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L E V I S. P E T E R S O N Weber State College Tke Primitive and tke Civilized in Western Fiction Among the many patterns of significance that may be observed in what one might appropriately call the renaissance in Western fiction, one of the most interesting is that this new fiction demon­ strates an intense cultural debate over the conflicing values of the civilized and the primitive. The Western novel has become the testing ground for the relative worth to humanity of these con­ flicting values. It has captured the sense of ambivalence that Amer­ icans feel about their vanished frontier. On the actual frontier, Americans found a retreat from civilization. The historical frontiers­ man was often removed from the civilized values of love and mar­ riage, chastity, sobriety, non-violence, and lawfulness. A serious question before the actual frontiersman was whether he would respond to the civilized impulses he had acquired in the society left behind him or whether he would continue in the simpler, more elemental, cruder and more violent life of the wilderness. This question has continued to infuse our frontier fiction. It works out as a debate, a statement and counter-statement over the worth of the primitive and the civilized. The first side of the American debate over the worth of the primitive and the civilized is the affirmation of the primitive. The simple affirmation of frontier removal from civilized values is the attitude that traditionally and most abundantly characterizes Amer­ ican frontier fiction. The simple affirmation begins with Cooper, 1This is an essential portion of a thesis submitted to the English Department, Uni­ versity of Utah, in partial fulfillment of the requirements of a Doctor of Philosophy Degree. 198 Western American Literature who, despite a more complex attitude in the earliest of the Leatherstocking Tales, gravitates in his later novels to an unbridled ad­ miration for the primitive scout and hunter, Natty Bumppo. Al­ though Natty Bumppo is civilized enough to be deferential to the genteel men and ladies who people the novels in which he appears, he possesses the primitive qualities of freedom, lawlessness, and violence. There is no evil in Leatherstocking’s practice of these values, for his is a perfect rectitude. Furthermore, these values are exalted by the fact that Leatherstocking is a heroic character. Far from an ordinaiy man, Leatherstocking bears the superlativeness of a hero. The heroic mood has continued in frontier fiction since the day of Leatherstocking. The simple affirmation of the primitive values of freedom, lawlessness, and violence as the attributes of heroes has flourished to the latest moment. We can observe the course of this affirmation through heroic novels of the nineteenth century such as Charles Webber’s Old Hicks the Guide, Charles Averill’s Kit Carson; Prince of the Gold Seekers, and innumerable dime novels written between 1860 and 1915. We can trace this affirmation through Owen Wister’s The Virginian and Clarence Mulford’s Hopalong Cassidy stories, and through the novels of men like William MacLeod Raine, Ernest Haycox, and Luke Short, whose fifty or sixty novels have helped swell the stream of popular cowboy novels that flood the literary market to this day. Unfortunately, the fiction which has treated the primitive fron­ tiersman as heroic has for the most part remained of a sub-literary quality. It is more significant that in our own century the simple affirmation of freedom, lawlessness, and violence has appeared in a handful of novels of a realistic, non-heroic bent. Andy Adams’ The Log of a Cowboy, Eugene Manlove Rhodes’ novelettes like The Trusty Knaves and Paso Por Aqui, Forrester Blake’s Johnny Christ­ mas and Wilderness Passage, and Edward Abbey’s The Brave Cow­ boy and Fire on the Mountain all affirm primitive values without the distractions of the heroic formula of invincible and superhuman manhood. It is worthwhile to examine two of these works in some detail. Forrester Blake’s Johnny Christmas is a celebration of the primitive values of the mountain man. His central character, Johnny Christmas, is infused with wanderlust. His desire to feel new winds and hear strange waters leads him afar through the southern Rocky The Primitive...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 197-207
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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