The literature of the American West embodies a clear perception of the frailty of corporate freedom and of the importance of men who have learned on their own to face down the barbarian, even though no one backs their play.

There are two important corporate myths that shaped the life of eighteenth and nineteenth century America. And perhaps a third, though its operation was in most cases implicit. The New England myth was derivative of the English Puritan reading of the Old Testament. It spoke of the New Jerusalem, and of a City on the Hill, someplace in Massachusetts. Its orientation was toward life within a Covenant with a redemptive future.[1] With what I think of this myth, some of you are familiar.[2] It has become an occasion of controversy. But there can be no dispute that the study of New England’s specialness, of its teleology, eschatology, and typology, has emerged in the last two decades as a self-contained scholarly industry, employing hundreds of ambitious young people who are kept busy ferreting out the four-fold meaning of the most obscure narrative of Indian capture and the dreariest Artillery Sermon. Courses in New England studies are ubiquitous components of the contemporary curriculum, call them by whatever name we will. All assume that there was a New England myth, a myth of the American Puritan, which informs the objects of their scrutiny.

The Southern antitype of this Puritan myth has not been so well defined, but its existence is nowhere in dispute. Richard Beale Davis in his monumental three­ volume study of the intellectual life of the Colonial South has demonstrated that its origins go back to the very earliest set­tlements and have very little to do with the establishment of Negro slavery in the region.[3] (As I have often remarked, the black man did not make the South the way it is, though his presence has helped to keep it so.) The simplest way of understanding the Southern myth of American cultural identity is with reference to the other side of the sixteenth and seventeenth century England that was not Puritan—the side which indeed disap­proved of Puritanism and with it, what Oakeshott calls “teleocratic politics.”[4] This was, of course, a majority of all Englishmen in 1660 when Charles Stuart was restored to his father’s throne. But it was a majority that contained subdivisions, the largest of which was not monarchist, according to the definition provided in Filmer’s Patriarcha.[5] A few such true Tories did set­tle in the Colonial South. But their in­fluence was not formative, and their tenden­cy to confuse the state and society was ar­chaic in the eyes of most of their neighbors. All of which is to say that the character of the Southern myth which finds its defini­tion in a body of inherited law and custom owes chiefly to the English Old Whigs. We can scarcely overestimate the importance of the considerable number of early Southern leaders who completed their education at the Inns of Court, a place foreign to the New England mind, which preferred a ver­sion of the Law of Moses. I have elsewhere tried to suggest that the Southern myth derived most of its impetus from a concep­tion of the English past and summarized its relationship to the patria with the Vir­ginian image of transplantation.[6] But my point here is that like the New England myth, it presupposed a corporate life from which the individuality of its adherents drew sustenance and direction.

The third American myth I tend to associate with the Middle Colonies and par­ticularly with the figure of Benjamin Franklin, or perhaps with Franklin and Adam Smith. It operates within a social context given its character not by Scripture or by prescriptive law, but rather by business contracts. This is the regime Alexis de Tocqueville understood. Its dominant figure is the entrepreneur, the man who would “get ahead.” But it is still corporate, even though it has no past or future to con­trast with its unvarying, frenetic present. In this context, Sammy ran and continues to run, though his area of operations is not now confined to Philadelphia. (Billy Sol Estes, we recall, is a Texan—as was Lyn­don Johnson.) But commercial life is always corporate in that someone must see to it that debts are paid and goods delivered. Moreover, as Adam Smith suggests, there is indeed a kind of amity and cohesion, a sociability if you like, which derives direct­ly from the honest practice of business as usual. As I have written, Benjamin Franklin was a pleasant fellow. He meant to be liked. To be Benjamin Franklin, he had to be well-liked. And well-liked he was, whatever his motives.[7]

Which brings me now to my point about the American West and these anterior identities. For the Western myth is not a corporate myth. Furthermore, it is a curious but verifiable fact of American cultural history that the open territories beckoning from beyond the Alleghenies or the Missouri River had essentially the same mythic significance for Americans drawn westward by their existence from each of the three older cultures. Southerners and New Englanders and even commercial men felt about the West, as the West, qua possibility in more or less the same terms. To be unbounded in space and beyond the definition of familiar institutions was both exhilarating and frightening. Or rather, first exhilarating and then frightening, once one had a taste of “nature unim­proved.” The paradox then became that the untrammeled individuality of Western life required a reference point back East, or in the forms and structures of life brought out from the settled territories, to give it lasting meaning.

If we examine it closely, the image of the frontier (which is made up of a series of “Wests”) in American literature will tell us all of these things. That is, the image we receive when our writers get beyond lyric first response to the beauty of nature uncontaminated and begin to show us human encounters in a Western context, outside the bonds of corporate life. I will begin with instances from the literature of the American South because I know it best: Green Centuries, by Caroline Gordon; World Enough and Time, by Robert Penn Warren; Forest of the Night, by Madison Jones. In each of these, life on the frontier is imagined as dehumanizing. Jean-Jacques Rousseau is made an explicit target. Women and the family appear as victims. Caroline Gordon’s Orion Outlaw is perhaps the quintessential frontiersman in our literature. “Space,” in his life, has become synonymous with “license.” He is like the wicked hunter of Scripture, proud Nimrod, and like the archer of the classical myth. It is, therefore, no surprise that the gentle woman who found his dream of life beyond the boundaries exciting ends up a physical and spiritual victim. Likewise, the two young people, Jerry Beaumont and Rachel Jordan, in Warren’s World Enough and Time, who seek shelter from history in the camp of the river pirates; and the Lewis boys, in Brother to Dragons, who disabuse their uncle, Thomas Jefferson, of his theories about human goodness, when in Kentucky they do not survive the shock of human loss in the death of their mother and take revenge against the Powers by butchering their slaves. The hero in Jones’ novel, Jonathan Cannon, leaves Virginia for Tennessee with visions of a clean new world. He hopes to find there the French philosopher’s “state of nature.” Instead, he finds hell, where no man’s hand is re­strained. Jones’ image of early life on the Natchez Trace is perhaps the darkest treat­ment of the dream of the New Eden in our literature, though it has numerous counter­ parts.[8]

In the fiction of the Mountain West, the consequences of isolation and freedom un­confined receive perhaps their most in­teresting treatment in the work of Walter Van Tilburg Clark. In The Ox-Bow Inci­dent, the central symbol of social chaos is that of lynching, the result of an inability to enforce the law or even to discover it. An unlucky group of cowboys is lynched, not to re-establish social control in a context where control has broken down, but almost for the sake of lynching. The hero in Clark’s The Track of the Cat is destroyed by being the consummate Westerner, always on in­sisting on thrusting himself alone against the implacability of nature, represented here by a deadly mountain lion. His death, caused by finding out that such en­counters are too much for one man by himself, marks the restoration of ordinary social life in the house of his father. Apart from an occasional sentimental treatment of the life of the Mountain Man and a fre­quent but nostalgic glorification of the cowboy as a man who has lost his role in a society gone too far in the opposite direc­tion, toward collectivism (see Edward Ab­bey’s The Brave Cowboy), Western American literature is replete with criticisms of the dream of life beyond the corporate bond.

And the same doctrine is taught in those classics of our popular literature, the great Western films. To be sure, the novels by Clark and Abbey, which I have just mentioned, as well as many other master­ works of what is now called Western Literature, have been made into movies. But perhaps the most important and ar­chetypal of the Western narratives have their definitive life on the screen and are not often thought of apart from their incar­nation as movies. I will speak here of two of these which contain a reflection or judgment on the necessary connection of pre- or asocial freedom and some version of the corporate life. I refer now to Red River, which is perhaps the most important movie John Wayne ever made: and to Shane, Alan Ladd’s most memorable performance.[9] Both of these films say, in effect, that the courage of the hero in space can have no meaning until it is grounded in a social life. That courage is not identified with arrested adolescence, as in Stephen Crane’s “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” by the dramas of Shane, the gunslinger, and Dunson, the crusty cattle baron. But it is depicted as tenuous and vulnerable when the question of human continuity is raised in its proximi­ty. And it is the heroic image that sur­renders in both instances, not the social am­biance by which it is challenged. This ten­sion is of course much older than the literature of the American frontier. Homer’s Achilles discovers that he needs the Achaeans, however contemptible they may be in his eyes. For he must be a hero for some people who have a continuing life after death has closed his eyes, if he is to be a hero at all. His freedom seems terrible on­ly when it results in the death of his friend Patroclus. Likewise, Dunson, holding onto his land in Texas against Indian and Spanish challenge, surviving the turmoil brought to his state by Confederate defeat, finds that his design to leave a lasting mark upon the land, a brand, depends upon the durability of his relationships to his adopted son, Matthew Garth, and to Garth’s judgment in choosing a wife capable of assisting him in providing for that continuity. The major action of “Red River” flows from a hardening and despera­tion that emerge from Dunson’s character during the heroic journey of the first great cattle drive northward to the railhead—an enterprise made possible by Matthew’s return from service in the Confederate Army and made necessary by the terrible con­dition of the economy of Texas during Reconstruction. Dunson must make the drive successfully or the labor of his life will have come to naught. It is the same for many of the men who go with him. If they can have a share in this enterprise, some of the dispiriting burdens of the military defeat will be diminished in proportion. And they will have a little cash, a commodity of unbelievable scarcity in the South of that time. (Though Texas forgot nothing and did not change its mind about Secession. We should remember that it differed somewhat from its sister states in the Southeast. It would not or could not live on memories alone, would not or could not accept defeat.) To reach Abilene on horseback with iron strapped to their leg and to collect there a little Yankee money was to find a way up and out and to guarantee some kind of a future for their kind. But a lifetime of strain catches up with Dunson. He is too anxious to complete the drive and pushes his men too hard. They begin to rebel, and he begins to kill them. Matthew Garth and his elderly partner Groot (played by Walter Brennan) intervene. They disarm Dunson and take the herd away from him, promis­ing to deliver it to its destination by less Draconian means. Dunson rides hard to the south for help and plans to kill them all. He is still well personified, matched against the colorful and merciless circumstances of the West. His crew continues onward without him in the mood of camaraderie and self­ assurance that they had earlier displayed while cavalrymen in gray.

Briefly, they turn aside to rescue a wagon train, and Mathew meets and falls in love with a girl. Once they resume the drive, Abilene is only a few days to the north. Dunson encounters the same wagon train a few days later, meets and makes an assessment of the young woman who had caught Matthew’s eye. The herd is delivered to Kansas and bought by a cattle broker. Then the cattle crew await the arrival of their pursuing Nemesis. Dunson shoulders his way through the delivered cattle, shoots one of the young drivers who attempts to interfere with his search for Garth, and then has a considerable brawl with his foster son, who refuses to shoot it out with him or to challenge his authority any further but who is now too much man to take an undeserved whipping without lighting back. Matt’s girl, Tess Millay, interrupts the fight by firing a rifle, only to be outrag­ed when she realizes that the bond of affec­tion uniting Dunson and Garth remains unbroken. Dunson suggests that the young people marry and then stops in the dirt to propose a new brand as a symbol for the Dunson ranch, a rolling D—the Red River D—with a N across the ford, a proof that his work is now almost complete, that his achievement will survive, though under milder circumstances and in a way that will make a place for friends, patience, compromise, and women and children. Dunson has entered the corporate life, even though the heroic life was his way of getting there.

Jack Shaefer’s Shane, both in its film ver­sion and as a novel, deals not with the dif­ficult transition to corporate life but with the fragility of nascent outposts of civiliza­tion once they appear on the frontier.[10] The story is a remembered thing, drawn from the life of a boy, Robert MacPherson Star­rett. The scene is Wyoming in the late 1880s. Bobby, his father, Joe, and his mother, Marian, are busy establishing a homestead just beneath the front range of the Rockies. They are part of a small com­munity that has sprung up on one side of the river that divides their valley. On the other operates the old-fashioned, open­ range cattleman, Luke Fletcher, with his herd of rough range stock. There is a store in the community, with a saloon run by Grafton, but not much more. However, if the trend toward settlement continues, Fletcher’s situation will be endangered and perhaps his access to water cut-off. One other characteristic of the valley is impor­tant. Though the law that allows for homesteading has reach there, no one is legally authorized to enforce that law or any other.

Into this setting rides Shane, the ar­chetypal gunfighter from Arkansas who has wandered throughout the open land and defined himself with his manners, his horse, and his gun. But having experienced life beyond the corporate limits and trav­eled all across the mountains and the sea of grass, he has apparently wearied of his total freedom and yearns to redefine it once more in the company of other men as part of a social unit. Immediately upon riding up to the Starrett place, he is greeted without fear or cunning, offered the water he desires for his horse, and given a place at Mrs. Starrett’s table. Within a few hours, he is of­fered also a job. Completely taken with the entire Starrett family in a way that he can­ not explain, he becomes for a time a member of it: so thoroughly a member that they speak of him as still there even after he has gone. For the most well-meaning peo­ple, the arrangement is a dangerous one. No respectable woman can have two husbands or a brother that is not her blood kin; and no boy can have two fathers, at least not at the same time.

Yet Shane manages his situation, even cherishes it, without challenging Joe in any way, and proves to be not only the helper of the family but its savior when, after he and Starrett have thrashed Fletcher’s cowhands in a fair fight, the old man brings into their conflict a hired killer, one Stark Wilson. It is at this point when Shane must fight with and for the Starretts, that his connection with them becomes exceptionally close. Joe goes armed at all times. Bob’s admiration for Shane grows; and when Marian wonders if he stays chiefly for her sake, Shane answers no, that he cares for them as a family. It is their life as a family that at­tracted him and moved him to put up his gun and work for wages. He has been reminded of almost forgotten things. Marian hopes that he will delay his depar­ture. Shane has no intention of leaving until the Starretts are safe, particularly after Wilson has killed one of the neighboring farmers whom he provoked into a fight. When Starrett insists on going to face Fletcher himself, Shane puts on his gun and knocks his friend out. He rides swiftly to town to Grafton’s store and there kills both Fletcher and Wilson in a dramatic fight. Then, wounded, he rides out of the valley, his work being done. As he explains to Bob­by, “There is no breaking the mold” and “no going back from a killing.” He would not continue with the Starretts as before. For to return now would be to usurp Joe’s place. Furthermore, the neighbors would not like having a killer around, even though in that one instance, a killer was what they most required.

The shooting of Wilson and Fletcher is, however, unlike the killing which ordinari­ly brings a gunfighter his reputation. It represents, as the mature Robert Starrett recognizes, an application of the asocial frontier virtues to the life of the communi­ty. What Americans have had, thanks to their dream of an Eden in the West, of a recovery of a prelapsarian innocence through a journey in space has been mostly a rude shock, an education in social theory according to the doctrine of Thomas Hob­bes. But the American imagination has also recognized, once cured of the myth, that the frontier hero, as Daniel Boone or Natty Bumpo, has elements in his character that may prove to be invaluable in creating or defending a civilized life. Or may prove thus useful if he himself remembers something of that life with affection, even after many years alone with the forests, the mountains, and the plains. Shane is a hero for a little Wyoming community even after he is gone from it. There is that within him which is not quite (to use his language) “fiddle-footed.”

The literature of the American West at its best differs from that of the older regions in that it embodies a clear perception of the frailty of corporate freedom and of the im­portance of men who have learned on their own to face down the barbarian, even though no one backs their play. But what I am talking about is a more basic thing than honor. Or perhaps it is the root of what we mean by that word. The West is a place where a man is always reminded of his con­tingency, where nature in its majesty and beauty or even in its ugliness always seems huge—and human artifacts meager. We cherish it as an image for the significance which it attached to individual human ef­forts. As the New Mexico novelist Frank Waters has suggested, it has now this meaning for people everywhere: “For all the world the American West symbolizes a boundless realm of individual freedom; a psychological realm where men are men, and women like it.”[11] The West is a place to get rid of our sentimental delusions and to prove up our worth. If the best of its literature is pastoral, it is rough pastoral, not Arcadian. If working on the trail drive is to count for something, it must be dif­ficult. If, like the cowboys in the old song, we would—with some luster added to our name—”go home to Dixie, when the work’s all done next fall.”[12] Like all heroic literature, the literature of the frontier car­ries with it at least the memory of the cor­porate life and accepts that memory as norm: the memory of the cultivated garden, minus the millenarianism of New England: the Negro problem of the South: or the opportunism of Benjamin Franklin.[13] A little town painted white but with the mountains not too far away and the spiritual presence of the great hunters and warriors never completely out of mind. It is in keeping with the mood of this literature that American set out to preserve some of their wild places as our fathers first saw them. For along with the poetry of “Westering,” they help keep before us in memory the way we have come and some of the experiences by which we were defined.

Republished with gracious permission from The Intercollegiate Review (Fall/Winter 1980). 

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[1] See Ernest Lee Tuveson, Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968); see also Sacvan Bercovitch, The Puritan Origins of the American Self (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975): James West Davidson, The Logic of Millennial Thought: Eighteenth-Century New England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977); Nathan O. Hatch, The Sacred Cause of Liberty: Republican Thought and the Millennium in Revolutionary New England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977): and Cushing Strout, The New Heavens and New Earth: Political Religion in America (New York: Harper and Row, 1974).

[2] I refer to 180-181 and 193-200 of my A Better Guide Than Reason: Studies in the American Revolution (La Salle, Illinois: Sherwood Sugden & Company, 1979): also my “A Writ of Fire and Sword: The Politics of Oliver Cromwell,” The Occasional Review, III (Sumner, 1975), 61-80.

[3] Richard Beale Davis, Intellectual Life In the Col­onial South. 1585-1763, 3 Volumes (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1978).

[4] See Michael Oakeshott, On Human Conduct (Lon­don: Oxford University Press, 1975), 199-200.

[5] Sir Robert Filmer, Patriarcha and Other Political Works (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1949). ed. by Peter Laslett.

[6] Developed in my essay “That Other Republic: Romanitas in Southern Literature,” Southern Humanites Review (The Classical Tradition in the South: A Special Issue, 1977) 4-13.

[7] A Better Guide Than Reason, pp. 137-141.

[8] On the dream of Eden in American literature, see R.W.B. Lewis, The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy and Tradition In the Nineteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955: also David W. Noble, The Eternal Adam and the New World Garden (New York: George Braziller, 1968); Hugh Honor, The New Golden Land: European Im­ages of America from the Discoveries to the Present Time (New York: Pantheon Books, 1975); and Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Sym­bol and Myth (New York: Vintage Books, 1957).

[9] “Red River” is the movie made from Borden Chase’s novel Blazing Guns othe Chisholm Trail (New York: Random Home, 1948). Jack Schaefer is the author of Shane (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1949), an impressive novel in its own right.

[10] Schaefer’s novella “The Canyon” (1953) dramatizes the importance of the corporate life in the strictly In­dian context. See pp. 80-147 of The Literature of the American West (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1971). ed. by J. Golden Taylor.

[11] Quoted on p. 27 of The Literature of the American West from an interview which first appeared in the South Dakota Review.

[12] This language is taken from the cowboy ballad “When the Work’s All Done This Fall,” quoted from pp. 74-76 of Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Balladsrevised and enlarged edition (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1961), ed. by John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax.

[13] This essay is thus, obviously, a revision of the New Eden thesis and of the authorities cited in footnote 8. Its argument is, however, at least compatible with that of Leo Marx in The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964).

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