Share via Email The lone cowboy hero is far removed from the reality of the west. Some of them are strictly analogous to cowboys, such as gauchos on the plains of the southern cone of Latin America; the llaneros on the plains of Colombia and Venezuela; possibly the vaqueiros of the Brazilian north-east; certainly the Mexican vaqueros from whom indeed, as everyone knows, both the costume of the modern cowboy myth and most of the vocabulary of the cowboy's trade are directly derived: There are similar populations in Europe, such as the csikos on the Hungarian plain, or puszta, the Andalusian horsemen in the cattle-raising zone whose flamboyant behaviour probably gave the earliest meaning of the word "flamenco", and the various Cossack communities of the south Russian and Ukrainian plains.
In the 16th century there were the exact equivalents of the Chisholm trail leading from the Hungarian plains to the market cities of Augsburg, Nuremberg or Venice. And I do not have to tell you about the great Australian outback, which is essentially ranching country, though for sheep more than cattle.
There is thus no shortage of potential cowboy myths in the western world. And, in fact, practically all the groups I have mentioned have generated macho and heroic semi-barbarian myths of one kind or another in their own countries and sometimes even beyond. But none of them has generated a myth with serious international popularity, let alone one that can compare, even faintly, with the fortunes of the North American cowboy. Our starting point is the fact that, in and outside Europe, the "western" in its modern sense — that is, the myth of the cowboy — is a late variant of a very early and deep-rooted image: Fenimore Cooper , whose popularity in Europe followed immediately upon his first publication — Victor Hugo thought he was "the American Walter Scott" — is the most familiar version of this.
Nor is he dead. Without the memory of Leatherstocking, would English punks have invented Mohican hairstyles? The original image of the wild west, I suggest, contains two elements: Civilisation is what threatens nature; and their move from bondage or constraint into independence, which constitutes the essence of America as a radical European ideal in the 18th and early 19th centuries, is actually what brings civilisation into the wild west and so destroys it. The plough that broke the plains is the end of the buffalo and the Indian.
It is clear that many white protagonists of the original wild west epic are in some sense misfits in, or refugees from, "civilisation", but that is not, I think, the main essence of their situation. Basically they are of two types: In terms of literary pedigree, the invented cowboy was a late romantic creation. But in terms of social content, he had a double function: As a reviewer said of Frederic Remington's articles, illustrated by himself in , the cowboy roamed "where the American may still revel in the great red-shirted freedom which has been pushed so far to the mountain wall that it threatens soon to expire somewhere near the top".
In hindsight, the west could seem thus, as it seemed to that sentimentalist and first great star of movie westerns William S Hart , for whom the cattle and mining frontier "to this country … means the very essence of national life … It is but a generation or so since virtually all this country was frontier.
Consequently its spirit is bound up in American citizenship. And the invented tradition of the west is entirely symbolic, inasmuch as it generalises the experience of a comparative handful of marginal people. Who, after all, cares that the total number of deaths by gunshot in all the major cattle towns put together between and — in Wichita plus Abilene plus Dodge City plus Ellsworth — was 45, or an average of 1.
The strong, silent type John Wayne in The Searchers. Hence the quiet dropping of the Mexican, Indian and black elements, which still appear in the original non-ideological westerns — for instance, Buffalo Bill's show. It is at this stage and in this manner that the cowboy becomes the lanky, tall Aryan. In other words, the invented cowboy tradition is part of the rise of both segregation and anti-immigrant racism; this is a dangerous heritage.
The Aryan cowboy is not, of course, entirely mythical. Probably the percentage of Mexicans, Indians and black people did diminish as the wild west ceased to be essentially a south-western, even a Texan, phenomenon, and at the peak of the boom it extended into areas like Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas.
In the later periods of the cattle boom the cowboys were also joined by a fair number of European dudes, mainly Englishmen, with eastern-bred college-men following them. The new cowboy tradition made its way into the wider world by two routes: As for the movies, we know that the genre of the western was firmly established by about Show business for a mass public being what it is, it will surprise nobody that the celluloid cowboy tended to develop two subspecies: Tom Mix was no doubt the prototype and much the most successful of these.
Channelling the cowboy myth This is really very recent. For instance, cowboys did not become a serious medium for selling things until the s, surprising though this seems: Marlboro country really revealed the enormous potential in American male identification with cow-punchers, who, of course, are increasingly seen not as riding herd but as gunslingers. Henry Kissinger to Oriana Fallaci in , that's who. Let me quote you the reductio ad absurdum of this myth, which dates back to It's not just stage-coaches and sagebrush.
It's an image of men who are real and proud. Of the freedom and independence we all would like to feel. Now Ralph Lauren has expressed all this in Chaps , his new men's cologne. Chaps is a cologne a man can put on as naturally as a worn leather jacket or a pair of jeans. The West you would like to feel inside yourself.