|Family in a drawing room, 1800s|
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