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F r e d e r i c R e m i n g t o n , M o u n t e d C o w b o y in C h a p s w ith B ay H o r s e , c a . 1 9 0 8 O i l o n c a n v a s , 3 0 1 /4 " x 18 1 /8 " C o u r t e s y B u f f a l o B il l H is t o r i c a l C e n t e r , C o d y , W y o m i n g . G if t o f T h e C o e F o u n d a t io n S U S A N J. R O S O W S K I University of Nebraska-Lincoln The Western Hero as Logos, or, Unmaking Meaning With its gestalt-like capacity to take on the symbolic shape of our desires and anxieties, the Western has proved itself a ready forum for cultural constructions of identity. During the Cold War, critics Robert W arshow and John G. Cawelti looked at the W estern’s depiction of violence; when political winds shifted to issues of gender identity, critic Jane Tompkins read the Western for what it told her about “the power that men in our society wield” (18) and Lee Clark M itchell for what it revealed of “making the man” (Westerns 3). Seeking to understand what something means, we look to the Western, where meaning is made. That is my subject in this essay, though I propose to change the focus from what something means to how meaning is made in the Western, or (more accurately) how it is unmade. I take as my starting point the apparent paradox of a literary genre identified by its hero’s reluctance with (Cawelti) and hostility toward language (Tompkins). In doing so, I acknowledge that the W estern’s close identification with a laconic style makes it superbly adaptable to the visual medium of film, thus giving rise to the interdisciplinary crit­ icism so characteristic of the field (e.g., Warshow, Cawelti, Tompkins, and M itchell). I propose now to return to the Western form ula’s wellspring in literary texts, to explore more closely the nature and implications of its story of language. Best-seller lists provide representatives of the literary Western. These are, after all, the books whose long-standing popularity made them the classics of the genre and, therefore, basic to any under­ standing of it: Owen W ister’s The Virginian (1902), the novel that 270 Western American Literature announced the Western; Riders o f the Purple Sage (1912), the most popular novel by Zane Grey, who “all but single-handedly confirmed the shape of [the] powerful new narrative form”; and Jack Schaefer’s Shane (1954), whose nostalgic perspective “offers a distillation of the Western itself” (Mitchell, Westerns 95, 123, 193).1All three nov­ els immediately manifest action familiar to the Western: an outsider enters a community, defends the tow nspeople/settlers/farm ers against the Indians/wilderness/ranchers, and after restoring order, departs. Convention has it that these Western plots focus on regener­ ation and redemption, which are, as Cawelti has pointed out, the reward “for those protagonists who can respond to [the West’s] chal­ lenge by recovering basic human and American values” (Adventure 233). The regeneration is embodied in the promise of a future, for in “the end, hero and heroine are clearly on their way to marriage, a family and a settled life thereafter” (.Adventure 235). But beneath this action, what is at issue is language. That is, the three novels are variations upon a single plot, shaped by gender, by which a man comes into a situation unsatisfactorily structured by words and dis­ places language by establishing himself as the Word— the Virginian, Lassiter, Shane. In each case, the plot concerns silencing and focus­ es our attention on the “thing” itself, on physical ways of knowing; knowledge or understanding is revealed not by language but by ges­ ture, by looking, by...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 268-292
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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