In Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film Lee Clark Mitchell attempts to account for the popularity of Westerns as a fictional medium. Popular texts often engage topical issues of their era, but the Western is so flexible that it can present social and political issues ambiguously and thus appeal to both ends of an ideological spectrum. As Mitchell consistently points out, they invite multiple and often-contradictory interpretations that encourage readings frequently far removed from issues of the West itself.
In spite of their remarkable openness, Westerns have tended to concentrate on a few central concerns: “[F]rom the beginning the Western has fretted over the construction of masculinity, whether in terms of gender (women), maturation (sons), honor (restraint), or self-transformation (the West itself).” The genre’s depiction of the frontier and its landscape has never been strictly mimetic; instead, the West has been conceived of as a place of the mind which is reinvented by each generation to reflect its hopes and fears.
In giving voice to the issues they engage, Westerns not only acknowledge differing points of view but also make each viewpoint convincing, and they only appear to resolve conflicts. Thus, their structures are multivalent and assert their importance as something more than pure escapism. The Western “presumes to represent a past it invents, imposing stereotypes at once incorrect yet all-determining, molding responses to history in ways that actually create that history.” They aspire to “mythic resolutions of crises,” and the fictional cowboy—so far removed from the actual man of the range—was invented to project these mythic resolutions.
In a chapter devoted to James Fenimore Cooper, Mitchell notes the ways in which that writer created many of the conventions that would be adopted, modified, and even rejected by later authors. Cooper’s central technique is to offer long, detailed, descriptive passages of the landscape, punctuated by occasional, brief scenes of violence. “Making description into a narrative act, he deftly revealed the frontier ‘West’ as a mysteriously silent realm in which characters were transformed into mute representations of masculine ideology.” Landscape, which was still and magisterial, was seen as embodying a moral [End Page 429] principle for heroic emulation. Bumppo’s devotion to the wilderness is always depicted as evidence of a moral sensibility, and the hero is distinguished by his capacity for stillness and self-possession. What one does is less important than how one does it.
Mitchell locates Cooper’s novels in the social and political changes occasioned by Andrew Jackson’s presidency, when unpropertied men gained suffrage. This was also a period of emerging market capitalism, and together these forces of commerce and social enfranchisement challenged older virtues. In this context, Bumppo can be seen as embodying either set of values or acting as a bridge between them.
The next chapter discusses landscape painter Albert Bierstadt and writer Bret Harte, both of whom experienced careers of meteoric rise and precipitous decline in only a few years. Each seemed to offer visions of regional difference and aroused expectations for a West they ultimately could not satisfy. Bierstadt’s grandiose, melodramatic depictions of Western landscapes “compel attention not despite [their] contradictory demands but because of them, by deliberately not resolving pictorial elements into a balanced whole.” Harte, on the other hand, created many of the character types that others would develop more intricately and imaginatively, and treated landscape as if it were a character. However, unlike Cooper, Harte’s landscapes do not draw moral distinctions but instead suggest ethical egalitarianism.
A chapter devoted to Owen Wister’s The Virginian notes that the novel “raised expectations for a genre it did not actually quite define, prompting readers to exceed the text in their own reconstructions.” The novel appears to unite East, West, and South in the form of historical romance, and celebrates rhetorical action over physical action, where characters with verbal facility are seen as superior. The cultural context for the novel is Wyoming’s extension of suffrage to women, a crucial element in shaping the state’s...