Above: the final scene of the greatest Western of them all
I’ve always had great respect for the late Eric Hobsbawm as a historian, but less for his politics. I’ve warmed to the old Stalinist/Euro, though, having read that his last book, ‘Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century’ deals with (amongst other things), cowboys and the Western in literature, mythology and film. Here’s a little taste:
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: explorers or visitors seeking something that cannot be found elsewhere – and money is the very last thing they seek; and men who have established a symbiosis with nature, as it exists in its human and non-human shape, in these wilds.
In terms of literary pedigree, the invented cowboy was a late romantic creation. But in terms of social content, he had a double function: he represented the ideal of individualist freedom pushed into a sort of inescapable jail by the closing of the frontier and the coming of the big corporations. As a reviewer said of Frederic Remington’s articles, illustrated by himself in 1895, 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.” As a quantitative statement this is absurd, but its significance is symbolic. 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 1870 and 1885 – in Wichita plus Abilene plus Dodge City plus Ellsworth – was 45, or an average of 1.5 per cattle-trading season, or that local western newspapers were not filled with stories about bar-room fights, but about property values and business opportunities?
John Wayne in The Searchers. Photograph: AP Photo/Warner Bros
But the cowboy also represented a more dangerous ideal: the defence of the native Waspish American ways against the millions of encroaching immigrants from lower races. 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.
Read the rest (courtesy the Graun) here.
I trust that in this last book, Hobsbawm has also written more about his love of jazz.