WESTERNS: The Six-Gun Galahad

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A much more convincing case is made by theorizers, both professional and amateur, who think the western helps people to get away from the complexities of modern life and back to the "restful absolutes" of the past. Western Man in Zane Grey's definition of the term is in fact an almost exact opposite of Western Man in Toynbee's sense. In the cowboy's world, justice is the result of direct action, not of elaborate legality. A man's fate depends on his own choices and capacities, not on the vast impersonal forces of society or science. His motives are clearly this or that, unsullied by psychologizing (except, of course, in the Freudian frontier yarns). Moreover a man cannot be hagridden; if he wants to get away from women, there is all outdoors to hide in. And he is not talk-ridden, for silence is strength. Says Sociologist Philip Rieff: "How long since you used your fists? How long since you called the boss an s.o.b.? The western men do, and they are happy men." Says Motivational Researcher Ernest Dichter: "America grew too fast, and we have lost something in the process. The western story offers us a way to return to the soil, a chance to redefine our roots."

Whatever truth there may be in such explanations, the fantasies of the television tube are perhaps most truly understood as shadows of a larger drama. The western is really the American morality play, in which Good and Evil, Spirit and Nature, Christian and Pagan fight to the finish on the vast stage of the unbroken prairie. The hero is a Galahad with a six-gun, a Perseus of the purple sage. In his saddlebags he carries a new mythology, an American Odyssey that is waiting for its Homer. And the theme of the epic, hidden beneath the circus glitter of the perennial Wild West show, is the immortal theme of every hero myth: man's endless search for the meaning of his life.

Salt Pork & Sundown. The western hero, as worshiped in 1959, is derived from a type that was extant for only a brief moment of history—between 1865, when the Civil War ended, and 1886-87. when 80% of the cattle in the West froze to death in two savage winters. "There's no law west of Kansas City," the saying went, "and west of Fort Scott, no God." The Sioux and the Apache were making their last stands. The first big gold and silver strikes were made in Colorado and Nevada, and the no-good and the adventurous went west by the thousands "to see the elephant." Up from Texas ("The whole south end of Texas was sinking under the weight of its cows") the longhorns came plodding to Kansas railheads, 2,000 and 3,000 to a herd.

It was the era of flue-scorching "twofer" stogies and forty-rod whisky (known as "red disturbance"), and there were real drinking men to lap it up, e.g., the miner in Bodie who, when he ran out of gold dust, slashed off his ear, slapped it on the bar and demanded credit. Manufacturers of bone combs were paying $1.25 for Indian skulls, and a white man's life was not worth much more.

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