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Donna Howeli-Sickles. THE GARDEN GATE. 1994. J i. T h e B o v in e O b j e c t o f Id e o l o g y : H is t o r y , G e n d e r , a n d t h e O r ig in s o f t h e “C l a s s ic ” W e s t e r n V i c t o r i a L a m o n t There was once a man living on the southern range, Maverick by name, who accumulated a large herd of cattle by the simple method of branding as his own all stock which in the great general roundups of the olden days had escaped the branding-iron. . . . Maverick-branding became a recognized feature of the cattle industry. — Frances McElrath, The Rustler It was quite common for herd owners to pay the boys from $2.50 to $5 per head for all the “mavericks” they could put the com­ pany’s brand on, and “rustling for mavericks” in the spring was in order all over the range country. . . . This practice taught the cowboy to look upon the unbranded, motherless calf as com­ mon, or public property, to be gathered in by the lucky finder. — A. S. Mercer, The Banditti of the Plains “You leave other folks’ cattle alone, or you take the conse­ quences, and it was all known to Steve from the start. . . . He knew well enough the only thing that would have let him off would have been a regular jury. For the thieves have got hold of the juries in Johnson County.” — Owen Wister, The Virginian In t r o d u c t i o n Frances McElrath’s little-known novel The Rustler raises intriguing questions about the origins of the generic formula we now recognize as the Western. Like Owen Wister, Frances McElrath was an eastern writer who traveled in the West. Like Wister’s The Virginian, The Rustler first appeared in the spring of 1902, inspired by the Johnson County Rustler War of 1892, a crisis with roots in the ongoing tensions 3 7 4 WAL 3 5 .4 W in te r 2 0 0 1 between large cattle companies and the local cowboy population. Although these “coincidences” certainly invite speculation about possible contact between the two authors, I am more interested in two intriguing and related differences between the two novels— differences which yield important insights about the sexual politics underlining the cultural production of the Western novel as a “masculine” genre at the turn of the last century. The first has to do with the ways in which© each novel interprets the history of the Johnson County War, particularly their representation of the so-called maverick question. While The Virginian makes only passing reference to this debate, its centrality to the plot of The Rustler is linked to a feminist politics in the novel. This relation brings us to the second difference between the two texts, one which concerns the fate of the cowboy hero. By successfully winning battles on moral, sex­ ual, and economic fronts, the Virginian shows America how to sustain its frontier values in a post-frontier economy; in The Rustler, it is ulti­ mately the heroine who performs this cultural work, and McElrath makes this so by taking up the discourse of what has been called “domestic feminism,” drawing various links between the frontier land­ scape and the public sphere which suggest that frontier closure requires forms of management associated with “women’s work.” Meanwhile, the uncanny resemblance between The Rustler and The Virginian suggests that, whether or not Wister had ever read McElrath’s work or vice versa, these novels occupied opposing positions in a common debate. Perhaps the genre we now recognize as the Western became insistently masculine precisely because it, like so many other traditionally mascu­ line spheres in turn-of-the-century American culture and society, had become subject to feminist occupation. The Virginian and The Rustler respond in different ways to the Johnson County War of 1892, but the most intriguing difference lies in the ways...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 373-401
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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