Sunday, June 24, 2012

The western and family values

Family in a drawing room, 1800s
Recently, Patti Abbott posted a link to an essay by Tim Parks at The New York Review of Books on what it is that draws a reader into a novel. Parks refers to a field of psychology that’s focused on an individual’s family and the “conversation” that takes place there among the adults.

This conversation is about specific values that are in conflict, and for a child growing up within earshot, it is the daily bread that feeds that child’s development. Not only that, it defines what deeply matters to the person for the rest of their life.

Take the conflict between obedience and self-determination. In a family where the adults habitually make sense of the world in those terms, the children will follow suit. Each will take a place along the spectrum between those two polarities. A respectful and rule-following offspring, for instance, may have a sibling who is obstinately defiant.

Swedish family, 1902
If it’s true that embedded in each of us is a pair of conflicting core values, Parks wonders if that accounts for the way a work of fiction grabs and holds our attention. We recognize the conflict and want to see how it plays out. It determines whether we are satisfied or disappointed by a novel’s ending. It may explain why a novel that gets rave reviews from your friends and the critics leaves you bored.

This theory is intriguing. It may account for why certain themes and issues come to dominate a genre like the western—in particular, its kill-or-be-killed world and the steady threat of murderous villainy requiring arms for self-defense.

You can trace this thread from the dime novel through The Virginian and Max Brand and Louis L’Amour to today’s western writers. It’s certainly also central to Carol Buchanan’s God’s Thunderbolt, reviewed here recently. And it’s there in the very marrow of Julia Robb’s Scalp Mountain (also reviewed).

James Reasoner, in his recent review of Scalp Mountain, had some things of his own to say about the generic western. He argues that critics of the western forget that writers haven’t always confined themselves to formulas. He names Max Brand and Luke Short as early examples and adds to them more recent ones: H.A. DeRosso, Lewis B. Patten, and Dudley Dean McGaughey.

Australian family, Christmas, 1918
That some writers, like Brand, found the formula confining isn’t surprising. What good, imaginative writer wouldn’t tire of it? But it’s safe to say that western readers have liked the formula, and the editors often blamed for perpetuating it, chose to give that audience what it wanted. 

So Parks’ theory suggests that the audience for the generic or formula western grew from a particular kind of upbringing. It would have been a home where a certain set of values dominated. Not just individual values, but pairs of sharply conflicting values, and a conflict so intense that it required one to take a stand. Violence vs. non-violence, pacifism vs. aggression, the individual vs. community, and so on.

Why, for instance, is there the frequent assumption in the western novel that an individual is alone in a world of predators, and he must always be having to defend himself—to stand his ground? It’s an assumption that produces a darkly intimidating lone hero, like the one in L’Amour’s The Quick and the Dead (reviewed here), who teaches a pacifist family man to use a gun to protect self, family and property.

Thanksgiving aboard the USS Ronald Reagan, 2007
If I understand Parks, he’d say that this storyline would be satisfying to a reader growing up in a family where the core issue was trust of others vs. paranoia. The parents could have been vocal advocates of nonviolence or survivalists with a cache of weapons. It doesn’t matter. A reader growing up in an environment where the conversation always came around to this issue would recognize it in the generic western. It would feel like home.

Richard Wheeler has argued that the audience for the formula western is aging and dying off. If Parks is right, it could be because family values have shifted. The western that granddad enjoyed seems outdated or alien to the current generation of readers (and movie-goers) because the conversation in their families was about different values.

Wheeler would agree, I think, that the western needs to reinvent itself to find the audience that’s out there waiting for it. In the new western writers that have been appearing in print and ebooks and online, we can see efforts to discover and connect with that audience’s values.  

Coal miner's family, West Virginia, 1946
I’d point to Edward Grainger’s Cash Laramie series as one example. The rogue U.S. marshal with the arrowhead lanyard takes on challenges that we are not used to seeing in the everyday western. For Cash a frequent theme is social justice vs. personal justice.

Personal justice has had a long run as the driving force in the revenge western, which has dominated the form. A man is out to avenge the violent deaths of his parents, a brother, or his wife and family. It’s one of the main plot threads in the TV series Hell on Wheels, reviewed here recently.

The Cash Laramie stories are often about justice, too, but Cash is not avenging a grievous wrong done to himself. He’s after villains who prey on the vulnerable. He doesn’t accept the dictum at the core of a L’Amour story that in this world it’s kill or be killed and a man best be armed to defend himself and his property. For Cash, a good man comes to the defense of those too weak to defend themselves.

Ranch family, Texas, 1973
This conflict between social and personal justice has been at the heart of the American drama for a long time. The competing demands of both values have sparked national debate over and again. Today, it polarizes opinion on nearly every public issue. It accounts for both the clamor for social programs like healthcare and the fear of socialized medicine. Are we all in this together, or is it every man for himself?

That question is at the heart of the Cash Laramie stories. And with each episode in his job as a lawman, Cash locates himself somewhere between those two extremes. It’s not easy. He makes mistakes sometimes or things go wrong, which causes him self-doubt. But his remorse is also part of what makes him admirable.

According to Park’s argument, what Grainger does is to reflect a family conversation different from the one that produced the kill-or-be-killed revenge western. And it has found an audience of readers who recognize in the imaginative world he’s created something that feels more like home. It does to me, anyway.

As usual, just my opinion. I’m open to reasoned argument.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Old West glossary, no. 35


  1. An interesting theory that gives rise to some thinking, and maybe that's all many theories need to do. I'm skeptical about various aspects of it but I haven't made a real study of it. Need to give it some thought.

    1. The weakness of theories, of course, is that they're theoretical. Ha.

  2. A very interesting and complex subject. I'd just about have to start my own blog to discuss it properly. And I don't want to do that because it would cut into my reading time!

    It's possible Parks theory is too general to really apply to the western. However, I have to admit to leaning toward the more violent portrait of the West. Here's a couple examples of what I'm talking about:

    McCABE AND MRS MILLER--Shows the dirt, prostitutes and violence of the times. Remember the scene where the naive and innocent cowboy is tricked into drawing his gun and then killed? I bet this happened a few times.

    SHANE--Same scene almost when the gunslinger, Jack Palance forces Elisha Cook, Jr into drawing his gun and then blasts him right off the porch and into the mud.

    My point being that the west was often a hard and difficult life, sometimes with no real law except what you made yourself(vigilantes, miner's courts, etc). Not to mention the horror that would befall you with some indian tribes. It was quite common for soldiers to save their last bullet for themselves, rather than fall into the hands of indians.

    My argument above is too general also, I see. But it's interesting to discuss.

    1. As usual, Walker, I don't disagree with you. I'm not arguing for a sanitized view of the Old West. It was a violent place for both whites and Indians, not to mention everybody else. Accident, disease, and alcohol surely took an even heavier toll.

  3. I wouldn't argue. Thank you for writing this. I never thought about art this way before. Very thoughtful. As usual, your photos are good.

  4. Modern morality is different than in the Wild West and I'm sure families today don't discuss the same conflicts as they did then. I doubt that cowboys and Indians even come up in conversation today in the average household, and so young readers have no interest in that time period. Today, it's technology, space, SYFY, etc.

  5. This is a fine and penetrating essay. I've been puzzling about an adjunct phenomenon: the trivialization of death in westerns. Once there were one or two deaths in a typical western, usually of characters that readers care about; people whose death is grieved by relatives and friends. There used to be funerals in westerns. That's largely gone, and replaced by high body counts, random killing of people who are barely named, much less grieved, and whose life and history is unknown to readers. It is death without consequence now, and I don't know how the genre got there. I am hoping you will explore that. You've opened up a host of new insights for me.

  6. You're scaring me with all these theories and deep analysis, Ron ... I write shoot-'em-ups, with subplots hopefully containing a few unexpected twists, spiced by colorful, interesting characters (again, hopefully)tinted in shades of gray ... Jeez, now I got to start worrying about all these other ramifications ...

  7. Richard Wheeler mentions the high body counts and how did we get there. I put a good part of the blame on the spaghetti westerns which started in the mid-sixties and of course, THE WILD BUNCH(1969). Alot of guys bit the dust in these movies. Then the EDGE series started in paperback in the early 1970's and we were really off and running.

    Gone are the days when Dane Coolidge or W.C. Tuttle would have only a couple deaths in their western novels. But they are still enjoyable because of the dialog and characterization.

    1. The way I see the ultra-violent western, it's like taking an action movie or novel and stripping away everything except the explosions, the chases, and the sex scenes.

  8. Ron, A first-rate analysis. As someone who has tried his hand... and ear... at "traditional" westerns, you have given me much to chew on here indeed.

  9. This is one of the most thoughtful essays on the subject I have read in quite some time... and it has resulted in some ponderings on my part. What values do my stories, on the average, promote, and how did my early family life influence that? I'm going to have to study on that for a spell. Even before this post, I was also doing some pondering about Richard Wheeler's point about high body counts, which he had previously made on an earlier comment. There's a pretty high body count in my works, generally speaking, and some of it is pretty intense. I'm not really sure what that meqans in my case, or if it's good or bad- I kind of think the general theme of my fiction is (and I've never thought about it from this angle before) that the world is a harsh place, and doing what's right can be dangerous... but that makes it all the more important.

    1. I would agree, Troy, and I admire that about many westerns.

  10. Insightful essay, Ron. I had to go back to Parks's original essay and read it, and while it's an interesting essay, I found it difficult to avoid thinking that it was an elaborate explanation for why Nan Talese of Doubleday rejected his novel which was then short-listed for the Booker Prize in Britain. I'm probably wrong about that, but whenever an author complains about a rejection I want to tell him to button his lip. It's part of the business.

    Nonetheless, his theory is very interesting, especially taken to the national or cultural level. The Western has been discussing opposing values of social and personal justice since its beginning, but some modern writers of the Western have been contributing to the national discussion about values without resorting to the genre's cliches.

    Take one example. Richard Wheeler's novel, The First Dance, is one of my favorites. It opposes the values of faith and family to "the path of the gun" in a way that avoids the usual formula Western cliche of the culminating gun battle. The violent ones discover a far stronger challenge from advocates of faith and family than they ever expected to meet.

    He shows the rest of us how to write stories of justice and injustice, peace and violence, that make great reading and linger happily in the mind long afterwards.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Gotta put that one on my reading list.

  11. Troy Smith does depict violent death in his stories. I've read a number of them. But unlike most contemporary western writers, he does not trivialize death. The dead are developed characters, real people, usually connected to kinfolk who grieve. In Troy's fine stories there are widows and orphans who feel loss. I have greatly admired his work for depicting the true consequences of violent and early death, and yes, the courage of the dying.

    1. Thanks for making this point, Richard. I remember saying something like this when I reviewed Troy's story collection.

  12. I am deeply honored by your kind words, gentlemen... and very grateful to Ron for this essay, and the link to the article that inspired it. It makes me want to find out more about the Italian psychologist who came up with this theory.

  13. Ron, thanks very much for a very thought-provoking essay. I have learned much by the reading of it. I'm still in the process of reading westerns, both old and contemporary, some of which I ought to have read several years ago. However, in most of the westerns I've read so far, I've noticed justice and fairplay get precedence over gun fights and violence. I also remember coming across instances where the western authors placed a lot of emphasis on families and family values and faith and prayers. Was the Wild West really as wild and lawless as it is made out to be, in books and films? I'm not so sure.

    My thanks, too, to all the experts who commented on this page.