits of that kid, you know which kid, Arthur the one who withdrew the sword from the stone. Story goes that Arthur was merely extracting the sword for his brother, who was too busy learning things to do on and from a horse. Story continues that the brother couldn't have extracted the sword from the stone because--well, because he wasn't entitled to. Only Arthur could do it because Arthur was the proper king, the true king of England.

Closer to our time, the written and printed words were on their way to replace the troubadour as the major means of educational information, propaganda, and entertainment. Arthur already had a number of written accounts set in motion among them by Mallory and later by Tennyson.

Nearer still to our time was the appearance of the quintessential novel of the American West, The Virginian, followed in quick succession by the second quintessential novel of the American West, Riders of the Purple Sage. Often referred to in satire as Riders of the Purple Prose, this second Western had a variation on the theme of the first, an epic encounter between two clashing cultures. In The Virginian, the clash was between the rancher and the farmer; in the latter novel it was between the Mormon and the non-Mormon, the Gentile. The stakes in each were humanized and obvious. In the same year as Riders appeared, another archetypal figure appeared, undergoing the same ritual of passage in his territory that the eponymous protagonist ot The Virginian experienced, the same type ordeal as Lassiter in The Riders of the Purple Sage experienced, and the same status-affirming battle over his territory that Tarzan experienced.

How can these diverse figures be logically poured into the same mould? Arthur, The Virginian, Lassiter, and Tarzan are all symbols of the seemingly taciturn man of the land, the individual who is not only able to but is willing to mete out the law, the moral law of the land he occupies. It is this certainty of the moral high ground that imparts dignity and stature to all of them, that makes them the archetypal leader of a particular sort. Each is in his own way a Libertarian writ large. There are other elements to add to this equation, properly supplied by surrounding legends. Amusing as it may be to think of Robin Hood in Marxist terms, or for that matter Sir Wilfrid of Ivanhoe, each is enhanced by a larger heart for the working class, for his fellow man in general. He may be of noble birth but his heart is big enough to empathize with the common man. All he needs now is the love and companionship of A Good Woman. We get some lovely possibilities for revisionist history and archetypes when we consider the amusing potential of Sir Wilfrid of Ivanhoe, drawn to the Mediterranean sensuality and good looks of Rebbecca, deciding to fulfill his life with her as a companion instead of his choice, the Lady Rowena. Imagine a scene in which the rabbi refuses to marry Sir Wilfrid and Rebbecca because he is a Gentile. That is not, of course, how the story went; it went that although Rebbecca ad Ivanhoe were attracted to one another, such things were not accepted much less done at that time.

We have come some distance from the mythic Arthur through the creation of The Virginian by Owen Wister, not long out of Harvard University, where he had previously written of another archetype, the college boy/man in a work called Philosophy 4. Nor are we far from the creation of a Los Angeles dentist, Zane Gray who, tired of looking at cavities, brought us the wandering gunman, Lassiter. And so it goes through the panoply of the evolving West until it became the iconic Wild West, and we see the evolution of John Wayne evolving from his role as Billy the Kid in the film Stagecoach (which was ripped off from a short story by Guy De Maupassant) to his more relentless Libertarian self, Ethan in The Searchers, setting off to find and retrieve his niece who had been carted off by, ugh, Indians.

Much has been made of the iconographic art on the walls of caves, extolling the virtues of animals and perhaps recording hunting deeds. Our caves are the pages of popular literature and film, from which our archetypes emerge into the bustle of a civilization that doesn't always know how to behave.


Querulous Squirrel said...

Speaking of archtypes, I love The Wire, as I know you do as well. And recently, after a fifth season DVD marathon (because I refuse to watch it on TV without the poetry of the swearing), I've gone back to the beginning of the first season with the youngest family member who has never seen it and whose profuse swearing is pathetically uncreative compared to every possible nuance of "fuck" in the wire. Anyway, this time around, after he watches each episode, I watch the writers' give a tour through the details and creative decisions in that episode that only enriches the experience and, in my opinion, is a wonderful teaching tool for the decisions writers and filmmakers make in their work. Like their attempt to make every episode a complete story in itself, despite the larger trajectory. The way the hierarchy of the drug trade mirrors the hierarchy of the police department. The summing it all up with one drug middleman teaching the "pawns" how to play chess, one of the most insightful and comical scenes. All shed light that there were in fact decisions made about getting the drawings on the cave wall positioned just that way in relation to just those ones on that jut of the rock.

Matt said...

It will be many years before I can see a John Wayne film or read a reference to him without thinking about Peter DeVries' description of a love-interest's father in "Slouching to Kalamazoo", who spoke like John Wayne. De Vries carried it further by writing the father's dialogue exactly as John Wayne talks: "I see your. Car is. Givin' you. Some problems, mister."