- “The Man Was Forever Looking for That Which He Never Found”The Western and Automotive Tourism in the Early Twentieth Century
Upon first sight of the eponymous cowboy, the narrator of Owen Wister’s The Virginian notes that “he had plainly come many miles from somewhere across the vast horizon, as the dust upon him showed” (4). In a scene that will be reproduced countless times in subsequent Westerns, the Virginian enters the narrative as a transient. His mobile lifestyle becomes inextricably bound to his essential nature because traveling through the Western’s landscape necessitates the cowboy’s self-reliant, individualist ethos for survival. However, unlike the more recognizable ending of the cowboy riding off into the sunset, The Virginian and other classic Westerns conclude with the cowboy’s reincorporation into the domestic sphere, generally through marriage. This melodramatic closure is rather enigmatic given the cowboy’s opening characterization.1 How could an inherently transient figure unproblematically decide to settle down? Why would a man like Riders of the Purple Sage’s Lassiter, having spent most of his adult life “looking for that which he never found” (8), resign himself to a secluded existence with an adopted family? The cowboy further highlights the vexing quality of these conclusions: the Virginian claims that “nothing’s queer . . . except marriage and lightning” (267), and Lassiter recognizes that during his travels he had “growed into a strange sort of a man . . . people were afraid of” (276). Given its imperative function as both a framing technique and an archetypal element, mobility’s role in the genre must be further examined in order to explicate the paradoxical conclusions of Westerns in the first quarter of the twentieth century. [End Page 225]
Critics have consistently characterized the role of mobility within early Westerns as an effect of the various authors’ tourist encounters with the American West. Prior to writing The Virginian, Wister traveled to Wyoming in 1885 as part of Dr. S. Weir Mitchell’s “West cure.” Believing the region to be inherently salutary, Dr. Mitchell sent overworked urbanites west to hunt and work on ranches in order to alleviate what he saw as the emasculating influence of modernity. While purportedly a prescription for wellness, the “West cure” was essentially a western vacation that established a precedent for later tourist practices like the dude ranch. Zane Grey also set out for the West, first visiting California in 1906, two years before his first Western was published.2 Extending this discussion of the authors’ reflection of tourism in their Westerns, John Dorst argues that the preoccupation throughout The Virginian with the act of looking is symptomatic of the burgeoning “modern touristic ‘gaze’” (227). He grounds this emphasis on vision in Wister’s western photography, which mirrors “a much larger transformation in the discourse of looking at the American West” (231). Taking this argument a step further and in a slightly different direction, Lee Clark Mitchell and Daniel Worden read early Westerns as attempting to undermine the growth of tourism. Mitchell asserts that Zane Grey’s landscape descriptions try to overcome “the banalities of a new tourist literature” (129); likewise, Worden contends that The Virginian depicts “alternative social relations” in an effort to subvert the mass commodification of the West by tourist culture (68). While certainly advancing an understanding of the relation between early Westerns and the culture of tourism, these readings favor a causal relationship between the authors’ westward travel and their Westerns, positing that the authors simply invoke their tourist experience as source material for their narratives. Such a supposition fails to provide a richer understanding of the genre as not only drawing upon but also contributing to the discourse of western tourism.
Rather than assuming a unidirectional influence between authors and their travels, I take seriously the coexistence of the Western’s emergence as a popular genre with the social and material developments that enabled increased automotive tourism to and within the West. The three Westerns I examine here—Wister’s The Virginian (1902), [End Page 226] Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage (1912), and John Ford’s film The Iron Horse (1924)—represent key examples of significant Westerns in the first...