The myth of the Western, a genre that is best known for the movies it has produced, is prevalent in American culture and has influenced it throughout the concept’s existence. First appearing in 1902, the writing movement has firmly rooted itself in the culture of the United States, surviving through a variety of periods (Dulska 2017, 73). The western has changed its themes and preferred subjects to suit the interests of the audience, particularly after World Wars I and II, but the core themes have remained unchanged (Anderson and Chamberlain 2008, 310-331). As the United States is a nation that mostly consists of descendants of European immigrants, the frontier is among their few claims to unique historical experiences, which may explain the nation’s preference for the genre.
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The emergence of the Western is closely associated with the development of American literature, which culminated in the romanticization of the period and its traits. The complex storytelling of James Fenimore Cooper combined with increasingly popular dime novel themes to transform the central conflict into one between people, particularly the West and the East (Dulska 2017, 74). As a mix of several well-received trends, the Western genre quickly became highly demanded by American citizens. It featured classic heroic conflicts that were easy to understand, an environment that evoked interest and nostalgia, and humor that softened the impact of the events. However, the popularity of the genre would soon see a decline as regional writing from other regions emerged.
After World War I, which introduced an era of scientific and technological progress, people became more interested in perceptions and feelings. The rapid change ushered in a number of genres that detailed the responses to the new realities by long-standing social groups, concentrated on the wilderness, and attempted to view cowboys in a more realistic light (Anderson and Chamberlain 2008, 310). Nevertheless, the idealized form of the western retained some of its popularity, and some of the codifying works in the category as well as films that display the popularity of the theme come from the period between the two World Wars (Langford 2003, 27; “A Dude Ranch” 1930). The second instance of the tragedy brought about another significant shift to the genre.
World War II has seen the rise of postmodernism, an approach to art that calls prior beliefs or practices into question. As the most recent popular movement before the war, modernism received a particularly harsh critique. Postmodernist writers used a variety of existing forms as mediums for their messages, and westerns were no exception (Sinowitz 1999, 147-148). Nevertheless, demand for classical or slightly altered works in the genre persisted throughout the 20th century, declining towards the end despite attempts at a revival (Langford 2003, 26). Currently, there are not many new works in the genre, as it has passed its peak and ran out of ideas.
There is a school of thought that holds that the development of the western was not coincidental and that it was related to facts about frontier exploration Americans wanted to forget. Westerns provided mythology, an origin story for the nation that allowed them to fictionalize parts such as the conflicts with Native Americans (Christensen 2008, 310; Savage 2018, 7). The factual history featured numerous wars, exploitation, and behavior that could be considered immoral on both sides (“Out West: Beyond the Myth” 2006). Westerns ignored history and rehashed a number of tropes, which contributed to their popularity, but also led to their inevitable decline later on (Langford 2003, 27). Ultimately, the genre created a positive image of the country’s history, which came under scrutiny and was debunked after the disillusioning experiences of the World Wars.
The Lone Western Hero and Cold War America
Wyatt Earp is a historical personage and a well-known protagonist of numerous westerns. He personified a number of the core traits of a traditional main character in the genre, as he was a drifter who tried himself in multiple trades. He also participated in several famous large-scale gunfights, providing an excellent foundation for writers to create their interpretations. Earp became famous as an ideal of masculinity and devotion to the law in the early stages of the Cold War, a shift that was not coincidental (Isenberg 2009, 140). He had spent time in jail at one point and worked for the police at another, and his reputation as a result of a propaganda campaign.
However, the man was not the perfect example of the ideals and norms of Cold War America, and the interpretations failed to hide that fact completely. Isenberg claims that “his interpreters have shied away from understanding Earp’s emotional and sexual life in its context” (157). The drifter had been in numerous intimate relationships with both men and women, and the implications did not match the heterosexual nature of the masculine ideal promoted by popular culture. At the same time, the authors could not omit Earp’s personal life or fabricate female companions instead of male ones, as the story was well known.
Isenberg presents Earp’s case as an example of significant differences in the cultural norms of the nineteenth and twentieth century. In the earlier period, homosexuality was considered a choice that people could abandon at will, and close same-sex relationships were acceptable and commonplace, though sexual behavior in public was not permitted (Isenberg 2009, 146). In the twentieth century, however, discrimination based on homosexuality and, by association, what Isenberg calls homosociality intensified. Nevertheless, the government required figures who could be used to represent the masculine ideal. It did not want to admit that Wyatt Earp had close relationships with men but lacked an explanation for why he spent much of his life without a female companion. Thus, it created the image of the Western hero as an aloof loner who rejects companionship as a whole.
Anderson, Gary Clayton, and Kathleen P. Chamberlain. Power and Promise: The Changing American West. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2008.
Christensen, Paul. “The ‘Wild West’: The Life and Death of a Myth.” Southwest Review 93, no. 3 (June 2008): 310-325.
“A Dude Ranch.” 1930. Video, 0:47. Web.
Dulska, Anna. “The Significance of the Frontier in the Evolution of the Western Genre.” Beyond Philology: An International Journal of Linguistics, Literary Studies and English Language Teaching 14, no. 2 (2017): 69-83.
Isenberg, Andrew C. “The Code of the West: Sexuality, Homosociality, and Wyatt Earp.” Western Historical Quarterly 40, no. 2 (Summer 2009): 139-157.
Langford, Barry. “Revisiting the ‘Revisionist’ Western.” Film & History 33, no. 2 (2003): 26-35.
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“Out West: Beyond the Myth.” Directed by Christophe Fauchere. 2006. Movie, 56:50. Web.
Savage, Jordan. “’There Was a Veil upon You, Pocahontas’: The Pocahontas Story as a Myth of American Heterogeneity in the Liberal Western.” Papers on Language and Literature 54, no. 1 (2018): 7-24.
Sinowitz, Michael Leigh. “The Western as Postmodern Satiric History: Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man.” Clio 28, no. 2 (Winter 1999): 129-148.