This article will feature in Issue 38: Language and Culture
When mentioned, the Wild West conjures up a series of universally recognised images: the white American lone ranger on horseback, face etched with lines of dirt, sunburn, and an ill-temper; harsh, barren terracotta-coloured land, Monument Valley looming in the distance; lassos, gunfights, saloon bars, maybe even a poor caricature of a Native American. The historical myth constitutes one of the United States’ few foundational narratives, but its story of single heroes battling foes and the harsh elements has vividly endured in the nation’s imagination.
Historically-speaking, the story of the Wild West began with the 17th century expansion from the colonies’ eastern parcel of land, across the Midwest, all the way to Arizona and New Mexico in 1912 as the new-born US government encouraged its citizenry to take advantage of its violent land-grabbing. The admission of states into the union took place through diplomatic arrangement (the purchase of Louisiana from France), war (the taking of Texas from Mexico), but above all and in every case, the stealing of land from native populations. Across these few centuries of upheaval, large swaths of land became a playground for drifters, farmers, and state employees in a westward movement that saw lone men and families traverse thousands of miles to establish themselves on “free land”. When, in 1848, gold mines were discovered in California, this propelled another army of hopefuls across the plains.
What sets the Wild West apart from other foundational histories are the narratives that so blatantly pit the white man against marginalised communities in American society, in a bid to cement the supremacy and credibility of the former over the latter. No story better encompasses this narrative as the Cowboys versus Indians, a cruel caricature of the real-life indigenous communities who fought to defend their land from encroaching invaders. The 1956 film The Searchers, one of the most renowned Westerns, follows the quest of Ethan Edwards to avenge the brutal murder of family members by the Comanche Native American tribe, and retrieve kidnapped nieces Debbie and Lucy. The protagonist stalks across the plains, murdering and scalping Indians as he goes, hell-bent on exacting revenge for the implied rape of Lucy. The film’s tagline ‘He had to find her, he had to find her…” summarises well the age-old myth of the white man saving the white woman from a rape at the hands of the Native American, the Mexican Immigrant or the African American. It is no coincidence that the rise of the Western film in the early to mid-20th century coincided with a new wave of racist segregation and anti-immigrant rhetoric. The romanticisation of the rugged white male saviour was a narrative seized upon by white supremacist organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan, who were violently revived in the 1920s.
An equally prevalent facet of the cowboy is his status as the lone wolf. Conquering the bountiful landscape of the Wild West, unbeholden to anyone and permitted to chase money or glory, this character depicts the ideal modern American man, whose rugged individualism in every aspect of his political and economic life makes him the perfect capitalist citizen. Eric Hobsbawm argues that the cowboy is a “myth of an ultra-individualist society”, the textbook vehicle for the American Dream. He perfectly depicts the paradox of American capitalist anarchism: unconstrained by the state and representative of both types of the American man. Individualist anarchism permits the rich man to operate free from the powers of the law and the state, driven by profit, and the poor man to possess, above all other rights, the right to improve his standing, as a loner unburdened by social responsibility. It makes sense, therefore, that the tradition of the cowboy was revived under the ultra-free market Reagan administration in a whole host of advertisement schemes selling products from cigarettes to cologne, because “the west has always been a place where a man went to prove himself.” Reagan himself enjoyed playing into the image of the cowboy, but he wasn’t the first President to do so: Teddy Roosevelt is considered the pioneer. Roosevelt himself was a member of the elite club coined the “Frontier Club” by Christine Bold, which pushed the Wild West legend in literature and art to romanticise and distort its image, with the end goal being to shift public opinion in favour of legalised hunting. Simultaneously, the Frontier Club used its status and money to suppress outspoken working class, black, Native American and immigrant men.
The Wild West is not only, or even primarily, concerned with its history. The term encompasses its geography, culture and folklore handed down through generations, diluted until it became an easily digestible fable. A legend upon which hundreds of novels, movies, advertisements, and even political speeches have been built rarely acknowledges the less exciting truth: that between 1870 and 1885, there were only 45 deaths by gunshot in all the major cattle towns combined, that the cowboy demographic was comprised not only of white people, but of Mexicans, of Chinese immigrants, of African Americans, or that most Californian gold-searchers didn’t discover so much as a nugget. But this mythic landscape and its characters benefit, above all, the most elite in American society, and leaning back on the stereotypes of the west being America’s mythical home has often, successfully, painted a glorious picture of heroes, easily identifiable villains, and the promise that if you are willing to fight for personal greatness above all else, you’ll achieve your wildest dreams.
By Zoe Rabbani