The Mythological American Man Of The West

June 19, 1999

With so many romance novels featuring cowboys on sale these days, I originally thought he was whom I was going to write about. It became increasingly clear as I communicated with others, however, that we were not talking about a man who rode the range and herded cattle. Instead, romance readers envision the ultimate self-made man. He has been created by all of the arts: film, television, ballet, ballads, art and fiction. Around the world, people instantly recognize John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and the Marlboro Man. On a more rarefied level, some people recognize ballets like Billy The Kid and Rodeo and/or the western art of Frederic Remington and Charlie Russell. Remington, an easterner, was more concerned with the myth of the cowboy whereas Russell, a westerner, was attracted to the real-life cowboy since he was one himself.

This mythical western man is a loner, and often of uncertain origin. We usually know little of his youth other than that his was a hard life on the road to inventing himself. He is almost always white, although in romance novels he might be part Native American. In romance novels, films and television he is always good looking. In other art forms, he is often less handsome yet his appearance will still be larger than life, a man whom lesser men will slink away from, fearful for their lives. His chief occupation is roaming the Old West, being tested for survival on a daily basis whether it be against gunslingers, Indians, or a villainous landowner stealing other people's water rights or cattle. He might also found a ranching dynasty, but generally after he has spent time surviving and proving himself along the frontier. He can be a lawman but he probably has been on the other side of the law as well. He is the fastest draw in a gunfight. The women he knows best work in the saloons but if he marries, the woman will usually come from respectable frontier society (or "back East). He is Man facing the Last Frontier which is located away from what lesser men know of as civilization. In romance novels and the movies, he finally allows one woman into his life to represent the only outlet for emotion he'll ever know.

In communicating with those who actually live in the West, I discovered that they find this image in sharp contrast with the reality of the history of their region. If they are also historians, they are loathe to recommend reading or viewing fictional western depictions because they feel that none of it is accurate enough. Certainly they view the western historical romance novel as among the least accurate of the art forms. I don't believe that accuracy is what we're looking for when we reach out for this mythical man, however. He is as idealized to us as the medieval knight is. Undoubtedly, both cowboys and knights were a great deal dirtier, more disease ridden, less literate, less handsome and less noble in reality than in our vision of them. We have an inner need, however, to read about them in a more idealized form.

In looking at book covers in evaluating this man, we cannot look just at romance book covers because many western romance readers broadened their taste in this subgenre so as to also include western "pulp," mainstream fiction and movies with this man at the center. Further, romance writers have usually built their characters and books upon the foundations established in these other mediums of expression.

Western Pulp Fiction

In western "pulp" fiction, the two major writers were Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour. Within this genre, this mythical man may completely dominate the novel to the exclusion of any woman or romantic interest. If a woman is allowed in as a major character in the book, the man may or may not end up happily with her at the end. The warrior aspect of this man out on the last frontier is central to these novels. He always looks ready and able to handle a fight or a shootout.

Riders Of The Purple Sage is one of Zane Grey's most well known and beloved novels. It does contain a romance and the woman is even considered the protagonist. She refuses to marry an elderly Mormon in her town and immediately experiences problems with her cattle and cowboys as retaliation. The mythical man, Lassiter, comes riding into town as the typical stranger and he is the one who comes to her aid. I came up with two covers for this novel. The first is a painting by Remington whose art involves the cowboy against the vastness of the West and the frontier. That is what this cover depicts. Some readers find it classy to use first rate art for book covers, especially if they want their chosen genre to elevate in public esteem. Whether or not "western" fiction is held in higher esteem than "romance" fiction is debatable, but Zane Gray and Louis L'Amour find appeal in the mainstream.

Compare Remington's art with a Charlie Russell cover of his own work, Charles M. Russell, Word Painter. This cover shows both the painted image and written letter of his tales. Russell was a consummate campfire style storyteller. His depiction of cowboys, shown in this simple watercolor, is a much more personal, down-home version than Remington's. Ironically, many present-day artists are likewise combining images and words in their full scale paintings yet are thinking of it as a brand new movement! I am not aware of any western romance novels which use the art of Remington or Russell. The reason is that neither of those artists really dealt with the way women would like to see these men depicted.

The second cover for Riders Of The Purple Sage shows the romantic interest by having both hero and heroine on the cover. There are differences though between this and a romance novel cover's image. The hero is not nearly as good looking as he is on a romance cover. It also does not appear that live cover models were used as the art work is not individualized. Further, the characters aren't even pictured together whereas they would always be together on a romance cover. She's placed in the foreground while he's in the background.

Louis L'Amour's cover is of his popular hero, Bowdrie, also the title of the novel. This is hardly a face that most women will be taken with, however. In the story, he is the tough guy who is going to "clean out" the bad guys. The cover shows us Bowdrie as such a fierce warrior might really look. While some romance novel covers feature fierce heroes, their more classically handsome features serve to soften this image. The illusion of the romance novel hero is that he is capable of exhibiting some softness and emotion by the end of the story. That is not a goal of a classic "western" and would not seem believable with this image of Bowdrie in the reader's mind.

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