I’ve always been a reader prone to brief but intense passions. For a while, like most girls, I had a thing for horse and dog books. When I was in high school I read every book I could lay hands on about Abraham Lincoln, and then became similarly obsessed with Teddy Roosevelt. I went through a swashbuckler phase—Ivanhoe, The Three Musketeers, The Scarlet Pimpernel—and at some point I burned through the Golden Age of science fiction. In more recent years I’ve read all twenty of Patrick O’Brian’s novels about the British Navy in the Napoleanic Wars. But from the time I was twelve, and through all those years of waxing and waning enthusiasms, I’ve continued to read the novels and stories of the American West.
When I was twelve I fell for books that, at my library, were set aside on their own shelves, each book marked on the spine with a large black W: the cowboy novels of Zane Grey, Max Brand, Luke Short. I was a tomboy, do I need to say? As a reader I valued adventure above almost everything. I loved horses and Roy Rogers matinees. I was at an age when pretending to be a boy wasn’t difficult and must even have seemed desirable. Cardboard western heroes suited me just fine.
My passion for cowboy novels might have burned out—I might have moved on to, say, books about ancient Rome—but about the time I began to value good writing above adventure and had migrated over to the real shelves with the real books, I read Shane for the first time.
It’s our classic American myth: A man with a dark past comes out of the wilds of the American West where his strength of character was forged—and where he’s learned how to fight and shoot. He saves us from the forces of evil, and when he’s finished with the necessary killing he sacrifices himself to loneliness by heading back into the wilderness. Oh, I fell for Shane in a big way.
We all know that myths aren’t lies. They’re the larger-than-life stories we tell ourselves about the past in order to understand who we are, what we care about, how to conduct ourselves. America has an understandable hunger for a heroic past but we’re a young country, we’ve got no Beowulf, Odysseus, Galahad to hark back to, and we’ve never shown much interest in looking to the Indian nations for our deeper roots and stories. Instead, we’ve turned to the only period of our short national history that comes close to an heroic age, the roughly thirty years of our westward expansion. The mountain man, the cowboy, the gunslinger—and their heirs, the go-it-alone cop, the hard-boiled detective—fill the same role for us as King Arthur and his knights in English mythology. From the Deerslayer to John Wayne, from Louis L’Amour to Raymond Chandler, from “Die Hard” to the Terminator, such men have long been our cultural heroes.
In our western myth—our American myth—men came West alone, learned to shoe their own horses, hang their own criminals, cauterize their own wounds with the red hot barrel of a gun. Shane’s rootless loner, lacking family ties and a childhood history, comes from a long line of fictional heroes who prize independence and footloose wandering (along with loneliness and isolation) above the obligations (and the embrace, the comfort, the love) of family and community. When the neighbors crowded too close, such men moved farther West for a new challenge, or new land to break. America’s mythic history is a story of fighting against nature and the Indians for the sake of grand ideals, and in this myth westerners wore leather and packed guns. They fought to the last man and they died with their boots on. And this mythic struggle against the western wilderness is what shaped the American character, so we feel; made us, as a people, free-thinking, open, tough, self-reliant, independent. The myth of the west, and the western hero of countless novels and films, defines who we are as Americans—both in our own minds and in the perception of much of the rest of the world.
I’m afraid I came rather late to the realization that our mythic history of western settlement has a dark side.
In the cowboy dreams of my childhood–our American mythology of the golden West–we ride our horses across unfenced prairie and spread our bedroll beside unpolluted mountain streams; in our cowboy dreams we’re at home with the wild earth. The West in this dream comprises Montana and the high Rockies, Monument Valley, Utah, and the nameless hidden canyons of Zane Grey novels. The West of our dreams is never a nuclear waste dump in Eastern Washington. It’s not the neon strip in Las Vegas or the sprawl of modern Phoenix. It’s not the raging poverty and alcoholism of the rez and it’s not the gangs of L.A. dishing out vigilante justice in the street. Yet the cowboy hero brought these things West with him as surely as he brought his horse and his gun.
For at it’s core, the Western is a story of breaking the wild land, its animals, its native peoples, by brutal, violent conquest. The cowboy’s insistence on “freedom” has all too often been the rationale for overgrazing, overcutting, hydraulic dredging, pit mining; and of course our mythic history takes no notice of Indian genocide, of land speculation, vigilantism, brutalities against the Mexicans, the Chinese.
Above all, the boiled down western story solves every problem with violence. Our heroes shoot their way out of trouble with guns blazing, no matter how complicated the troubles. Our hero is above the law, dispensing his own violent justice and punishment. He lives by the Code of the West: if he’s insulted or cheated, if his horse is stolen or, damn it, if his favorite hat is tromped on, he must fight or he’s a coward.
We’re in love with Shane, but he’s the guy our mothers warned us against.
I ran away with him, so to speak, when I was sixteen and didn’t know better. But while he was off looking for crooked sheriffs to shoot, and cattle barons to bring down, I rummaged through his saddle bags and read all the books I found there, not just the gunslinger novels of Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour but the classic literature of the west, The Virginian, The Big Sky, The Ox-Bow Incident, The Hanging Tree. And when I ran out of those books I went back to the library and found Willa Cather’s western novels and Mary Austin’s “one-smoke” stories and Mari Sandoz’s Old Jules, and discovered that women had told a different story about the west, a story not so much about heroes as about ordinary people and the way their lives were tied to the land. And when I read the homesteaders’ memoirs, the trail drive reminiscences, the diaries and letters of the early-comers, I learned, among other things, that the real history of the West wasn’t a history of lone riders, but a communal enterprise. And finally I read the memoirs of writers like Bill Kittredge and Teresa Jordan who were third or fourth generation on their family’s ranches and who had begun to ask what it was we thought we were conquering when we “won” the West.
And in my thirties, when I began to write my own novels and stories, my writing was shaped by this lifetime of affection for, and frustration with, western literature and the American heroic myth. I had faced up to the fact that Shane was bad news, a dangerous f***, yet I couldn’t seem to leave him. I still believed he had a core of goodness to him, and kindness; that he was a moral man underneath that tough façade.
This is far too compressed a summary to be accurate, and I’m probably stretching the metaphor a bit far, but I guess for years, in almost everything I’ve written, I’ve been trying to get my cowboy hero to face up to his dark past, settle down with me and be a father to his children!
Maybe it won’t happen. But I keep pressing books into his hands—my own books, yes, and also the books I’m reading and rereading these days, Plainsong, The Living, Always Coming Home, Ceremony—especially Ceremony. I keep hoping he’ll see that the cowboy life doesn’t have to be so goddamn lonesome and bloody; that refusing violence is the most heroic thing Tayo does in Ceremony.
I keep hiding his gunslinger novels at the back of the closet and giving him these books about people getting in their crops, putting up fences, caring for livestock, praying, kissing, dancing—all our usual human endeavors; people dying at home in the arms of their loved ones or out in the corral, stomped on by an ornery bull; Indian people trying to find a healing way back from terrible anger and loss. The towns and villages in these books aren’t models of decency or intelligence or tolerance—no more than other places in the West or anywhere else—but theirs is the courage of ordinary lives; theirs are stories of kinship between people, even in terrible circumstances. I keep hoping if Shane begins to care about the people who live on those pages, if he begins to feel himself part of those communities, he might begin to think in fresh ways about who he is, and how to conduct himself, and what kind of person he might become; and maybe he’ll hang up his guns for good.
[This essay originally appeared, in slightly different form, in the Powell's Books newsletter and on their web site.]