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O l d F o l k s in t h e N e w W e s t : S u r v i v i n g C h a n g e a n d S t a y i n g F i t in T h e M i s f i t s C h e r y l l G l o t f e l t y Imagine that you want to marry Marilyn Monroe. Imagine that she is willing. First you must divorce your present wife. So you take a tem­ porary leave from New York City and establish residency in Reno, Nevada, a six-week investment that buys your freedom. Imagine that you are a writer. It was under these circumstances that author and playwright Arthur Miller composed a short story titled “The Misfits,” published in 1957 in Esquire. The story, subtitled “Chicken feed: the last frontier of the quixotic cowboy,” is set in Reno and the deserts surrounding it and focuses on a group of mustangers, cowboys who capture wild horses. Both the mustangs and the cowboys are misfits, the horses because there are only a handful of them left on the range, the cowboys because Lew Hymers. “HOORAY.1 I’M A FREE W OMAN!" 1945. Postcard. Special Collections, University of Nevada-Reno Library. C h e r y l l G l o t f e l t y there are only a handful of them left around Reno and because they round up misfit horses and sell them for a pittance to companies that make dog food and chicken feed. Even though their way of life is ridicu­ lously out of step with modernity, these cowboys keep on mustanging, a refusal to change that fascinates Miller and becomes the point of the story.1 As reporter James Goode notes, “For all [Miller] knew, these men were the last three unreconstructed originals in the United States” (19). Shortly after the story was published, Arthur Miller’s marriage to Monroe was troubled. Hoping to pull Monroe out of a depression, Miller expanded “The Misfits” into a novel “conceived as a film,” which was then made into The Misfits (1961), a film shot in and around Reno, directed by John Huston and starring Clark Gable as cowboy Gay Langland , Marilyn Monroe as Roslyn Taber from Chicago, who comes to Reno to get a divorce, and Thelm a Ritter as Isabelle Steers, Roslyn’s landlady, divorce coach, and surrogate mother.2 Creating a starring role for Monroe prompted some interesting changes to the story, in which women are mentioned but not dramatized. It is as if Miller asked him­ self, “W hat would happen to these mustangers if they fell in love with a beautiful, sensitive woman?” Perhaps the most significant change to the story is that by the end of the film, as a result of Roslyn’s influence, Gay Langland decides to give up mustanging. Whereas the story featured a misfit group of cowboys who refuse to adapt to the modem world, the film suggests that the leader of these cowboys will try to find a fit in the New West. Written about a world in flux, The Misfits contrasts the Old West with the New and depicts the dilemma of characters who are caught in this transition.3 Against this changing West we meet characters who are themselves negotiating the transition from young to old. W hat are the options for older people in the New West? The Misfits imagines dif­ ferent answers for men than for women. Ultimately, the film suggests that change— all kinds of change— is inevitable, an ineluctable reality, and that in the face of change the best response is to adapt and become new rather than to be inflexible and get old. This lesson is as applica­ ble to our own time— the new New West, the postmodern West, the twenty-first-century West— as it was to the 1950s West depicted in The Misfits. Thus, The Misfits is an illuminating period piece, documenting the transition from a frontier to an urban West; it is also a sensitive treatment of human aging; and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 26-50
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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