- True West and Lying Marks: The Englishman’s Boy, Blood Meridian, and the Paradox of the Revisionist Western
“There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed.”—Cormac McCarthy, quoted in Woodward, “Cormac McCarthy’s Venomous Fiction”
“The drive to kill will never be erased, because it’s part of the human animal.”—Jacques Derrida, “The Three Ages of Jacques Derrida”
It is difficult, by all evidence, not to write a western. The canonized titans of the genre produced on a scale to match the immensity of the open plains tirelessly traversed by their lonely heroes. Zane Grey, after abandoning the claustral confines of a dentist’s office, quickly found that pulling stories from his brain was easier than pulling teeth from others’ jaws, writing some fifty-six westerns in the course of his career (Blaha 949). Frederick Faust despised the novels he wrote under the pseudonym Max Brand; nevertheless, the “Shakespeare of the Western range” would commit to paper a staggering thirty million words, the equivalent, his biographer Robert Easton calculates, of 530 “ordinary books” (vii), before his death at the age of fifty-two. Their literary descendant Louis L’Amour would prove a worthily productive successor. In the 1950s, his contract with Bantam called for three westerns a year, and his bibliography would eventually list well more than seventy frontier fictions (Bloodworth, “Louis L’Amour” 956; “Writers” 58). If it is not precisely true to say that the western writes itself, it appears fair to suggest that the conventions of the genre are so potent and fecund that the individual author assumes a role less like that of a seminal genius than of a startled midwife, assisting at a seemingly perpetual parthenogenesis.
The power of the western’s narrative conventions can be detected not only in the fertility of the genre, however, but also in the way in which they [End Page 406] seem to inform the scholarly narrative that has been constructed about the western novel itself. We have become comfortable, in recent years, with a retelling of the story of the western—a retelling whose plot might be described in the following terms: once upon a time, our image of the West came to us wrapped in a deceptive mist of romantic and ethnocentric myth. Both the historical narratives inspired by Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis, and the fictional narratives providing vivid embodiments of its assumptions, presented the conquest of trans-Mississippi America as a heroic story of the triumph of civilization over wilderness and savagery. For most of the twentieth century, the formula of the western novel produced by the likes of Grey, Faust, L’Amour, and their imitators was as standardized as a new pair of jeans and just as stiff: a seemingly simple tale of Caucasian male heroes, broad shouldered and clear eyed, tested by an unforgiving land and hostile natives, but destined to emerge victorious. The West, that is, has been the victim of a double violence—that perpetrated by the invaders who stole the land and disfigured the landscape, and that done to the reality of western history, violated by the mythical misrepresentations of those who stole its truth and left in its place a criminally distorted story.
Finally, in the 1960s and 1970s, shaken by an era of traumatic political events and social upheavals, western novelists got serious, looked beneath the familiar myth to find the reality that it had suppressed, and began producing revisionist westerns intended to represent more accurately the unsettling consequences of settling the West. The new writers “break with the easy heroism of the traditional western novel” (West 110) and reveal “previously ignored realities while rejecting illusions previously cherished” (Haslam 1024). Contemporary western “artists are trying to rub their eyes clear of mythic and legendary cobwebs, and see straight to the actual” (Kettridge 177). Metaphors of demolition appear with somewhat alarming frequency: Steven McVeigh claims that the works of recent western novelists “go further than simply questioning the values of and techniques of the genre and seek to explode the form altogether” (152), and the title of Sara Spurgeon’s Exploding the Western speaks for itself. But insofar as there is violence...