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Playing Cowboys: Low Culture and High Art in the Western.

During the past century, many scholars have explored the history of the American West and its impact on American culture, literature, and the performing arts. The understanding of western history has been reshaped by each generation of scholars, from Frederick Jackson Turner and Walter Prescott Webb to Patricia Nelson Limerick and Donald Wooster. Henry Nash Smith, Stephen Tatum, Robert Athearn, John Lenihan, John Cawelti, and Leslie Fiedler, among others, have explored the West's cultural implications for American society. It is clear that the western experience, and its depiction in books and films called "Westerns," remain vital topics for scholarly assessment.

Robert Murray Davis has collected a series of his previously published essays, adding a poem and introduction that reflect general views of western independence, honor, honesty, a sense of obligations, hard work, inner strength, violent defense of kin and honor, and the ability to change one's personality and start over. Davis frankly emphasizes the impact of the western myth and western behavioral codes on modern male conduct.

Davis explores the western myth through several literary and cinematic stages. Like John Cawelti, he focuses on Owen Wister's The Virginian as a work that shaped eastern conceptions of western behavior, and he goes on to trace subsequent visions of role playing, individual courage, and increasing social and moral ambiguities that appear in Oakley Hall's Warlock, The Bad Lands, and Apaches. Davis notes the incorporation of the Western into fantasy gothic themes through such works as Richard Brautigan's Hawkline Monster, E. L Doctorow's Welcome to Hard Times, and John Hawkes' Beetle Leg. He observes that Western experiences can easily be incorporated into contemporary interpretations of a mad, self-destructive world.

Davis also reviews science fiction western stories, noting that most simply carry on western themes about the moral regeneration possible through violent acts of honor. These include H. Beam Piper and John J. McGuire's Lone Star Planet, John Jakes' Six-Gun Planet, and John Boyd's Andromeda Gun, among others. Davis' last chapter assesses the Mel Brooks movie Blazing Saddles and Robert Sheckley's story, "The Never-Ending Western Movie." Both involve characters who realize that they are playing roles amidst modern realities.

This short book offers a series of examples that demonstrate the continuing viability of western themes for modern literary interpretation. Davis concludes by citing Robert Bly's Iron John: A Book About Men to maintain that role models are inadequate guides for male development and that men must be able to understand realities as well as roles that they play. Though there are clearly many areas about western literature that need to be further explored, particularly the role models created for women, this volume offers interesting and valuable interpretations.

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Author:Brown, Jeffrey P.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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