DEFINITIONS



WESTERNS: DEFINITIONS


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DEFINITIONS: WHAT IS A "WESTERN" ANYWAY?

"A genre of novels and short stories that are set in the American West, usually in the period from the 1850s to 1900 when the area was fully opened to white settlers. Though basically an American creation, the western has its counterparts in the gaucho literature of Argentina and even in tales of the settlement of the Australian outback."
"The western has as its setting the immense plains, rugged tablelands, and mountain ranges of that portion of the United States lying west of the Mississippi River, in particular the Great Plains and the Southwest. The conflict between white pioneers and Indians and between cattle ranchers and fencebuilding farmers form two basic themes. Cowboys, the town sheriff, and the U.S. marshal are staple figures. Actual historical persons in the American West have figured prominently: Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, and other lawmen, notorious outlaws such as Billy the Kid and Jesse James, and Indian leaders such as Sitting Bull and Geronimo."

"In literature, the western story had its beginnings in the first adventure narratives, accounts of the western plainsmen, scouts, buffalo hunters, and trappers. Perhaps the earliest and finest work in this genre was James Fenimore Cooper's The Prairie (1827). E.Z.C. Judson (Ned Buntline) wrote dozens of western stories and was responsible for transforming Buffalo Bill into an archetype. Owen Wister wrote the first western that won critical praise, The Virginian (1902). By far the bestknown and one of the most prolific writers of westerns was Zane Grey, an Ohio dentist who became famous with the classic Riders of the Purple Sage in 1912. Another prolific author of westerns was Louis L'Amour."
"Notable among the authors of western short stories are A.H. Lewis, Stephen Crane, and Conrad Richter. Many western novels and short stories first appeared in pulp magazines, such as Ace High Western Stories and Double Action Western."
"Other western classics are Walter van Tilburg Clark's The Ox Bow Incident (1940) and A.B. Guthrie, Jr.'s The Big Sky (1947) and The Way West (1949). Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove (1985) was a Pulitzer Prize winning paean to the bygone cowboy."

[Source: Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature (c)1995. Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. Published under license with Merriam-Webster. Source Database: Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature]
Western Writers of America defines "Western" as a genre as:

"works dependent in whole or in part on settings, characters, conditions, or customs indigenous to the American West or early frontier."
"Gene Roddenberry billed Star Trek as 'Wagon Train to the Stars.' (Wagon Train was a popular Western genre TV show at the time he was trying to sell Star Trek -- and at that time there was no adult sf on TV and there never had been.) And that's exactly what Star Trek was -- a western in space."
Sime~Gen Inc. Presents Recommended Books February, 1995, "Real Science Fiction/Fantasy"
"[Rick] Altman points out that genres are usually defined in terms of either certain signs (taking the western as an example, the guns, horses, wagons, towns, landscapes, or even the western stars such as John Wayne or Clint Eastwood) or certain plots and themes (such as Wright's notions of the western's classic stories).... Westerns must, of necessity, grow out of the setting (and hence associated semantics) of the old west.... science fiction / westerns (Outland was pitched by Peter Hyams as 'High Noon in outer space.' .... recall westerns, with the frontier setting sporting saloons, bar girls, and cowering, mistreated settlers who need defending.... What is interesting about Robocop is the way it takes its "vengeance" plot and repositions it completely. Such plots may have started with westerns, but once they moved into an urban milieu (with Dirty Harry and Death Wish) they inevitably took on a right wing political position. In the west, when society was unable to punish the villains, it was in the context of a setting where law had not yet arrived. Yet when such a plot arrives in an urban setting, the law is present, and must therefore be shown to be completely ineffective before we can accept the hero's actions. The genre thus becomes a very political one, attacking ineffective justice systems and calling for a tougher attitude to crime. "
discussion of Rick Altman, The American Film Musical (1989)
"With its scarcity in recent years, many have called the Western a dying genre. If that overstates the case, no one could dispute that its glory days are past. The once heavy torrent of feature films has lightened to an intermittent drizzle. Those movies that have been produced have had lackluster grosses at the box office. The quintessentially American genre has been replaced by vacuous comedies and trifling dramas. John Cawelti's The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel seeks to understand the Western's descent from preeminence.

The book is a complete revision of his earlier work entitled, appropriately, The Six-Gun Mystique. In this book, Cawelti brings his 1970 book up to date since the intervening period has seen many important films and even more commentary. Cawelti's book sometimes drifts into the arcane jargon of literary criticism, highlighting distinctions and subtleties meaningful only with specialized study. Like much literary criticism, it is divided into three parts: definitions, delimitation of the subject, and analysis. There is no single, unifying thesis that informs the entire book (except maybe the implicit thesis that Westerns are worthy of study). Instead, each part of the book has its own mini-thesis.

Cawelti begins with the question of what defines a Western. His initial definition is that a Western is "a story which takes place on or near a frontier and consequently the Western is generally set at a particular moment in the past." (20) He later qualifies this vague notion with a laundry list of other further attributes: a 'complex of characters' comprised of "townspeople or agents of civilization, the savages or outlaws who threaten this first group, and the heroes ... possessing many qualities and skills of the savages but fundamentally committed to the townspeople" (29) who find themselves in any of a variety of situations and plots.

Earlier in the book, in a discussion of what genre means, Cawelti argues that a genre is a "body of texts which a culturally-knowledgeable person would call Westerns ..." and that "there would be very little doubt among `knowledgeable persons' about the great majority of generic Westerns."(8) Is this an adequate definition? Can one use the information he provides and declare a particular movie to be a Western? No, one cannot. His equation of the Western with a frontier setting is too broad: a movie about fur-trapping mountain men would fit and so would a movie about space exploration or an arctic expedition. Similarly, leaving the question to a 'knowledgeable person' amounts to abdication and subjectivism.

A definition does not have to account for every conceivable attribute or characteristic of a concept -- that would be impossible and mentally unwieldy. It must only name its essence, that fundamental aspect which explains the most other attributes. What is essential about a Western is its setting (Cawelti was right about that), but the frontier is not specific enough. A better definition would be "a fictional account of events transpiring in the American Old West." Designation of a given work as a Western then becomes simple: determine its setting.

For Cawelti, the genre follows a linear progression from James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales to early century fiction by the likes of Owen Wister and Zane Grey to roughly mid-century classic Westerns to the late century "Post-Westerns." He applies his pattern of setting, situation, and characters to each example to show why it belongs in the genre. His only controversial inclusion is Cooper, whose books take place deep in the East in a much earlier era. It fits his model since Cooper's setting is a frontier, albeit one of the earliest ones in American history. Moreover, Cooper does create a cast of characters reminiscent of later Westerns and the plots are situations used by later Western writers.

But does Cooper belong in the Western corpus? Definitely not. His inclusion underscores Cawelti's definitional problem. Although the Leatherstocking Tales share much in common with Western literature, so too do any number of fictional works. Plots are constantly recycled and recast. The characters in Cooper's work could have been characters in many Western films, but for their difference in setting. But that difference is significant since it represents the essence of the Western and should not be so easily discarded.

After showing various examples of Westerns, Cawelti examines the three main approaches used by intellectuals to understand the genre. The first, ethical criticism, looks at the morality of the literature. Naturally, this method depends on the critic's morality. Those who deplore violence and those who espouse multiculturalism, for example, will have much on which to comment in any Western. The second, artistic criticism, heralds the Western as an art form with the director as the artist. This auteur theory, imported from the French, seeks themes, forms, and patterns within a given work and across a director's entire career. It is through this lens that critics examine the aesthetics of a Western. The final theoretical framework, sociocultural criticism, seeks to understand a film or book by understanding the social and cultural climes in which it was created. This framework assumes that a Western's meaning depends on the context of its creators as well as of its viewers. It comes in many variations based on what factors are considered determinant by the proponent. The Marxist version holds that Westerns serve a social purpose as an oppressive agent of the upper classes, the Freudians hold that Westerns serve a psychological purpose as agents of wish fulfillment, and the neo-structuralists hold that Westerns serve a purpose to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, and sex. Each of these points of view seeks to account for the genre's popularity over time. Cawelti, from his comments, seems to be a neo-structuralist or, at least, sympathetic to them.

Unfortunately, it never occurs to Cawelti to question whether Westerns are determined. Did Westerns arise as a reaction to threatened masculinity? Are they examples of institutionalized racism in their portrayals of minorities? Were they created to reinforce the values of individualism, competition, and social Darwinism that were held by the elites? It would be very interesting to see Cawelti take up those questions, instead of taking determinism's validity for granted.

Despite all its omitted questions and misdirected effort, The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel is a good introduction to commentary on my favorite genre. It does contain some interesting insights into the very real patterns present in many Westerns, even though it sometimes suffers from an occasional lapse into the ponderous jargon of literary theory. The bibliography and filmography offered near its end is a superb reference for further research and investigation into this rich topic. In the end, I must profoundly agree with Cawelti's sincere hope for the revitalization of the Western in film and literature."
[online essay by Bill Brown]: "Cawelti, John G. The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1999
"DESPITE ITS ANCIENT and international antecedents, the short story is conceded to be both the youngest and most American of major literary forms. The "western story" as a particular variation on that form, has been among the most popular in literary history, a haven for readers trapped in an increasingly urban and complex world. As Jack Schaefer noted in 1955, 'while not all western stories are escape fiction, the overpowering majority of them are.'

"Throughout the twentieth century, however, as Schaefer further recognized, some gifted writers of short fiction have abjured the compelling formula of 'code Westerns' and sought to produce significant literature set in the West. Until the recent past, however, they were often trapped by readers' assumptions. In the three decades since Schaefer's observation, the post-World War II generation has emerged, a generation that has deepened and broadened the ranges of subject and technique. There are, in effect, two traditions of western stories, one popular and commercial, the other literary and less commercial. Both can be traced to the early nineteenth century...."

"The Western Story"
"We all need heroes. All the ancient civilisations understood this, the Greeks in particular. They were wise enough to realise that, as a race, we have an enormous capacity for violence and destruction, and they used fantasy to implant moral codes and safeguards into their young. Yes, the hero was a powerful and courageous man, ready to fight any enemy, but he never oppressed the weak, never bullied, never stole, and never lied. Youngsters were encouraged to be like that mythical hero, to channel their energies into positive areas for the good of the city, the state or the nation. All the great Greek myths carry warnings about destructive patterns of behaviour.

We still use myth in fiction, in tv and in film but we've lost the focus. Our message to the young is: Do whatever you can get away with. Traditional westerns like Shane and High Noon created the fantasy hero of the early twentieth century, but these were over stamped with revisionist westerns which showed the West "as it really was," portraying Wild Bill Hickock as a syphillitic braggart, Wyatt Earp as a crooked whoremaster, Custer as an incompetent glory hunter, and so on. This effectively killed the western as a fantasy outlet. With the death of the genre, people needed heroes who could not be corrupted by new "truths," and sword and sorcery began to soar in popularity. No revisionist could expose Conan, or Gandalf. No one could sully the deeds of Elric of Melnibone or Druss the Legend. In fantasy, the reader could expect good to combat evil, and to triumph."

David Gemmell interview: Why Not Write Westerns?
"Purposefulness is crucial. For John Wayne became 'John Wayne' in much the same way Thomas Dunson gets his cattle from Texas to Abilene in Red River, the greatest of all Westerns as well as the vehicle for the greatest of all John Wayne's performances. The drive is made through determination, luck, and calculation. So too with John Wayne: 'He had to be invented,' Garry Wills argues in the prologue to John Wayne's America, and 'all his work, especially in the Westerns, was part of one project -- to build a persona full of portent, to maintain a cumulative authority in his bearing.'"

Review: John Wayne's America
"Space Opera: SF [Science Fiction]works that have typical structures and plots of Westerns, but use the trappings of SF (Star Wars , etc). Variations on this type include the 'sword and sorcerer' series that are less SF than postmodern arthurian fantasy." Space Opera as Westerns
"Japanese film master Akira Kurosawa and French comic master Moebius make a complementary team. Giraud started out making Western comics and then moved into science fiction. Kurosawa directed Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, which became the basis for two world-famous westerns: The Magnificent Seven and A Fistful of Dollars. His film The Hidden Fortress foreshadowed the plot of Star Wars.... Giraud's definition of the Wild West sounds like a description of cyberspace: 'It's about the contact with nature, not completely primeval but not yet under the control of man; it's about technology that is already impressive but retains its human dimension; it's about the forces of government trying to exercise pressure but failing.'"

Wired: Wild West and Cyberspace
"Heinlein does offer an alternative to this misanthropic view by having Mannie consider moving to the asteroid belt. Like Huckleberry Finn and Natty Bumppo, Mannie opts for the frontier, one of the most powerful symbols of freedom and opportunity in American literature. In this novel, the frontier is not the American continent, but the Moon and, by implication, all of outer space. The Loonies' social philosophy, tanstaafl [There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch"], is one common to many frontier societies. The absence of regulations, laws, and red tape (aside from certain intrusions by the Lunar Authority), strong but flexible family systems, a heterogeneous yet cohesive society based on customs, and a hard, dangerous, yet satisfying environment all form part of Heinlein's depiction of Luna as a frontier society. The revolution, which is intended to save Luna, ironically paves the way for its undoing, since the old values are fading with the greater ease and luxury now available to the Loonies. Those who wish to remain free must constantly move into the new territories where the population is small, government is limited or nonexistent, and life offers challenges to those willing to accept responsibility. Heinlein's pessimism about the state of modern America is alleviated by the novel's vision of an infinite frontier made possible by space travel."

["Heinlein and Space as the Frontier" in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Author: Robert A. Heinlein, Essay by: Anthony Bernardo, Copyright of this work is the property of Salem Press, Inc. and its content may not be copied without the copyright holder's express written permission except for the print or download capabilities of the retrieval software used for access. This content is intended solely for the use of the individual user. Source: Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition ( 2000) Accession Number: 0011000325] This webmaster believes that such a short quotation, in this scholarly context, constitutes "fair use" of copyright.
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