The Western: A Look at the Evolution of a Formula
In concentrating on the definition and comparison of formulaic structures, their artistic limitations and potentials, and the cultural and psychological basis of their appeals, I was not able to say very much about the historical evolution of individual formulas. Formulas do tend to change over the course of time and many different factors interact during this process of evolution: the impact of new media, the inventiveness of creators and performers, and, above all, changes in the culture. In the third chapter I showed how changing cultural attitudes toward crime influenced the creation of a number of different crime formulas. In this chapter, I will narrow my focus and concentrate on the evolution of a single formula, the western, as an illustration of how the process of formulaic development can be analyzed. The western is a particularly interesting subject for this kind of analysis since its history covers nearly one hundred and fifty years and several different media.' Because of this considerable length of time, and the enormous number of individual western novels, films, stories, dramas, radio programs, comic books, and Wild West spectacles, I will necessarily have to be highly selective in my treatment. Since the western tends to be as formalized in its way as the detective story, such selectivity is not inappropriate. I have attempted to hit upon the major points of variation in the formula and thereby to chart the major phases of the western's evolution.
The western formula probably came into existence when James Fenimore Cooper made a particularly felicitous combination of fictional materials dealing with the settlement of the American wilderness and the archetypal pattern of the adventure story. Cooper's first full-scale development of this material in The Pioneers had elements of the adventure archetype but was essentially a novel of manners with strong melodramatic overtones. By the time Cooper completed his Leatherstocking saga with The Deerslayer, the basic shape of the western formula had become the adventure story, and this has remained the case down to the present time. Though writers often attempt to use western materials in connection with other literary archetypes, their stories clearly differ from what we think of as the "western" in the degree that they depart from the basic form of the adventure with its apotheosis of a hero.
Unlike the detective story, the western formula is not defined by a fixed pattern of action. Where the plot of the detective story is always the same, many different plots can be used for westerns so long as they pose some basic challenge to the hero and work toward his ultimate confrontation with an antagonist. Thus many westerns employ revenge stories, while others emphasize the influence of chase and pursuit, or conflicts between groups such as pioneers vs. Indians, or ranchers vs. farmers. The element that most clearly defines the western is the symbolic landscape in which it takes place and the influence this landscape has on the character and actions of the hero. This is, I think, why this particular formula has come to be known by a geographical term, the western, rather than by a characterization of the protagonist's form of action, as in the case of the detective story or the gangster saga, or by some quality of action and mood as in the case of the gothic romance or the horror story.
The symbolic landscape of the western formula is a field of action that centers upon the point of encounter between civilization and wilderness, East and West, settled society and lawless openness. The frontier settlement or group is a point both in space and in time. Geographically, it represents a group of civilizers or pioneers on the edge of a wilderness, tenuously linked to the civilized society behind them in the East by the thinnest lines of communication. These links are constantly in danger of being cut by the savages-Indians or outlaws-who roam the wilderness. Historically, the western represents a moment when the forces of civilization and wilderness life are in balance, the epic moment at which the old life and the new confront each other and individual actions may tip the balance one way or another, thus shaping the future history of the whole settlement.
This epic confrontation of forces calls forth the hero, who, whether Leatherstocking, cowboy, gunfighter, or marshal, is defined by the way he is caught between contrasting ways of life. Most commonly, the hero is a man of the wilderness who comes out of the old "lawless" way of life to which he is deeply attached both by personal inclination and by his relationship to male comrades who have shared that life with him. Thus the many cases of sheriffs whose former friends are outlaws, or of Leatherstocking-like figures whose deepest personal relationships are with Indians. Sometimes the hero is not originally tied to the old life, but in such stories-that of the dude become hero, for example-he develops skills and attitudes, or is involved in some set of circumstances, that distinctly separate him from the rest of the pioneers. For example, in Emerson Hough's The Covered Wagon, a false report of the hero's past actions makes the pioneers identify him as an outlaw through most of the story. But, despite his separation from the pioneers and his association with the old wilderness life, the hero finds himself cast in the role of defender of the pioneers. The way in which this commitment is brought about is one of the central variations in different versions of the western formula. Sometimes the hero becomes committed to the pioneers because he falls in love with a girl from the East; in other versions, the hero makes a moral decision in favor of the new ideals of settled life. But, whatever the reason for his situation, the western hero finds himself placed between the old life and the new with the responsibility for taking those actions that will bring about the final destruction of the old life and the establishment of settled society. The fact that this resolution almost invariably requires a transcendent and heroic violence indicates that the contending forces of civilization and wilderness reflect strongly conflicting values.
InThe Six-Gun Mystique, I presented a more detailed analysis of the general characteristics of the western formula and indicated its many sources of appeal. The reader may wish to refer to that discussion for a fuller cataloging of the western formula's major elements of setting, character, and action. For our present purpose of analyzing some of the major changes in the formula over the course of its history, the most significant aspect of the western is its representation of the relationship between the hero and the contending forces of civilization and wilderness, for it is in the changing treatment of this conflict, so basic to American thought and feeling, that the western most clearly reflects the attitudes of its creators and audiences at different periods. Therefore, we will begin our analysis of the western's evolution with a discussion of Cooper's treatment of the dialectic between civilization and nature in his Leatherstocking saga.
Cooper and the Beginnings of the Western Formula
James Fenimore Cooper was a man of many contradictions. Since these contradictions embodied some of the major problems and paradoxes of American civilization, and because he had a talent for getting them down on paper, he became one of the chief inventors of American literature. His great creation, Nathaniel Bumppo, the Leatherstocking, became the prototype for the western hero and thus the progenitor of countless stories, novels, films, and television programs that use the formula Cooper first articulated. Cooper not only became the founder of this major popular tradition but the influence of his Leatherstocking is equally inescapable in major American writers and forms part of the background of Thoreau, Melville, Hawthorne, Twain, Faulkner, and Hemingway. From the beginning, the western intersected with the mainstream of American literature, and, though it developed in its own direction, it has never completely lost touch. One might even say that it was the popular western's function to resolve some of the unresolvable contradictions of American values that our major writers have laid bare. It was Cooper who began the process by exploring some of the central paradoxes of our culture and by establishing some of the ways in which they could be resolved in literature.
Like many of his contemporaries, Cooper was strongly torn between the traditional ideal of culture cultivated by the European aristocracy and the new conception of American democracy. In terms of his own career and background, the conflict between his commitment to a traditional social order and the fascination of a new openness and freedom shaped his life. Though scion of an aristocratic family, Cooper became a writer of extremely popular novels who supported refined activities by appealing to a large public. Though he was a man of cultivated tastes and spent much of his life in Europe, Cooper was a dedicated patriot and the first major author to set forth a distinctive vision of the American landscape. Yet throughout his life he was dedicated to the ideal of the gentleman. In his book, paradoxically entitled The American Democrat, Cooper even went so far as to argue "if the laborer is indispensable to civilization, so is also the gentleman. While the one produces, the other directs his skill to those arts which raise the polished man above the barbarian.... Were society to be satisfied with a mere supply of the natural wants, there would be no civilization. The savage condition attains this much. All beyond it, notwithstanding, is so much progress made in the direction of the gentleman ."2 Yet this apologist for the gentry was also the great romanticizer of the primitive. His great heroes, Natty Bumppo the Leatherstocking and Chingachgook and Uncas the noble savages, were men of the wilderness.
Henry Nash Smith has suggested that these paradoxical oppositions of attitude reflected a basic ideological conflict in nineteenth-century American culture between the sense of America as a continuation of European civilization and the vision of a new and better society growing out of the more natural circumstances of the virgin wilderness. Cooper felt the opposing pulls of civilization and nature even more strongly than most of his contemporaries. In his exploration of the dialectic between advancing civilization and the free and natural life of the wilderness, and in his attempt to synthesize these forces, Cooper invented the western. His fictional medium for this exploration was the series of novels centered upon the life of the frontiersman Natty Bumppo, who was loosely modeled on the actual figure of Daniel Boone. This series,The Pioneers(1823),The Last of the Mohicans(1826),The Prairie(1827),The Pathfinder(1840), andThe Deerslayer(1841), have become known as the Leatherstocking Tales.
Cooper's conception of the Leatherstocking saga underwent a considerable evolution. It is even tempting to say, with some oversimplification, that Cooper's transformation of his western narrative from a story of the re-establishment of the gentry in the new West, to a tale of the isolated hero whose very virtues make him flee the oncoming civilization, summarizes the evolution of the western itself from the epic of the pioneers in the nineteenth century to the ambiguous myth of the gunfighter in the 1950s, from Wister's Virginian who not only outguns the villain but becomes a successful rancher and political leader to Henry King's Jimmy Ringo who wants to escape from his gunslinging past but is pursued and destroyed by his own reputation as the fastest gun in the West. In Cooper's case it seems clear that this gradual shift of context, hero, and theme reflected an increasing tension between his aristocratic predispositions and his vision of American society. Cooper's initial hopes for American civilization were high because he felt that the new society, while undoubtedly lacking some of the brilliance of European optimistic view of progress determined the narrative focus. In The Last of the Mohicans, Cooper shifted his attention from the complex problems of reestablishing social institutions in a new settlement to the theme that would dominate the rest of the series: the violence of Indian warfare and the destruction of the old wilderness life.
Violence does exist in the world of The Pioneers, but it is largely the result of accident, misunderstanding, or natural forces. Oliver Effingham is wounded at the beginning by a misdirected bullet from the gun of Judge Temple; the heroine, Elizabeth Temple, narrowly escapes death from a panther; a forest fire endangers many of the characters at the climax of the novel. But the landscape of The Last of the Mohicans mixes romantic grandeur with danger lurking behind every bush.
The river was confined between high and cragged rocks, one of which impended above the spot where the canoe rested. As these, again, were surmounted by tall trees, which appeared to totter on the brows of the precipice, it gave the stream the appearance of running through a deep and narrow dell. All beneath the fantastic limbs and ragged tree-tops, which were, here and there, dimly painted against the starry zenith, lay alike in shadowed obscurity. Behind them, the curvature of the banks soon bounded the view, by the same dark and wooded outline; but in front, and apparently at no great distance, the water seemed piled against the heavens, whence it tumbled into caves, out of which issued those sullen sounds that had loaded the evening atmosphere. It seemed, in truth, to be a spot devoted to seclusion, and the sisters imbibed a soothing impression of security, as they gazed upon its romantic, though not unappalling beauties. A general movement among their conductors, however, soon recalled them from a contemplation of the wild charms that night had assisted to lend the place, to a painful sense of their real peril .6
This landscape takes on the double implication of transcendence and violence that is so typical of the western. Cooper's increasing emphasis on violence in The Last of the Mohicans also meant that he abandoned the fixed social setting of The Pioneers and placed his characters in motion across the wilderness, involving them in what became the western's characteristic rhythm of chase and pursuit. In The Pioneers the important action takes place in the settlement, in Judge Temple's mansion, in the law court, in the prison, and in the area just outside the town where Natty has his cabin. There is relatively little sense of the surrounding wilderness coming up to and endangering the town. In The Last of the Mohicans, the wilderness has erupted in the violence of the French and Indian War, the story opens with the destruction of a wilderness settlement, and the remainder of the narrative deals with the leading characters' attempts to escape from a group of Indians involved in the massacre.
Because of the new emphasis on violence, there are also important changes in the cast of characters of The Last of the Mohicans. These new characterizations adumbrate to a remarkable extent the future development of the western. Most important is the conception of the western hero, the extraordinary man whose double gifts of civilization and savagery make him able to confront and conquer the perils of the wilderness. Natty Bumppo does appear in The Pioneers, but in that book Cooper seems more concerned with the problem of where he fits in socially than with his extraordinary powers. In fact, there is more pathos than heroism about the old woodsman. As Natty finds himself in situation after situation with which he doesn't quite know how to cope, he can only complain in the tones of a bitter and helpless old man about the incomprehensibility of newfangled notions of law. Though something of the Natty to come breaks through occasionally, particularly in his Daniel Boone-like gesture of refusing to stay in the settlement, the last scene of The Pioneers places Natty right back in the traditional social order from which he seems to be fleeing. As Natty is about to go off into the wilderness, Oliver Effingham shows him the monument he has erected to the memory of old Major Effingham, whom Natty had long served and protected. The monument reads in part:
The morning of his life was spent in honor, wealth, and power; but its evening was obscured by poverty, neglect, and disease, which were alleviated only by the tender care of his old, faithful, and upright friend and attendant, Nathaniel Bumppo. His descendants rear this stone to the virtues of the master, and to the enduring gratitude of the servant.7
When Natty hears this statement he replies in the tone and manner of an old family servant:
"And did ye say it, lad? have you then got the old man's name cut in the stone, by the side of his master's? God bless ye, children! 'twas a kind thought, and kindness goes to the heart as life shortens."8
This presentation of Natty as faithful old retainer is not simply a matter of age. In The Prairie he is older still, but an aura of mystery and majesty surround him. Compare, for example, the first descriptions of the old hunter in the two novels. In The Pioneers, Natty is first described to us from the perspective of Elizabeth Temple, who, returning to the settlement after a long stay in the East, sees the hunter as one of the local curiosities:
There was a peculiarity in the manner of the hunter that attracted the notice of the young female, who had been a close and interested observer of his appearance and equipments from the moment he came into view. He was tall and so meagre as to make him seem above even the six feet that he actually stood in his stockings. On his head, which was thinly covered with lank, sandy hair, he wore a cap made of foxskin... . His face was skinny and thin almost to emaciation: but it bore no signs of disease .... The cold and the exposure had, together, given it a color of uniform red. His gray eyes were glancing under a pair of shaggy brows that overhung them in long hairs of gray mingled with the natural hue; his scraggy neck was bare, and burnt to the same tint with his face.9
By the time we reach The Prairie, however, this same figure, older and presumably even more shaggy and scraggy, has been mythicized into something far more transcendent and heroic:
The whole party was brought to a halt, by a spectacle as sudden as it was unexpected. The sun had fallen below the crest of the nearest wave of the prairie, leaving the usual rich and glowing train on its track. In the centre of this flood of fiery light a human form appeared, drawn against the gilded background as distinctly, and seeming as palpable, as though it would come within the grasp of any extended hand. The figure was colossal; the attitude musing and melancholy; and the situation directly in the route of the travellers. But imbedded, as it was, in the setting of garish light, it was impossible to distinguish its just proportions or true character. 10
Here is the true western hero, playing that scene of man against the sky that he would later enact innumerable times for the movies. This figure, aged as he is, is that transcendent hero Cooper talks about in the later preface to the Leatherstocking Tales who, "removed from nearly all the temptation of civilized life, and favorably disposed by nature to improve such advantages ... appeared ... a fit subject to represent the better qualities of both conditions without pushing either to extremes."11
This figure, no longer subsumed under the existing social hierarchy but spanning both civilized and savage conditions, makes his first complete appearance in The Last of the Mohicans. Though Natty is still related to the social hierarchy through his services to the daughters of Colonel Munro and to the aristocratic Duncan Heyward, there are important differences. The Natty of The Last of the Mohicans is in the full possession of his mature strength and skill; he is on his own ground, the Indian-infested wilderness, instead of the settlement where he is inevitably an anachronism; and, finally, his service is not that of the traditional faithful retainer but is voluntary and temporary. Moreover, his commitment is essentially to the females and the nature of his assistance is that offered by a strong man to helpless women, not a matter of the service that those of lower status rightfully owe to their social superiors. The change in Natty's relationship to the social order is further indicated by the contrast between his relationship with Oliver Effingham and with Duncan Heyward, the young aristocrats who act as romantic heroes and whose marriage to their respective heroines symbolizes the dynastic continuation of the social hierarchy. In The Pioneers both Oliver and Elizabeth Temple are strong and competent characters who are fully in control except in a few situations of wilderness peril. But the aristocratic hero and heroine of The Last of the Mohicans are almost totally incompetent and dependent on Leatherstocking's help. Duncan Heyward is brave and highspirited, but he is also the first dude or greenhorn in western literature. He invariably reacts in the wrong way to perilous situations and must be rescued by the more skillful Leatherstocking. Alice Munro, the genteel and refined ingenue, spends most of her time weeping and fainting. She is the first in a long line of eastern women who can't deal with the western experience until they have learned to accept the guidance of the hero. The Natty of The Last of the Mohicans is no longer the curious combination of deferent old family retainer and subversive hater of law that he is in The Pioneers. He has become a hero.
This increasing romanticization of the Leatherstocking hero, along with the new focus on violence as the dominant element of the frontier experience, probably reflects an increasing tension between conflicting attitudes and feelings in Cooper's mind. Divided between his belief in a traditional social hierarchy and the dream of a free, spontaneous life in nature, Cooper had originally developed the figure of Natty Bumppo in terms of two distinct aspects; first, there is the loyal servant of the great family, a man of simple Christian virtues who has no desire to challenge the traditional social order; second, there is the marginal, lonely man of the wilderness who hates the restrictions of society and who fears, above all, the operations of a social authority that he does not understand or feel he needs. In The Pioneers these conflicting aspects of Natty's significance pose relatively few problems; Natty's subversive impulses are controlled by his dedication to the TempleEffingham dynasty; he remains on the periphery of the action; and, finally, the development of civilization under the benevolent and wise leadership of the American gentry is so obviously progressive that any criticism of society implicit in Natty's final rejection of the settlement is blunted.
As Cooper's own confidence in the evolution of civilization in the United States became more qualified and his views of democracy more disillusioned, his fascination with nature as an ideal became more intense. As the Leatherstocking Tales progressed, the nobility and heroism of the natural man became more idealized, the advance of the pioneers became increasingly associated with violence and anarchy, and the settlement of the wilderness connected with the loss of significant values. These trends are already evident in The Last of the Mohicans. Natty is younger, more heroic, and a far more central character. The situation is one of violence, and the representatives of civilization have become more effete and overrefined. In addition, the theme of the vanishing wilderness is developed far more extensively in an elegaic picture of the decline of the noble Delawares. Cooper still remains somewhat ambiguous about whether the destruction of his noble savages is to be attributed to a principle of violence in nature itself, as symbolized by the diabolical Mingos, or is the result of the advance of white settlement. In the end, he retreats to the old resolution of dynastic marriage, a resolution that in this case hardly balances the tragedy of the deaths of Uncas and Cora.
The situation becomes even more ambiguous in The Prairie, which is, in many ways, the darkest, most sinister, of the Leatherstocking Tales. In this novel, the conflict between Leatherstocking's natural freedom and the advance of civilization can only be resolved by the death of the hero. Moreover, the dialectic between nature and civilization is further complicated by the fact that the Bush family, a new element in the Leatherstocking Tales, represents both the advance of the pioneers and the most unconstrained violence and anarchy. The Bush family is one of Cooper's most striking creations, for they derive in part from one aspect of the original Natty of The Pioneers, his hatred of the law of the settlements and his insistence on a man's natural freedom to live according to his inner law. Like Natty himself, Ishmael Bush, the patriarch of the family, has turned his back on the settlements and come to the prairie in order to live by his own laws. Unlike Natty, however, Ishmael Bush knows no limits; his rejection of civilized law has become lawlessness, and his fanatical Christianity is confused with his worship of his own impulses. Thus, as Natty becomes more idealized, the antisocial impulses that were originally a part of his character are abstracted from him and embodied in pure form in another set of characters. Cooper is still not quite ready to face the possibility that the Bush family embodies the future of American civilization. He concludes the novel by engineering their departure into obscurity and tries once more to suggest that the future course of settlement lies in the hands of the genteel Duncan Middleton and the respectable beekeeper Paul Hover-a truncated representation of the orderly and peaceful society of Templeton. His final comment on the Bush family seems rather uncertain as to whether the advance of settlement will swallow up the Bushes or vice versa.
On the following morning the teams and herds of the squatters were seen pursuing their course towards the settlements. As they approached the confines of society the train was blended among a thousand others. Though some of the numerous descendants of this peculiar pair were reclaimed from their lawless and semi-barbarous lives, the principals of the family themselves were never heard of more. 12
When, over a decade later, Cooper returned to the Leatherstocking figure, he completed Natty's transformation into an idealized hero, who, separated from both traditional and white societies, embodied only the best qualities of both cultures. Instead of the crabbed old backwoodsman ofThe Pioneers, the Deerslayer is
a being removed from the everyday inducements to err, which abound in civilized life, while he retains the best and simplest of his early impression; who sees God in the forest, hears Him in the winds, bows to Him in the firmament that o'er-canopies all, submits to his way in a humble belief of his justice and mercy; in a word, a being who finds the impress of the Deity in all the works of nature, without any of the blots produced by the expedients, and passion, and mistakes of man."13
Natty has become, in short, a new kind of pastoral hero, exemplifying the natural virtues that civilization has unfortunately lost. Against his purity and simplicity the vices of society are measured and found wanting.
The first of these new versions of the Leatherstocking was the least successful of the series. In The Pathfinder we have the full-fledged pastoral hero, the man of transcendent virtues based on natural simplicity, but Cooper did not devise an appropriate plot for this hero. His mistake was to attempt the portrayal of Natty as a hero of romance. Since he was dealing with a character who was, by definition, unmarried, it was necessary to make him fail in his suit. Moreover, Cooper was caught within a paradox of his own making. For the heroine to be worthy of the love of such an idealized figure as Natty, she had to be herself so relentlessly pure and genteel that it was inconceivable for her to share the wilderness way of life. Consequently The Pathfinder is full of confusion that tends toward the ludicrous and the pathetic. At times, Natty even reminds the reader of those moonstruck pastoral swains who lurch around after heartless shepherdesses.
Cooper largely overcame these difficulties in The Deerslayer. In this novel Natty is pursued by the passionate Judith Hutter rather than being himself the rejected swain. Moreover, since the worldly Judith has something of a stain on her past, Natty has all the more reason for rejecting her in favor of pure, uncorrupted nature. But, most important of all, the real center of The Deerslayer is not Natty's relationship with Judith but his initiation into a life of violence. The hero becomes a killer rather than a lover.
The Deerslayer, like all of Cooper's later Leatherstocking Tales, is a rather complex and rambling narrative of chases and captures, escapes and pursuits, in which the Leatherstocking finally succeeds in rescuing his companions from the threat of death or torture at the hands of savage Indians. But the novel also possesses a more unifying and effective line of action in the story of Natty's initiation into the character of Leatherstocking and the way of life it represents. This initiation has several major elements: Natty kills a man, he receives the name of a hunter and warrior, he shows his capacity for adult leadership, he demonstrates his ability to abide by the wilderness code of honor, and he rejects the worldly Judith's advances in favor of the violent masculine life of the wilderness. These elements are still important themes of the western formula. The famous chapter 7 of The Deerslayer in which Natty shoots his first Indian adumbrates the man-to-man confrontations of the later western, fast-draw, simultaneous shot, and all:
The black, ferocious eyes of the savage were glancing on him, like those of the crouching tiger, through a small opening in the bushes, and the muzzle of his rifle seemed already to be opening in a line with his own body. Then, indeed the long practice of Deerslayer, as a hunter, did him good service. Accustomed to fire with the deer on the bound ... he used the same expedients here. To cock and poise his rifle were the acts of a single moment and a single motion .... So rapid were his movements that both parties discharged their pieces at the same instant, the concussions mingling in one report. The mountains indeed gave back but a single echo.14
Cooper's treatment of this scene gives it a very different interpretation than the twentieth-century western. In the contemporary western, the violent confrontation of the protagonist and his savage enemy represents the point at which the hero finally transcends the various uncertainties and reluctances that have prevented him from dealing with his antagonist. It is, in all but the most complex and serious westerns, a moment of supreme culmination and resolution in which good finally rises above the limitations of reality and triumphs over evil. For Cooper, however, this moment of violent action comes near the beginning of the story and it is initiation rather than culmination. Moreover, it is a moment of considerable ambiguity, for Natty's shooting of the Indian is followed by one of the most strange and haunting scenes in the history of the western. During his adversary's dying moments, Natty, in almost maternal fashion, cradles the Indian's head in his lap, assuring him that his scalp will not be taken and soothing the dying man and receiving in return his adult name, Hawkeye. Finally, with the death of the Indian, that ineffable melancholy, which is so much the sign of the older Hawkeye, settles down:
"His spirit has fled" said Deerslayer, in a suppressed, melancholy voice. "Ah's mel Well, to this must we all come, sooner or later; and he is happiest, let his skin be of what color it may, who is best fitted to meet it. Here lies the body of no doubt a brave warrior, and the soul is already flying toward its Heaven or Hell, whether that be a happy hunting ground, a place scant of game, regions of glory, according to Moravian doctrine, or flames of firel So it firens, too, as regards other matters. Here have old Hutter and Hurry Harry got themselves into difficulty, if they hav'n't got themselves into torment and death, and all for a bounty that luck offers to me in what many would think a lawful and suitable manner. But not a farthing of such money shall cross my hand. White I was born and white will I die; clinging to color to the last, even though the King's majesty, his governors, and all his councils, both at home and in the Colonies, forget from what they come, and where they hope to go, and all for a little advantage in warfare. No, no-warrior, hand of mine shall never molest your scalp, and so your soul may rest in peace on the p'int of making a decent appearance when the body comes to join it, in your own land of spirits."15
Many ambiguities flit in and out of this passage. Natty cannot but be glad to have killed the Indian, not only because in doing so he has saved his own life, but because he has proved his ability to act like a warrior when necessary, something that has been on his mind since the beginning of the novel. Yet at the same time he feels an unmistakable sadness at the event, and we cannot but see this killing, as many critics have pointed out, as a fall from innocence, a passage on Natty's part from a simple and spontaneous way of life in harmony with the beauty and serenity of nature into a moral universe in which violence and death are inescapable, not only in the world but in oneself. From this point on Natty will never really be able to enjoy his beloved forest without knowing its dangers at the same time, just as henceforth in order to live with his noble Indian companion, Chingachgook, he will also have to commit himself to hatred and destruction of the savage Mingos. The episode also thrusts into prominence the conflict of loyalties and values that derive from Natty's position as a man between two cultures and races. His initiation into violence immediately confronts him with the division within himself; he is Indian enough to respect the warrior's way of life, but he cannot bring himself to adopt the Indian ethic and religion insofar as it contravenes Christian teachings against violence. Moreover, he knows from experience that the white culture as represented in such men as Thomas Hutter and Hurry Harry is even more meaninglessly violent than that of the Indians. Faced with this web of emotional and cultural conflicts within himself, Natty kills but finds he can take no real satisfaction in the deed. His ambiguity of values is so great that he cannot even decide on a way in which he can tell of the action to his dearest friend:
"If I was Injin-born, I might tell of this, or carry in the scalp, and boast of the expl'ite afore the whole tribe; or, if my inimy had only been even a bear, 'wwould have been nat'ral and proper to let everybody know what had happened; but I don't well see how I'm to let even Chingachgook into this secret, so long as it can be done only by boasting with a white tongue. And why should I wish to boast of it a'ter a11? It's slaying a human, although he was a savage."16
Similar ambiguities cluster around Natty's other triumphs. Though he receives the name of a warrior and proves his ability as a leader, he also discovers his immutable alienation from his own people, without, at the same time, being able to assimilate himself wholly into the Indian way of life. He becomes inextricably caught between cultures, a potentially great leader without a possible following. Natty enters on the adventures of The Deerslayer in company with Hurry Harry March, the white backwoodsman, and he leaves with his lifelong friend, the noble Indian Chingachgook, but in the course of the action he is neither white nor Indian. For the white culture, though it teaches Christian charity and love and sets up the imitation of Christ as its highest virtue, is represented in actuality by the rapacious avarice and selfishness of Hurry Harry and Tom Hutter, who spend most of the book trying to take Indian scalps for bounty. As Natty points out, there seems to be a basic contradiction in white society between Christianity and violence:
"all is contradiction in the settlements, while all is concord in the woods. Forts and churches almost always go together, and yet they're downright contradictions, churches being for peace and forts for war. No, no-give me the strong places of the wilderness, which is the trees, and the churches, too, which are arbors raised by the hand of nature!"17
In The Pioneers white settlement had its ambiguities, but it also had its great virtues, as represented by the benevolent public spirit of the TempleEffingham dynasty and the increasing social harmony that rewarded their efforts. In this context, Natty's rejection of the limitations of civilization seems understandable but not conclusive. Though Natty might not be able to fit comfortably into it, the benevolent and harmonious future of American civilization clearly outweighed the simple and natural virtues represented by the Leatherstocking and, as we have seen, associated with the faithful family retainer as well as the wilderness. In The Deerslayer, however, American civilization is represented by the rapacious and selfish violence of Hurry Harry and Tom Hutter, and by the sensual passion and materialism of Judith Hutter. The public-spirited gentry no longer lurk in the wings ready to transform the raw forces of the frontier into the peaceful and harmonious society of Templeton. In this context, Natty's rejection of a role in the new civilization takes on a more heroic, if romanticized, meaning. The personal peculiarities of The Pioneers have been erected into idealized ethical principles against which the dominant drives of American settlement have been measured and found wanting. Instead of the story of pioneers creating a new and better society on the American frontier, The Deerslayer becomes an elegy for a lost Eden. The idealized new Adam is already obsolete. Judith Hutter sums up the sense of loss that pervades The Deerslayer in a conversation with her sister Hetty:
"We must quit this spot, Hetty, and remove into the settlements."
"I am sorry you think so, Judith," returned Hetty, dropping her head on her bosom, and looking thoughtfully down at the spot where the funeral pile of her mother could just be seen. "I am very sorry to hear it. I would rather stay here, where, if I wasn't born, I've passed my life. I don't like the settlements-they are full of wickedness and heartburnings, while God dwells unoffended in these hills! I love the trees, and the mountains, and the lake, and the springs; all that His bounty has given us, and it would grieve me sorely, Judith, to be forced to quit them. You are handsome, and not at all half-witted, and one day you will marry, and then you will have a husband, and I a brother, to take care of us, if women can't really take care of themselves in such a place."
"Ah! if this could be so, Hetty, then, indeed, I could now be a thousand times happier in these woods than in the settlements! Once I did not feel thus, but now I do. Yet where is the man to turn this beautiful place into such a garden of Eden for us?"18
By creating an increasingly idealized Natty Bumppo, Cooper joined the European tradition of pastoral to the historical violence and darkness of the American frontier. The result was a narrative pattern that symbolized his complex feelings about the meaning of American social development. As Coopers own doubts about the future of American society increased, so did the wisdom and virtue of his hero until in The Deerslayer the young Natty talks like a natural philosopher and behaves like an incarnation of the faithful shepherd. Yet, the action of the novel stresses violence. The fact of the matter is that the sweet, gentle lover of the woods is forced by the circumstances of his life to become a killer of men. How far from the pastoral ideal is the character described by D. H. Lawrence as "a man who turns his back on white society. A man who keeps his moral integrity hard and intact. An isolate, almost selfless, stoic, enduring man, who lives by death, by killing, but who is pure white."19
This striking combination of pastoral innocence with deadly violence became a central theme of The Deerslayer. It completed the transformation of the Leatherstocking series from the saga of advancing civilization in America into a strangely ambiguous adventure story about the hero's loss of innocence. Originally Cooper had predicted that American society would progress from the primitive equalitarian society of pioneers through a chaotic phase of social competition into a stable and benevolent social hierarchy. This final stage would be a civilization less refined, but more democratic and moral, than that of Europe. American advance on the West could be seen with some reservations as progress toward this admirable social state. The happy outcome of The Pioneers with its dynastic marriage symbolized the hope of this new society, the Temple-Effingham family playing the role of the new American gentry. But to read the Leatherstocking series from the perspective of The Deerslayer is to encounter a very different view of American civilization. When we follow the series in its fictional chronology beginning with The Deerslayer, it is at least possible to see the pioneers as dominated by violence, destruction and senseless waste. The action of The Deerslayer results largely from the avarice and brutality of Harry March and Tom Hutter, two backwoodsmen who bring on a fight with the Indians primarily because they want scalps for the bounty money. Into the vortex of their violence the gentle and innocent Natty Bumppo is sucked. Through this action the pastoral hero becomes implicated with society against his will. Society's need for his skill in violence forces him into a role as participant in the destruction of the wilderness he loves. From this beginning the Leatherstocking series can be seen as the hero's increasingly frustrated attempt to rediscover the simplicity of innocence of his lost way of life, a quest that finally turns into headlong flight from civilization. In The Prairie he even takes a step that he had always rejected: he symbolically accepts kinship with the Indians by adopting the Pawnee warrior Hardheart as his son. At the last he dies among the Plains Indians, totally alienated from the society he has spent his life killing for.
So it is possible to see the Leatherstocking series in two contrary ways. From one angle, it appears to be an affirmation of the benevolent progress of American civilization; from another, it is an attack on that same civilization as measured against the natural nobility of a pastoral hero. David W. Noble has suggested a most interesting way of reconciling these seemingly contrary themes. He argues that the story of Leatherstocking embodies the American myth of a new society based on nature confronted with the realities and limitations of human life. Leatherstocking's inability to marry, his life of violence, and his final flight symbolize the failure of the myth:
For Cooper, it was here on the great plains, during Jefferson's administrations, that the myth of the frontier perished because of the penetration of the last unknown territories by human beings, who, by their very presence, destroyed the mysterious potential of the virgin land. In the words of Professor Lewis, there no longer existed "space as spaciousness, as the unbounded, the area of total possibility." And from the first moment when Deerslayer was forced to participate in the disharmony of history. Cooper has prepared for this moment. The five Leatherstocking novels are a sustained argument against the autonomous existence of an American Adam.20
Professor Noble's interpretation does not take into account the changes in theme and pattern between The Pioneers and The Deerslayer and Cooper's increasing tendency to treat his backwoods hero as an idealized figure of wisdom and virtue. I am still inclined to agree with Henry Nash Smith and others that Cooper was a writer of basic contradictions and unresolved ambiguities: a firm believer in the ultimate value of simple Christianity, yet at the same time deeply committed to refined and sophisticated civilization; a lover of the wilderness and a devotee of gentility; at once a progressive and a conservative; quite able to see in man a natural moral instinct and at the same time certain of basic human depravity; an affirmer of the freedom and lawlessness of the forest and an upholder of law and social hierarchy. His Leatherstocking hero does seem to embody a lost possibility, a myth of human potentiality that cannot be realized in any conceivable social order, and yet Cooper seems to reject both the romantic view of man and the kind of open society in which such a man might rise to a high social level. His social ideal is a very traditional conception of order based on an established gentry class. These conflicting views never really get resolved, nor does Cooper push them to the point where their basic irreconcilability becomes evident. Instead, he invents narrative patterns in which it is possible to resolve the tensions associated with conflicting values without working out the conflicts themselves. For example, Natty's flight into the wilderness averts a real showdown between the values of nature and of civilization. Another instance is the treatment of violence in The Deerslayer. From the beginning Natty feels divided between the pacifism of his Moravian background and the code of violence that he shares with the Indians. Cooper does not ask us to face the irreconcilability of these values. Instead, in Deerslayers showdown with the Indians, a reluctant but deadly hero has violence thrust upon him by a treacherous and irreconcilable adversary.
Even in the case of Natty's romance, this principle of avoiding the ultimate irreconcilability of values operates. The conflict here is between the values of domesticity-marriage, family, social respectability, and security-and the ideal of a free, unconstrained, masculine way of life. But Natty never really has to work this conflict out to a point of decision between his natural freedom and the lure of domesticity, neither in The Pathfinder nor The Deerslayer. In one case it turns out that the girl doesn't really love him, and in the other Natty does not love the girl.
Cooper's great popular success as well as his ultimate limitation as a serious writer lay in his refusal or incapacity to fully explore the dialectic of civilization and nature that his imagination generated .21 He felt the ambiguities of the American dream of a new society more keenly than most of his contemporaries, yet his mind was too conventional and satisfied with life in general to see these ambiguities in the tragic terms in which they would be developed by Hawthorne and Melville. Thus Cooper became the creator of a dialectic of action and a type of hero that in the hands of lesser writers could serve the purposes of popular escapist fantasy, resolving in fantasy the ideal of peaceful progress toward civilization and the impulse toward lawless freedom and aggressive violence. By creating a setting and a group of plot patterns through which the irreconcilable conflicts of society and individual freedom, of peaceful civilization and uncontrolled violence, could be resolved in action, Cooper brought the western into existence. We must now examine how some of his successors used his invention.
Nick of the Woodsand the Dime Novel
The most important early novel of western adventure in the manner of Cooper, Robert Montgomery Bird's Nick of the Woods (1837), supposedly presented a "realistic" picture of Indian warfare in contrast to the noble savages of Cooper. Actually, Bird's novel greatly simplified Coopers dialectic, glossing over the complexities in Cooper's treatment of the frontier. Thus it became a step in the direction of the dime novel.
One of the most important changes Bird made in Cooper's narrative pattern was to eliminate the noble savage altogether. He transformed Cooper's complex contrast between white civilizations and the natural ethic of the wilderness into a simple opposition of good and evil: decent pioneers trying to settle the wilderness and overcome the savage Indians. With this exception, Bird's cast of characters is basically the same as The Last of the Mohicans and The Prairie: the aristocratic lovers Roland and Edith Forrester match Duncan Heyward and Alice Munro; the half-caste Telie Doe whose father lives with the Indians resembles Cora Munro; Colonel Bruce and the Kentuckians represent the good pioneers, and Roaring Ralph Stackpole symbolizes the kind of frontier anarchist Cooper portrayed in Ishmael Bush. Most important of all, the Leatherstocking figure, torn between Christian pacifism and deadly violence, appears in the role of Nathan Slaughter, the Quaker Indian-hater. The action, too, resembles Cooper with its central focus on flight and pursuit, framed by aristocratic romance and dynastic plots. Bird develops a complicated story that springs from the theft of a will. In consequence the hero is deprived of his aristocratic heritage. The villain tries to eliminate the hero and marry the heroine by using the savage Indians to accomplish his desires. Thus, being rescued from the Indians also involves the elimination of the villain and the recovery of a great inheritance, to say nothing of a happy marriage between hero and heroine.
Though his characters and plot derive from Cooper's example, Bird treats them in such a way as to resolve the ambiguities of Cooper's dialectic and to affirm clearly the virtues of American civilization. The Indians become diabolical savages without any redeeming qualities. There is no sense that natural values are being lost in the advance of civilization. As Bird says in his preface:
The North American savage has never appeared to us the gallant and heroic personage he seems to others. The single fact that he wages war-systematic war-upon beings incapable of resistance or defence,-upon women and children, whom all other races in the world no matter how barbarous, consent to spare,-has hitherto been, and we suppose, to the end of our days will remain, a stumbling-block to our imagination: we look into the woods for the mighty warrior ... rushing to meet his foe, and behold him retiring, laden with the scalps of miserable squaws and their babes .22
In addition, the aristocratic hero no longer seems, like Cooper's gentleman, vaguely incompetent in the woods. Roland Forrester, the hero of Nick of the Woods, possesses both an aristocratic background and the energy and adaptability of a self-made man. Bird completely avoids any ambiguous comparisons such as that between Uncas and Duncan Heyward in The Last of the Mohicans that might cast doubt on the capacity of his hero to be equally at home in the drawing rooms of his native Virginia or on the dark and bloody ground of the Kentucky frontier. Nor does he pose any basic questions about the relation between Christian pacifism and the war against Indians. Though his Nathan Slaughter embodies this contradiction-like Natty he has a Christian pacifist upbringing but is a committed destroyer of Indians-Bird resolves the contradiction between belief and action. Since Slaughter has been driven mad by the Indian's massacre of his family, his savage assaults on the Indians and the contradictions between his violent behavior and the pacifist beliefs he continues to assert are justified by the savagery of the Indians and Slaughter's own anguished mental state.
The dime novel carried this reduction of Cooper's dialectic of civilization and nature still further in the direction of simple moral opposition. Only a skeletal residue of Cooper's ideal of natural simplicity remains in Seth ]ones (1860), one of the earliest successful dime novels. Though most of the male characters are presented to us as "nature's noblemen," the term has evidently ceased to mean anything other than that the character is strong, healthy, and vigorous. The idea that there is a way of life or a set of moral values associated with nature and opposed to civilization simply doesn't enter the picture. In fact, the first of the various "nature's noblemen" we encounter in Seth Jones is chopping down a tree and when asked why he has come out to the frontier, he replies, "Enterprise, sir; I was tired of the civilization portion of the country, and when such glorious fields were offered to the emigrant as have here spread before him, I considered it a duty to avail myself of them."23 Such incidents suggest that nature has become identified with the gospel of success. The dialectic between civilized aristocrat and backwoodsman so important to the Leatherstocking series has been translated into the mythical terms of disguise. The central character of the book, though apparently a rough backwoodsman, continually gives hints that he is not what he seems. One such incident is surely one of the great moments in popular literature. Seth, who has been captured by Indians while trying to rescue the heroine, leaves the following message scratched on a flat stone in a brook where it is found by the girl's father and sweetheart:
Hurry forward. There are six Indians, and they have got Ina with them. They don't suspect you are following them, and are hurrying up for village. I think we will camp two or three miles from here. Make the noise of the whippowill when you want to do the business, and I will understand.
SETH JONES 24
Such a master of epistolary form could hardly be just a simple backwoodsman. It is no surprise when, at the end of the story, Seth is revealed as the dashing young Eugene Morton, Revolutionary War hero and scion of a distinguished New England family.
Henry Nash Smith points out that Seth Jones's disguise is "a neat maneuver for combining the picturesque appeal of the 'low' hunter with the official status of the 'straight' upper-class hero."25 As Smith suggests, such devices undercut the Leatherstocking character's significance as a symbol of natural virtue opposed to the artificialities and constraints of civilization.
Through such developments, the dime novel moved the western away from Cooper's ambiguous examination of the discrepancy between the American dream of a new society and the reality of greed and violence on the frontier. During the heyday of the dime novel the western developed primarily as a form of adolescent escapism, complete with the simple moral conflicts and stereotyped characters and situations usually found in such literature. The western setting, instead of being the place where advanced civilization confronts the virgin wilderness, gradually developed a new set of connotations.
Edward L. Wheeler's Deadwood Dick on Deck, or Calamity Jane, the Heroine of Whoop-up (1878) illustrates the full-blown dime novel. The story of this novel exemplifies the common principle of pulp literature that incident takes precedence over plot, i.e., that it is more important to have a lot of exciting actions than to have them clearly related to each other. In such a narrative characters exist less for the purpose of confronting difficult moral or human problems than for getting into and out of scrapes. Thus, instead of a single line of action, Deadwood Dick on Deck, despite its brevity, contains at least five strands of plot that intersect at various points. The brew is further thickened by the fact that almost all the main characters are in disguises of one kind or another. The hero, Earl Beverly, of the distinguished Virginia Beverlys, has come West because he mistakenly believes himself guilty of murder and forgery. Disguised as Sandy the miner, he hopes to make a new life. He is pursued by the man who had originally led him into temptation, the rich but evil Honorable Cecil Grosvenor, who, for reasons never made too clear, still wishes to destroy Sandy. The conflict between Sandy and Cecil becomes further complicated when Sandy makes friends with a girl who has disguised herself as a man. Under the name of Dusty Dick, this young lady becomes known as Sandy's "pard." Dusty Dick, coincidentally, is also fleeing from Cecil, who had tricked her into marriage before she discovered his true character. The triangle Sandy-Dusty Dick-Cecil Grosvenor is resolved at the end when another character in disguise turns out to be a detective who has discovered that Sandy is innocent of the crimes he thought he had committed. In addition, Cecil's marriage to Dusty Dick turns out to be invalid because-second plot strand-the villain's real wife shows up to controvert him. She is Mad Marie, the highway woman, who flits mysteriously around the periphery of the narrative until it is time for her to play her role. The third strand involves Calamity Jane and the Danite ghoul, Arkansas Alf, a vicious outlaw and Cecil's henchman. Calamity seeks revenge against Arkansas Alf because he has committed some horrible but nameless offense against her. Fourth, we have the complex relationship between the other characters and the lady who is usually referred to as "the beautiful blonde proprietress of the Castle Garden, Madame Minnie Majilton." Madame Minnie loves Sandy, who loves Dusty Dick. Cecil lusts after Madame Minnie, but is scorned, which adds more fuel to the fires of his vengeful spirit. To wrap up all these complications requires a transcendent hero indeed. The fifth strand is, believe it or not, none other than Deadwood Dick, who, disguised as Old Bullwhacker, the "regulator," always manages to appear on the scene in time to help get the situation straightened out.
Aside from the usual perilous scrapes, flights, captures, and battles, Deadwood Dick on Deck places great emphasis on disguises and on an elaborate play with sexual roles. In Deadwood Dick on Deck disguises fly so thick and fast that in one episode we find Calamity Jane disguised as Deadwood Dick disguised as an old man. She is unmasked by Deadwood Dick himself disguised as somebody else. This play with disguises has always been a vital part of children's literature. Perhaps young people who are having social roles thrust upon them in the process of growing up find a great fascination in disguises because a disguise is a role that can be put off when it is no longer wanted. Thus such stories enable adolescent readers to participate imaginatively in the process of putting on and taking off roles at will, a kind of experimentation without commitment that may help ease some of the tensions associated with the increasing pressure on the young person to undertake a permanent social role. Such reflections seem to be borne out by the treatment of sex in these books. In one sense, there is no sex at all in the dime novels; everything is very pure, and one cannot imagine a hero being unchaste. Yet, at the same time, the hero is usually a center of female admiration. At one point beauteous blonde Madame Minnie Majilton tells Sandy:
I mean that three women in this very town adore you-worship you as the only perfect man in the mines. First of all is Dusty Dick, who has got you into all this trouble in the eyes of your friends; secondly, ranks that eccentric daredevil girl, Calamity Jane. She probably loves you in the fiercest, most intense manner. I fill the third place myself. I am beautiful, and of a most generous, impulsive nature-the very woman suited to you. I have money, independent of yours. I have brought you in here to ask you to marry me. Earlier today Cecil Grosvenor proposed and I refused him. I want you, Sandy-will you take me?26
Unfortunately for the success of her suit, Madame Minnie forgets that no selfrespecting young American hero could possibly accept such an aggressive and independent woman, particularly one who runs a dance hall. Where Madame Minnie represents an overly aggressive feminine sexuality, Calamity Jane plays the part of an overly masculine woman. It is the sweet and clinging Dusty Dick who is our hero's true and appropriate love, but, interestingly enough, she must play a transvestite before the romance can blossom. Again this seems to make sense in terms of an adolescent reader's psychological needs. A figure like Dusty Dick can be both boyish companion and sexual object, easing in fantasy the uncertainty that accompanies the adolescent's increasing awareness of girls in sexual terms. The figure of the boyish woman or the woman who takes a man's role before changing into a lover plays an important role in many later westerns.
This kind of resolution in fantasy of the sexual and status anxieties characteristic of adolescents does not, on the surface at least, have anything to do with the West. In fact, the same themes frequently appear in other forms of literature aimed primarily at adolescents, including the Alger books and the Rover boys. Certain aspects of the western. setting as defined by Cooper and his followers were particularly appropriate to the presentation of these themes. The West had a mythical aura that neither the nineteenth-century city nor the small town could match. It was a setting in which transcendent heroes, disguises, and perilous scrapes could be more believably generated because it had the quality of romantic distance. Moreover, the dime novelists could characterize the West as a place where peer group relationships dominated the social order. The Wild West thus became the locus of an adolescent dream society without the complex institutions and restrictions on impulsive freedom associated with the East. In line with this development, the favorite villain was a figure associated with the corrupt institutions and artificial social roles of the East. In Deadwood Dick on Deck, the chief villain is an eastern politician and crooked banker while the true-blue hero has fled the East because in its corrupt society he has been branded a criminal:
"in the eyes of the law I am a criminal-a forger, and an accused murderer. You heard Cecil Grosvenor throw it up in my face; it is the only weapon he has to brand me with. If he were in the States, where law reigns supreme, he would have me more in his power. "27
The concept of the West as a society of comrades dimly reflects Cooper's dialectic of civilization and nature. The residual influence of Cooper's pastoral ideal can still be seen from time to time. For example, at the beginning of Deadwood Dick on Deck, the hero Sandy muses on the natural beauties of the West:
"Nowhere does Nature so forcibly illustrate the power of the Divine Creator as in the mountainous regions," Sandy muttered, as he gazed dreamily off through an opening between the mountain peaks. "I sometimes wonder how it is that people do not more devoutly worship God in His works."28
Deadwood Dick on Deck shows not only a simplification of Cooper's dialectic but a shift away from the opposition of civilization and nature that dominated Cooper's presentation of the West. First of all, the Indians are gone. Deadwood Dick on Deck is set in a mining town in the Black Hills, and its characters are entirely white. This contrasts sharply with an earlier dime novel like Seth Jones in which escape from Indians still furnishes, as in Cooper, the primary source of the action. While many later dime novels deal with Indian warfare, the Indian has become an item of furniture rather than an opposing force. In Cooper, while the Indian is not exactly equivalent to Nature, he represents a way of life that has a natural simplicity and dignity and is therefore opposed to both the refinement of high civilization and the greed and avarice of the advancing pioneers. Coopers version of the Indian way of life presents a significant moral alternative to white civilization. Thus, the noble Mohicans, Uncas and Chingachgook, embody a pastoral critique of the artificiality, vanity, and selfishness of white civilization. Even Coopers Indian villains, the savage Mingos, suggest an awesome natural force. In Seth Jones, the only thing left to the Indians is savagery, while the later dime novel tends to eliminate even that, giving the role of savage to white outlaws.
These changes reflected a new meaning of the West. Coopers image of the West as a place of encounter between civilization and nature gave way to the portrayal of the West as an open society where the intricacies of complex social institutions are unknown, where people are surrounded by loyal friends, where hearty individualists can give vent to their spontaneous urges, and where justice is done directly and without ambiguity. The dime novel West is also a place of excitement and color; it is, to use the current phrase, "where the action is." One major sign of this change is the fact that the frontier town becomes more important as a locus of action than the pathless forest. In Deadwood Dick on Deck, the story keeps coming back to the frenetic activity, exciting maskers, and transvestites of the town of WhoopUp, which often reminds me of our contemporary vision of the "Wild West" as exemplified in the glamorous wilderness of Las Vegas:
For a mile and a half along the only accessible shore of Canyon Creek, were strewn frame shanties and canvas tents almost without number, and the one street of the town was always full to overflowing with excited humanity. The monotonous grinding and crushing of ore-breakers, the ring of picks and hammers, the reports of heavy blasts in the rugged mountainside, the shouts of rival stage-drivers, the sounds of music, and tipsy revelry from dance-houses and saloons; the boisterous shouts of the outdoor Cheap John, dealer in "biled shorts" and miners' furnishing golds, the occasional reports of revolver-shots, may be heard in the streets of WhoopUp, no matter, dear reader, if it be during the day or during the night, when you pay your visit. For in this latest mining success of the country there is no suspension of bustle or business on account of night; in walking through the town you might wonder if these people never slept, because the long, thronged street is even livelier at an hour of the night when the sun trails a pathway of light along the bottom of Canyon Gulch.29
With the elimination of the dialectic between nature and civilization, the western lost the serious thematic significance Cooper had given it and became primarily a fictional embodiment of fantasies of transcendent heroism overcoming evil figures of authority. As suggested above, this development hinted at a new kind of thematic conflict between the free and easy way of life of the West and the overcivilized, corrupt culture of the East. To revitalize the western as a fictional formula required that someone invent a pattern of action that could give a greater degree of complexity to this incipient conflict. This was the achievement of Owen Wister.
Wister's Virginian and the Modern Western
Owen Wister's The Virginian topped best-seller lists in the year of its publication, 1902, and was 1903's fifth highest seller. Since that time it has sold at least two million copies and has inspired a number of movies and a TV series .3° Generally, the novel is credited with beginning the twentieth-century western craze. More than any other book, it stands as the transition between the dime novel and the modern literary and cinematic western. Its characters and the chief incidents of its plot have been repeated in countless novels and films. Above all, Wister brought back to the tale of western adventure something of the thematic seriousness and complexity that had largely been absent since the works of Cooper. In short, Wister accomplished a major transformation of the western formula.