Monday, 21 July 2008


INTRODUCTION: In a piece about The Wire, Dennis Lehane referred to David Simon loving a piece of dialogue from The Wild Bunch: Pike Bishop (William Holden) saying 'let's go'. I've never been able to hear that line in isolation, however; not without Tector Gorch (Warren Oates)'s reply, 'why not?'. I recalled having written as much somewhere, and eventually dug out this essay, originally written a few years ago for the Financial Times' Re-Readings series, but spiked for being too esoteric even for that, mostly because the book was in print only in the USA.

I should declare an interest: nearly 40 years ago I studied American Studies with Rich, wrote him a 55 page paper on The Shadow, and consider him one of my very best teachers. But his work speaks for itself; beyond the Frontier Trilogy, his fiction, of which ABE may be the most accessible, has an uncanny ability to take on the culture of its time; THE CRATER is one of the best 19th century novels written in the later 20th century.

I've added a new concluding paragraph, but otherwise this is as it was originally written. I think it remains valid, and the book worth re-reading (or reading) now....

Richard Slotkin, Atheneum (US), 1993, 850pp

“When the legend becomes truth, print the legend,” advises John Ford in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALENCE. To Richard Slotkin, who over a period of 20 years produced a trilogy of books analysing those legends, they consititute the truths which once bound American society together. In GUNFIGHTER NATION, the last of that trilogy, Slotkin frames his argument in terms even British readers will recognise: the familiar images of film, television, and novels which have become iconic all over the world.

The frontier defines America’s most enduring myths. In REGENERATION THROUGH VIOLENCE (1973) Slotkin portrayed the entire continent as the frontier; colonial America was surrounded by it. The period of exploration ended just before the Civil War. As Manifest Destiny conquered the continent it became THE FATAL ENVIRONMENT (1985); the second volume takes in the rest of the nineteenth century. Dealing with sources less familiar to a general audience, these two books are more academic in style; they won awards, but not necessarily readers, although I recall Robert B Parker having Spenser read REGENERATION in one of his novels. GUNFIGHTER NATION presents its more familiar material in a style which better reflects its sources; it flows like a novel.

American myth, to Slotkin, has two strands: populist (Jeffersonian, agrarian, democratic) and progressive (Alexander Hamilton via Teddy Roosevelt, expansionist, elitist, implicitly racist). Contrast the Robin Hood myth of Jesse James with the big-business approach to the West (first harvesting buffalo, then marketing the myth as Wild West shows) of Buffalo Bill. Both strands grow out of the frontier, but we see them clearly in conflict in a seminal modern work like Dashiell Hammett’s RED HARVEST, where the detective known only as the Continental Op (operating on behalf of a whole continent) finds himself caught between strikers (populist) and mine owners (progressive) in a town called Poisonville.

Such myths affect not only the way we perceive history, but also the ways we enact that history in the present. Slotkin can analyse both perception and enactment because he is able to present dime novels, pulp magazines, and silent films in the contexts of their times, free of the revisionism encouraged by changing attitudes. Free of scholarly cant. Because he makes the context of popular culture clear, his formal analysis is riveting.

Movies are central to the myth of the West in the past century, and Slotkin’s perception of them puts many film critics to shame. He understands how film works as an art form, he understands too how the film business works. Without such understanding no western movie, from THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY to UNFORGIVEN, can be put into any sort of context. More importantly, he understands the changing society to whose needs those westerns pandered.

The boom time for the Western was probably from 1948 through 1973, corresponding with the triumph of America’s progressive side: the cold war domination which followed World War II. Television continued the B movie ethos of earlier years, while film directors began to take the genre apart. The myths of the frontier were adapted quickly to this new world order, including the transfer of the savage menace from literal to figurative “Reds”. By the time Kennedy became President, this myth was full-blown into the “New Frontier”: Green Berets were the modern “rangers” of frontier myth, fighting in Vietnam’s “Indian Country”.

Vietnam is where the myth hits the fan. Slotkin’s simple analysis of the My Lai massacre, as presented by Life magazine, and a parallel analysis of Peckinpah’s THE WILD BUNCH, reflect not just the intrinsic power of the film's art, but, in the demoralizing of the America it reflects, classic myths became inverted; Americans had crossed-over and become the savages; 'going native' was always the most feared consequence of the Frontier, all the way back to Colonial times. Slotkin marks this change in Pike Bishop’s (William Holden) single line in THE WILD BUNCH: “Let’s go.” My only quibble is that he skips Lyle Gorch”s (Warren Oates) nihilistic and quintessentially American reply: “Why not?”.

When Richard Nixon switched his Vietnam policy from winning the war to “rescuing” US POWs, he was consciously reclaiming another American myth which was the basis of the Puritans' earliest literature: the captivity narrative. This pointed the way for the revisionist Rambo histories of Vietnam, whose betrayal scenarios blamed loss on dissenters at home. What was Ronald Reagan, asks Slotkin, if not America’s last attempt to reclaim the beliefs American myths told Americans should bind society together, even when they were known to be untrue.

Eventually, delusion is doomed to fail. As Slotkin points out dryly, “no mythic system can be perfectly invulnerable to the rebuke of events”. He sees America’s choice now as a falsely idealised past (“a monstrous overgrown Disneyland”) or the challenge of using myth as one of many ways of imagining the truth.It’s a huge jump from the analysis of popular culture, but no one has made a better start.

Sadly, since not long after I wrote that conclusion, America has spent most of the current century revisiting the land of delusion, as if totally inured to the almost constant screaming rebuke of events. Our monstrous overgrown Disneyland has been attacked, and our response has been to both lash out angrily while retreating deeper into Disneyland's fantasies. Indulging our violence while pretending to be victims. Maybe America needed to be reminded of a deeper level of myth than a Top Gun imposter in front of a Mission Accomplished banner. Americans needed to be reminded that the legend had not yet become truth, and it was not their job to make it so. I doubt this piece running in Britain's FT would have made much difference.

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