The myth of the cowboy
How did the lone cowboy hero become such a potent figure in American culture? In an extract from his final book Fractured Times, the late Eric Hobsbawm follows a trail from cheap novels and B-westerns to Ronald Reagan
- The Guardian, Wednesday 20 March 2013 18.00 GMT
Today, populations of wild horse-riders and herdsmen exist in a large number of regions all round the world. Some of them are strictly analogous to cowboys, such as gauchos on the plains of the southern cone of Latin America; the llaneros on the plains of Colombia and Venezuela; possibly the vaqueiros of the Brazilian north-east; certainly the Mexican vaqueros from whom indeed, as everyone knows, both the costume of the modern cowboy myth and most of the vocabulary of the cowboy’s trade are directly derived: mustang, lasso, lariat, sombrero, chaps (chaparro), a cinch, bronco. There are similar populations in Europe, such as the csikos on the Hungarian plain, or puszta, the Andalusian horsemen in the cattle-raising zone whose flamboyant behaviour probably gave the earliest meaning of the word “flamenco”, and the various Cossack communities of the south Russian and Ukrainian plains.
- Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century
- by Eric Hobsbawm
In the 16th century there were the exact equivalents of the Chisholm trail leading from the Hungarian plains to the market cities of Augsburg, Nuremberg or Venice. And I do not have to tell you about the great Australian outback, which is essentially ranching country, though for sheep more than cattle.
There is thus no shortage of potential cowboy myths in the western world. And, in fact, practically all the groups I have mentioned have generated macho and heroic semi-barbarian myths of one kind or another in their own countries and sometimes even beyond. But none of them has generated a myth with serious international popularity, let alone one that can compare, even faintly, with the fortunes of the North American cowboy. Why?
Our starting point is the fact that, in and outside Europe, the “western” in its modern sense – that is, the myth of the cowboy – is a late variant of a very early and deep-rooted image: that of the wild west in general. Fenimore Cooper, whose popularity in Europe followed immediately upon his first publication – Victor Hugo thought he was “the American Walter Scott” – is the most familiar version of this. Nor is he dead. Without the memory of Leatherstocking, would English punks have invented Mohican hairstyles?
The original image of the wild west, I suggest, contains two elements: the confrontation of nature and civilisation, and of freedom with social constraint. Civilisation is what threatens nature; and their move from bondage or constraint into independence, which constitutes the essence of America as a radical European ideal in the 18th and early 19th centuries, is actually what brings civilisation into the wild west and so destroys it. The plough that broke the plains is the end of the buffalo and the Indian.
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?
The strong, silent type … John Wayne in The Searchers. Photograph: AP Photo/Warner BrosBut 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.
The new cowboy tradition made its way into the wider world by two routes: the western movie and the much underrated western novel or sub-novel, which was to many foreigners what the private eye thriller was to become in our own times. As for the movies, we know that the genre of the western was firmly established by about 1909. Show business for a mass public being what it is, it will surprise nobody that the celluloid cowboy tended to develop two subspecies: the romantic, strong, shy, silent man of action of exemplified by WS Hart, Gary Cooper and John Wayne, and the cowboy entertainer of the Buffalo Bill type – heroic, no doubt, but essentially showing off his tricks and, as such, usually associated with a particular horse. Tom Mix was no doubt the prototype and much the most successful of these.
Channelling the cowboy myth … President Ronald Reagan. Photograph: Michael Evans/Zuma Press/CorbisThe cowboy tradition was reinvented in our times as the established myth of Reagan’s America. This is really very recent. For instance, cowboys did not become a serious medium for selling things until the 1960s, surprising though this seems: Marlboro country really revealed the enormous potential in American male identification with cow-punchers, who, of course, are increasingly seen not as riding herd but as gunslingers. Who said: “I’ve always acted alone like the cowboy … the cowboy entering the village or city alone on his horse … He acts, that’s all”? Henry Kissinger to Oriana Fallaci in 1972, that’s who. Let me quote you the reductio ad absurdum of this myth, which dates back to 1979: “The West. It’s not just stage-coaches and sagebrush. It’s an image of men who are real and proud. Of the freedom and independence we all would like to feel. Now Ralph Lauren has expressed all this in Chaps, his new men’s cologne. Chaps is a cologne a man can put on as naturally as a worn leather jacket or a pair of jeans. Chaps. It’s the West. The West you would like to feel inside yourself.”
The real invented tradition of the west, as a mass phenomenon that dominates American policy, is the product of the eras of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan. And of course, Reagan, the first president since Teddy Roosevelt whose image is deliberately western and on horseback, knew what he was doing.
Is this Reaganite myth of the west an international tradition? I think not. In the first place because the major American medium by which the invented west was propagated has died out. The western novel, as I have suggested, is no longer an international phenomenon. The private eye has killed the Virginian. Larry McMurtry and his like, whatever their place in American literature, are virtually unknown outside their native country. As for the western movie, it was killed by TV; and the western TV series, which was probably the last genuinely international mass triumph of the invented west, became a mere adjunct to children’s hour, and in turn it has faded away. Where are Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Laramie, Gunsmoke and the rest on which the kids of the 1950s thrived? The real western movie became deliberately highbrow, a carrier of social, moral and political significance in the 1950s, until it in turn collapsed under their weight as well as the advancing age of the makers and stars – of Ford and Wayne and Cooper. I’m not criticising them. On the contrary, practically all the westerns that any of us would wish to see again date from after Stagecoach (which was released in 1939). But what carried the west into the hearts and homes of five continents was not movies that aimed at winning Oscars or critical applause. What is more, once the late western movie had itself become infected by Reaganism – or by John Wayne as an ideologist – it became so American that most of the rest of the world didn’t get the point, or, if it did, didn’t like it.
In Britain, at least, the word “cowboy” today has a secondary meaning, which is much more familiar than the primary meaning of a fellow in the Marlboro ads: a fellow who comes in from nowhere offering a service, such as to repair your roof, but who doesn’t know what he’s doing or doesn’t care except about ripping you off: a “cowboy plumber” or a “cowboy bricklayer”. I leave you to speculate (a) how this secondary meaning derives from the Shane or John Wayne stereotype and (b) how much it reflects the reality of the Reaganite wearers of dude Stetsons in the sunbelt. I don’t know when the term first appears in British usage, but certainly it was not before the mid-1960s. In this version, what a man’s got to do is to fleece us and disappear into the sunset.
Clayton Moore, star of The Lone Ranger – once popular TV westerns became children’s television. Photograph: ABC via Getty ImagesThere is, in fact, a European backlash against the John Wayne image of the west, and that is the revived genre of the western movie. Whatever the spaghetti westerns mean, they certainly were deeply critical of the US western myth, and in being so, paradoxically, they showed how much demand there still was among adults in both Europe and the US for the old gunslingers. The western was revived via Sergio Leone, or for that matter via Kurosawa – that is, via non-American intellectuals steeped in the lore and the films of the west, but sceptical of the American invented tradition.
In the second place, foreigners simply do not recognise the associations of the western myth for the American right or indeed for ordinary Americans. Everyone wears jeans, but without that spontaneous, if faint urge that so many young Americans feel, to slouch against an imagined hitching post, narrowing their eyes against the sun. Even their aspiring rich don’t ever feel tempted to wear Texan-type hats. They can watch John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy without a sense of desecration. In short, only Americans live in Marlboro country. Gary Cooper was never a joke, but JR and the other platinum-plated inhabitants of the great dude ranch in Dallas are. In this sense the west is no longer an international tradition.
What was so special about cowboys? First, clearly, that they occurred in a country that was universally visible and central to the 19th-century world, of which it constituted, as it were, the utopian dimension: the living dream. Anything that happened in America seemed bigger, more extreme, more dramatic and unlimited, even when it wasn’t – and of course often it was, though not in the case of the cowboys. Second, because the purely local vogue for western myth was magnified and internationalised by means of the global influence of American popular culture, the most original and creative in the industrial and urban world, and the mass media that carried it and which the US dominated. And let me observe in passing that it made its way in the world not only directly, but also indirectly, via the European intellectuals it attracted to the US, or at a distance.
This would certainly explain why cowboys are better known than vaqueros or gauchos, but not, I think, the full range of the international vibrations they set up, or used to set up. This, I suggest, is due to the in-built anarchism of American capitalism. I mean not only the anarchism of the market, but the ideal of an individual uncontrolled by any constraints of state authority. In many ways the 19th-century US was a stateless society. Compare the myths of the American and the Canadian west: the one is a myth of a Hobbesian state of nature mitigated only by individual and collective self-help: licensed or unlicensed gunmen, posses of vigilantes and occasional cavalry charges. The other is the myth of the imposition of government and public order as symbolised by the uniforms of the Canadian version of the horseman-hero, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Individualist anarchism had two faces. For the rich and powerful it represents the superiority of profit over law and state. Not just because law and the state can be bought, but because even when they can’t, they have no moral legitimacy compared to selfishness and profit. For those who have neither wealth nor power, it represents independence, and the little man’s right to make himself respected and show what he can do. I don’t think it was an accident that the ideal-typical cowboy hero of the classic invented west was a loner, not beholden to anyone; nor, I think, that money was not important for him. As Tom Mix put it: “I ride into a place owning my own horse, saddle and bridle. It isn’t my quarrel, but I get into trouble doing the right thing for somebody else. When it’s all ironed out, I never get any money reward.”
In a way the loner lent himself to imaginary self-identification just because he was a loner. To be Gary Cooper at high noon or Sam Spade, you just have to imagine you are one man, whereas to be Don Corleone or Rico, let alone Hitler, you have to imagine a collective of people who follow and obey you, which is less plausible. I suggest that the cowboy, just because he was a myth of an ultra-individualist society, the only society of the bourgeois era without real pre-bourgeois roots, was an unusually effective vehicle for dreaming – which is all that most of us get in the way of unlimited opportunities. To ride alone is less implausible than to wait until that marshal’s baton in your knapsack becomes reality.