Why the West remains America's Most Potent Myth

Curator's Note

The American West has provided a mythology for a nation that is younger than most that exist in the world today. For Americans the period between the Civil War and the closing of the frontier in 1890 has proved fecund in offering an identity to put on that mythological pedestal. The fictional Western hero, in all his (and sometimes her) glory, has lived on in film, television, and literature and moreover has shaped American ideological positions. One need look no further than the debate over firearms, or discussions of why anonymous users on the internet harass folks, and the underbelly of the mythology of the Old West bubbles to the fore. The lone cowboy, sullen yet vigilant, rejected yet vital, potent yet often ultimately chaste, and always ready to be a vacant signifier for moral authority, remains a pillar of what it is supposed to mean to be an American. Yet, much as the figures of any of the vast mythologies worldwide, not the least of which the Greek or Norse, are meant not to be taken as unreproachable figures, the Western Hero, I argue is meant to be seen as inherently flawed, as a near cautionary icon, rather than something to be taken without internal critique.

However, it often seems to be addressed through a rather surface oriented exploration. Space within this format disallows an in-depth examination as to the ways in which the Western mythology has a built-in critique, but what is particularly illuminating about the Western as written/filmed mythology, is that, in a relatively brief period of time, it shows how the mythology is constructed and brought to mass consciousness. The myth is written, much as the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides were, as ways of re-writing the myths for a new public. Yet the timeframe between the period supposed to be topical for the Greek tragic theater, and that of the West is drastically different.

The earliest Westerns (such as Owen Wister’s The Virginian) are a couple decades out from the closing of the frontier. Thus the unconscious of the form becomes more visible in the aesthetic of the Western, and specifically the Western hero as mythological figure. Oedipus may tell us much about a period of Greece’s vision of itself as inherently blemished, but so too, and in perhaps more immediate relief, does Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. Antigone may speak to us of resistance to authority, or women’s rejection of patriarchal demands, and how that may be contemporary criticism of Greek culture, but is not Johnny Guitar performing much of the same labor and in an immediate and tangible moment? Following Friedrich Nietzsche’s spilt between the Apollonian written versus the Dionysian natural real, what the Western allows is a much more visible pathway, simply due to the reality of the period’s very short nascence into an artistic aesthetic form. And it speaks to why The Western, and the myth of the Old West remain profoundly tied to our ideological position as Americans.

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