The Cowboys

There was once a time when the American self-image was based on the frugal, upright and socially responsible New Englander, on the can-do, no-nonsense entrepreneurial engineer (like Twain’s “Connecticut Yankee”), and at the same time also on the opposite figure of the courtly Southern gentleman. Jules Verne sent one of each around the moon with a comic Frenchman for company. Another role model was the brave and hardy pioneer family setting out to tame the Western wilderness. In the twentieth century, however, the new medium of film tended to concentrate on the last, together with the peculiar personage of the cowboy; and the cowboy finally became almost the sole repository of the American self-understanding. In the movies, the West was won by the cowboy – whereas in reality the West was won by, depending on who you believe, either John Deere or the manufacturers of barbed wire.

The historical cowboy was called that for two reasons: he herded cattle, and he was a boy, or at least started work as one. Even at his best, one may wonder why the historical cowboy should have become such a national icon. Since the macho and anarchistic gaucho achieved a similar status, as did the Cossack, it may be something to do with the town-dweller’s envious or homoerotic admiration for the Real Man, and with the idea of freedom under the stars. How free an illiterate teenage wage-slave really was is another question.
In the movies, however, the cowboy is always much older, and generally seems to have better things to do than the actual hard work of rounding up the beasts and driving them to the railhead. Cowboydom in the movies concentrates on the other role of the ranch-hand, that of being a hired thug, dedicated to the destruction of what was once the great American role model of the settler or homesteader. The enmity of the pastoralist and the agriculturalist, of course, goes back to Cain and Abel, and was not unknown in Spain, which is where American ranching and its vocabulary actually come from.

In his thuggery towards the farmers, the cowboy is the direct descendant of the medieval knight, who was also a brutal enforcer – until his masters thought of paying hungry poets to invent a myth called “chivalry”. The scenes when the bad guys ride out from the evil rancher’s hacienda to shoot up the town would be all too familiar to an eleventh-century French peasant, under the name of the chevauchée, a quite non-magical Wild Hunt. In both cases this behaviour was brute fact; considerably more fictional was the existence of noble knights or good cowboys to oppose them. In France, the only credible remedy was a strong and good king; the Americans had the strong and good sheriff. Both the medieval romances and the cowboy films, however, are also full of heroic loners who wander about without any visible connection with mundane economic, political or social reality. The Hollywood cowboy is thus merely an imitation of the knight-errant and the stories in which he appeared; or else of the Japanese ronin, which is much the same thing. In order to make all the old stories work, and to discuss the typical Western theme of “personality under the yoke of ageing and death” (as a country-musician friend of mine puts it), Hollywood assimilated to the concept of “cowboy” all sorts of other frontier archetypes who were not boys and had nothing to do with cows, but wore the gear and rode the horse. Some of these types really existed, others not.

Given that two recent presidents have modelled their political personas on the Cowboy, it behooves us to wonder which kind of cowboy is the true American ideal – the quixotic righter of wrongs and rescuer of maidens, or the illiterate enforcer for the feudal lord?

Posted on November 28, 2011 at 11:09 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: RESISTANCE IS FUTILE!, The Shadow In The West

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  1. Written by urban
    on November 28, 2011 at 14:18
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    Silly question. Why the latter, of course! And parading as the former, naturally.

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