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C . L . S O N N I C H S E N Arizona Historical Society Sex onthe Lone Prairee Western fiction has traditionally been clean. Where the coyotes howl and the wind blows free was never a place for promiscuous sex, kinky sex, or perversion. Since the early sixties, however, all this has changed. Western novelists have not gone as far out on the pornographic limb as some of their counterparts in the East and in California, but they have done their best and are still doing it in the late seventies, although there are signs that the urge to show all and tell all is slowing down — in the Great Open Spaces as well as nationally. Sex has always been a commodity and sometimes a literary com­ modity, and its appearance in works of fiction has provoked intermittent controversy for at least a century. It is only in recent times, however, that it has been put into a book like chile or oregano into a sopa, and with just about as much emotional involvement. This cold, commercial use of sex began even before the courts decided that Lady Chatterley’s Lover was not obscene and might be fruitfully perused by precocious babes in arms. It achieved status with Portnoy’s Complaint, which recognized masturbation as a normal adolescent activity, like brushing one’s teeth. The result in American fiction is that adultery is what every­ one is living in and rape is a spectator sport, like boxing or basketball. We who live west of the Mississippi are not surprised that such things exist in the blasé East or among the porno sheets and underground 16 Western American Literature newspapers of Los Angeles, but who would look for them in Texas or Arizona or Montana? There can be no doubt, however, that Santa Fe and San Antonio are following New York and Philadelphia in this respect, though without much hope of catching up. Larry McMurtry and a sedulous company of younger novelists have gone just about as far as they can in the pursuit of “realism,” and lovely ladies from Austin, Texas, and Tucson, Arizona, are tiptoeing into what used to be forbidden territory — and are doing it for money. Westerns, gothics, murder mysteries, anti-establishment blasts, rural epics, family sagas — whatever the category, the doors are open and the obscure corners of human sexuality are on view. An ordinary unsophisticated reader (a few still exist) who picks up a modem novel about the American West feels like Kipling’s color sergeant at the hanging of Danny Deever: “I’m dreadin’ what I’ve got to watch.” As a result, people with a respect for Literature (with a capital “L”) — and some of them do indeed survive — are thrown into convulsions by the books that come to hand. The editor of a book-review department in a Southwestern daily newspaper, a Southern Lady from Dallas, sent me a copy of David Helton’s King Jude (1969) with this comment: “I don’t want any review of this loathsome book. I give to you for your Texas collection.” Perhaps it is good for Southern Ladies to be jolted out of their complacency by Mr. Helton’s portrait of a brawling singer of “downhome music” with “king-size sexual prowess.” Perhaps not. Whether this opening of doors is good or bad will have to be decided by posterity. The point is that the doors are open in Western fiction, as elsewhere, and the way it has happened can be noted and described. A few preliminary points must be made, however, before the matter can be intelligently discussed. First of all, it should be noted that the revolution of the sixties and seventies was not just the result of a number of court decisions recogniz­ ing the freedom of the press. It followed the disintegration of a oncepowerful set of taboos. The whole structure of the unmentionable, the unnamable and the unthinkable has crumbled, and the sewage of centuries appears to be assaulting our ears, noses and imaginations. The sewage is of our own creation, of course. Nothing is unclean unless we agree that it is. If most of us believed that it...


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pp. 15-33
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