The dark side of the cowboy myth

  There are some things to sympathize with in Jeffrey Lockwood's lament regarding criticism of the Cowboy Myth (HCN, 6/9/08). A sense of place and connections with the land are good values that might help us save this Last Best Place.

There are also many sound reasons for criticizing the Cowboy Myth, and for the now long tradition of such criticism extending back to Richard Slotkin's Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier (1973). The Cowboy Myth does indeed turn on values such as the lone hero, violence, and conquering the land and its native inhabitants. There is no place for buffaloes or wolves in the Cowboy Myth, and in the many Western novels and movies I recall, cowboys spent a lot of time killing Indians. It is indeed ironic that only after Indians and buffaloes were practically extinct and safely locked up in prisons (reservations and Yellowstone National Park) did America memorialize them with Indian-head pennies and buffalo nickels.

Despite Lockwood's effort to include women in the Cowboy Myth, it is telling that no women (or blacks, or Indians) appear in the illustrations that accompany the article. The Cowboy Myth is a world where men do not need women. At best, women are treated as frail and defenseless property to be guarded and defended. At worst, the treatment is violent misogyny.

Lockwood and other historical apologists or revisionists cannot successfully sanitize the Cowboy Myth. It will always include the dark side, as shown by Cormac McCarthy in novels such as Blood Meridian. In the dark side of the myth, we have to deal with the chilling Judge Holden and the rampages of the Glanton gang as they ethnically cleanse the Southwest of Indians and Mexicans to make way for white settlement.

From the cowboys on ATVs who are out to realize their freedom by tearing up the landscape to the cowboy that suggested someone "Put a bullet in her head!" when a woman criticized ATVs at a public meeting in Hamilton, Mont., the dark side of the Cowboy Myth is all too alive and well.

Pat Munday
Walkerville, Montana
Jun 24, 2008 03:45 PM

I think it's useful to try to distinguish between the "cowboy" archetype and the "taming the frontier" myth.  Dr. Lockwood referred specifically to the cowboy, one of several archetypal characters in our larger mythos of the West; this letter really is decrying other aspects of the latter.  It was frontier-taming soldiers who killed the Indians, bored rich folks from Back East who slaughtered the bison, and farmer-settlers who benefited most from "ethnic cleansing" of the West.  They might all have ridden a-horseback -- rural people had to, in those days -- but that doesn't make them "cowboys."  The men who worked the cattle herds were part of a melting pot, with recently freed slaves riding alongside poor Confederate Army veterans (who'd never had slaves in the first place) and Mexican immigrants who never had to be described as either "legal" or "illegal."  Cormac McCarthy's blood-soaked vision of the 20th century West is no more a complete description than John Wayne romanticism about the 19th century.  I agree completely that there's a very dark side to the peculiar Gospel of Rural Selfishness that defines a lot of western land-use rhetoric these days, but few of the people who speak it have earned the right to be called "cowboys."

Jun 30, 2008 11:28 AM

To "Anonymous",

It is for insightful commentary as yours that I read HCN.  There's a chance for a balanced discussion, and a stripping away of pretense, when thoughtful and genuinely "western" viewpoints as yours make their way to the commentary section.  Thanks for your most eloquent turn of phrase, "the Gospel of Rural Selfishness", it cuts to the truth with a precision that I much appreciated, and second.

Ron Hindman

Palisade, Colorado