On the Western

Bannack, Montana (photo  m.a.h. hinton)
Bannack, Montana (photo m.a.h. hinton)

As a literary and film art form, the western’s time has passed. And yet… there remains a small number of dedicated western fans who remain loyal to this most American of all art forms. I count myself as a proud member of this anachronistic remnant.

One of the many peculiarities of the western is that the greatest practitioners of the western as art form came after the form’s apparent demise: Elmer Kelton, Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy. (Elmore Leonard is still alive and writing, but he has not written a western in decades.)

Even though McCarthy and McMurtry have been critically and commercially successful,  any true western fan is painfully aware that good, new westerns are difficult to find. Those that are published for the most part seem to fall into one of four ultimately dissatisfying categories: reprints of old classic westerns that are in the public domain anyway, historical fiction novels that happen to take place in a “western” context, romance fiction that takes place in a “western” context, and male-adventure fiction (soft-core action stories featuring hot, beautiful women and virile, superhuman protagonists) that takes place in a “western” context.

While it is certainly nice to have reprints available of classic works by Max Brand, Zane Grey, Owen Wister and other pioneers in the western form, these writers are not the best example of the art form. Some, like Grey, are unreadable by modern standards. And since all of these writers are available for free from places like Gutenberg, what is the point of re-publishing them anyway. There are a great many writers whose works are out of print but not in the public domain that could be published. But these are not the ones generally reprinted.

What western fans really want… what the publishing and movie industry needs…. what America needs is more new western writers and new western books, and more western movies. The myths and symbols that we embrace, share, and love define and shape us. Fans of the western know that as a country, a people, and individuals, America was at its best when the dominant American myth was the western.

What fans of the western intuitively understand is that by turning our back on that most American of myths, by replacing it with smaller and smaller “post-modern” myths, we have left a large hole in the American soul and psyche. A hole as large as…well, the West itself.

Book Review: Son of the Morning Star by Evan Connell

connellIn 1969, I watched the moon landing with my mother’s family including her grandfather who was in his mid 90s at the time. When he was born in the early 1870s (I don’t recall the exact year) steam locomotion was still a new technology, and the First Transcontinental Railroad was very recent history. In his lifetime he saw the invention of the car, the invention of the airplane, and finally rockets to the moon. He remarked that day that seeing Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon was the highlight of his life.

A few years later I visited Little Bighorn Battlefield for the first time. Sometime during walking around the battlefield it dawned on me that my great-grandfather had been alive when Custer, Crazy Horse, and Sitting Bull fought where I was now standing. Within his long lifetime, the Montana I knew and lived in had gone from being true wilderness to a place with interstates and television.

It has been said that more books have been written about the Battle of Little Bighorn that any other battle in history. The obvious question is why? Why does a battle in the small corner of present day Montana still matter to people?

Like the Battle of Isandlwana (present day South Africa, January 22, 1879), the Battle of Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876 continues to capture our imagination precisely because it represents ultimately the last violent confrontation between wilderness and modernity. At both Isandlwana and Little Bighorn the native people won… but their victories ultimately meant their complete and utter defeat.

Because there are so many books about Custer’s Last Stand, it has taken me decades to decide which one to read. I wanted to read the best one, the definitive one. At last, I recently settled upon Evan S. Connell’s now classic Son of the Morning Star, and I am glad I did.

Like Stephen Ambrose and Cornelius Ryan, Connell brings narrative power to history. It is clear that his research is broad and deep, but it is the way he tells the story that keeps you turning pages. Son of the Morning Star was first published in 1984. I read  2001 edition from History Book Club with a “new” introduction. Sometimes “new” introductions written for older works seem pointless, like changing floor mats on an old car and selling it as new. But Connell’s brief “look back” at his work 20 years down road is illustrative and adds to the pleasure of the book.

The site of the Little Bighorn Battlefield is the stark and empty plains of eastern Montana. When I was young, I thought that Montana should end where the mountains end… somewhere around Laurel, Montana, or maybe Billings. I had no time for the great, empty plains. “Give it to North Dakota” I said. As time has passed, I have grown to love eastern Montana and western North Dakota as much as the mountainous West. There is a spiritualness to empty spaces that grows on you. That sense is heightened as you walk Custer’s battlefield and remember what happened there. Having now at last read Son of the Morning Star, those feelings will no doubt be more pronounced for me next time I visit The Little Bighorn Battlefield.