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The American West on Television

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The American West, Myth and Television


   The Western, once the most popular genre on television, has almost disappeared from the small screen. From the time Hopalong Cassidy first rode into America's living room in 1948, until the cancellation of Gunsmoke in 1975, the Western dominated television. No television program genre, not even the situation comedy, ever became so dominant at any given moment in time as the Western during the late 1950's and early 1960's (Yoggy 160). How could a genre that held seven of the top ten spaces in the Nielsen Ratings in 1958 almost disappear from television only 20 years later?

   In Gary Yoggy's essay "Prime-Time Bonanza! The Western on Television," he writes "the political turbulence of the 1960's, the explosion of the Civil Rights Movement and the rise of the feminist movement, all played a role in the demise of the Western. When coupled with growing opposition to the war in Vietnam and an increasing revulsion toward violence in general because of a sickening series of assassinations, the Western became less and less relevant" (181). These events coincided with the United States successfully landing a man on the moon on 20 July 1969, thus opening another frontier for man to explore. The West was replaced by outerspace as the great unknown and the nation became fascinated with the conquest of space, and lost interest in the already conquered West.

   How the myth of the West was created, how it was portrayed on television and the rise and fall of the TV Westerns' popularity, is an interesting look into the social, political and mythical aspects of American popular culture.




Origins of the Myth


    The myth and image of the American West has undergone several transformations in its history. James Fenimore Cooper (first literary creator of the Western hero) gave readers the "Leatherstocking" image of the West in the five novels he published between 1823-1841 (Murdoch 13, 27). The image of the brave pathfinder, "a wilderness hunter who was meant to personify frontier values," became the image associated with the West (Murdoch 27). The Leatherstockings Tales portrayed an educated man who did not shun society, but wished to live on the fringes of mass civilization. While he stayed away from mainstream society, he stilled portrayed the virtues of protecting the new civilization from the "savages."

                                                          The early frontier image of the West: Natty Bumppo, Daniel Boone and other frontiers' men, would not be the dominant image portrayed by the television Western. However, as William Bloodworth argues in his essay "Writers of the Purple Sage: Novelists and the American West," today's Western's roots are embedded in the works of Cooper and "other seventeenth-century Puritan narratives of captivity and Indian wars" (44). By the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries, the cowboy had replaced the frontier man as the symbol of the American West.

Illustration for James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans”,

set in a heavily wooded upstate New York of 1757


  The Cowboy Emerges


    The evolution of the cowboy as the popular symbol of the West was influenced by several important figures in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries. Theodore Roosevelt, Frederick Jackson Turner, Owen Wister and Frederic Remington  ( links to page detailing Remington's life and showcases his work) were the most influential men, all of whom were Easterners, who helped invent the myth of the American West (Murdoch 64). 

    From the moment Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 essay, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" declared the American Frontier closed, American popular culture has symbolized the frontier with the cowboy and the "wild" West. By following Turner’s social evolutionary settlement theory put forth in his essay: the animals followed the salt, the Indians followed the animals, the trappers followed the Indians until the farmers arrived and the frontier was gone, we can see how the cowboy emerged as the lasting image of the West (Moskowitz 1).

   With the frontier now declared dead, America now sought to harness and preserve the history of the settlement of the West. Since the cowboy arrived at the end of Turner’s evolutionary chain, it was the symbol that was romanticized and associated with the West. If, as Turner claimed in his essay, the conquest of the frontier was an "uniquely American" act, then the cowboy certainly emerged as the uniquely American symbol of that conquest.

   America, in the 1890’s, was a country still healing from Civil War and undergoing an industrial revolution. The country’s need for unification and desire to identify with a single, unique representation of America, helped the cultural mythology of the cowboy survive (Moskowitz 12).

   Theodore Roosevelt  was more than just the 26th President of the United States. He was an adventurer, conservationist, cowboy, writer, and war-hero. Roosevelt was so popular in America during the late nineteenth and early twentieth- centuries, that a poll conducted in 1913 by American Magazine a year after he was defeated in the 1912 Presidential race, found Americans considered Roosevelt to be the "greatest man in America" (Dalton 4). This popularity, along with Roosevelt’s four-volume The Winning of the West (1889-1896), helped influence American popular culture on the myth of the West. Roosevelt’s writings, which prevailed the theme that "Americanness was a fierce frontier spirit more alive when plain folks fought their way west than when they settled into industrialized lives in the east," replaced Cooper’s Leatherstocking pioneer with the cowboy as the heroic figure of the West (Dalton 99).

   The fact that Roosevelt had experienced life as a real cowboy and was himself a mythic figure in American popular culture, gave the image substantial credibility and help to cement the cowboy image into America’s consciousness. He had traveled West several times in his life and loved the country’s wildness. In 1883 he bought into a ranching partnership in the Dakota Territory and became a cattle rancher after suffering personal tragedy: On Valentine’s Day 1884, his wife and his mother both died (Murdoch 66). Roosevelt headed out West to stock and expand his ranch, the Maltese Cross, located on the Little Missouri River (Murdoch 67). Although Roosevelt’s stay in the West was short, the winter of 1886-87 wiped out the Maltese Cross and most of the other ranches in the territory; his stay had a profound impact on the mythology of the West.

   Roosevelt’s exploits in the Spanish-American War not only made TR an American hero, but it also reaffirmed the nobility of the rugged cowboy. When war broke out with Spain in 1898, Roosevelt formed the first volunteer unit to be sent to fight. His famous "Rough Riders" were an extension of himself and, ironically, an accurate look into the real West. Made up of Ivy Leaguers, adventurers, and cowboys; some of whom were of Hispanic and Native American ancestry, the unit represented a truer look into the American West (Dalton). The diversity that existed in the Rough Riders would not be acknowledged in popular culture for almost a century, but the success of his charge up Kettle Hill solidified the cowboy as the chivalrous American, fighting for the values that were uniquely American.

    The success of his The Winning of the West volumes, combined with his friend Remington’s vision of the West; "heroes often caught in moments of acute danger and often displaying the true hero’s hallmark- an act of chivalry," encased the heroic cowboy into the vision of the American West. This is the image of the West that emerged onto television fifty years later.

    Owen Wister's The Virginian, written in 1902, not only reinforced the myth of the cowboy but also gave the cowboy his "knightly" status in American popular culture. Wister, like most Eastern writers of Western fiction, saw what he wanted to see. Although Wister’s West was a world of wish- fulfillment, he developed the character of the cowboy as the noble defender of virtue, "the iconic hero, slow to action but invincible when aroused: ‘When you say that, smile!" (Murdoch 75). By focusing on the cowboy as a modern day example of the chivalric knights of the Arthurian period, Wister creates the "white hat" image of the good cowboy, the defender of good against evil (Moskowitz 12). This image of the cowboy endured in popular culture and became the symbol of the Television Western during the 1950’s, when the cowboys in the white hats came to symbolize America’s Cold War fight against the Soviet Union.

   The influences of Remington, Wister, Turner and Roosevelt created a symbolic and mythological ideal of the American West and of the cowboy. Although their vision of the West was heavy on the romance and light on the reality, it is their vision that has endured in literature, film and finally in 1948, television.




The American West on Television


   Hopalong Cassidy brought the Western to television in 1948 and paved the way for the genre that dominated television’s ratings and American popular culture for over two decades. The television Western produced more movie stars, from Clint Eastwood (Rawhide), Steve McQueen (Wanted Dead or Alive), James Garner (Maverick) and Burt Reynolds (Gunsmoke), than any other format (Yoggy 160). Its popularity was so overwhelming that, in 1959, the Western was given its own category at the Emmys (Yoggy 160).

   The success of the Western relied heavily on the foundation that Wister, Roosevelt and Remington had built: Good always won out against evil, crime did not pay and the hero was just, smart and tough. The action was constant, easy to follow and, "postwar baby boomers were taught lessons in patriotism, tolerance, fairness, and other traditional values designed to protect them from communism and juvenile delinquency in an era of rapid change" (Yoggy 161).

    The television Western of the 1950’s and 1960’s was seeped in political philosophy (although most kids watching did not know it); about the "good" values the American cowboy stood for versus the "evil" of oppressors (Soviet Union). The Cold War could be fought on television in 30 minutes to an hour and the good guys always won. Gene Autry, The Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers all portrayed the romanticized version of the cowboy. All were good-looking, fast riding, amoral men, who never cursed rarely shot to kill, and epitomized the heroic knight of Wister’s The Virginian, always there to protect women and virtue. Parents loved the high moral code the Western hero’s portrayed and the children loved the action (Yoggy 161-62). As David Murdoch writes in his book, The American West: The Invention of a Myth, "The winning of the West was a time when issues were clear…Right and wrong, good and evil, were reduced to elemental simplicities. The time of clear-cut issues was also the time of the gun" (3). This message was successfully implanted along side the action the TV Western provided, and American popular culture could not get enough of this simple format.

    The Native Americans probably did not think the issues were so clear-cut, as their definition of right and wrong differed from that of the white majority. The portrayal of the West on television lacked a significant minority voice. While the TV executives had no trouble fighting the Cold War on Television, they remained noticeably silent on social issues regarding minority causes. The 1950’s saw Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, the forced integration of Little Rock Central High School, the very start of the American Civil Rights Movement, yet minorities were relegated to comic relief roles, bad guys or trusted side-kick. Half the times on television Indians were played by whites in red or brown paint and almost always; the Indian is associated with violence (Deloria 48). The late nineteenth-century stories of Wounded Knee and Plenty Horses, the last armed conflicts in the taming of the "savage" Indian, helped establish the myth of twentieth-century image making. Literature, film and television, often invoke Indian violence in order to justify the stealing of the Native’s land and to position the white’s violence against the Indians as defensive (Deloria 49-50). As Deloria theorizes, it was easier for the white culture to live with the atrocities against the Indians than it was to acknowledge them (50). This mythic coverup would surface in the 1970's when the Native Americans began demanding their side be accuratly portrayed.

    The 1973 standoff and protest at the Wounded Knee memorial furthered the Natives’ cause for a more accurate portrayal on television. The sympathy generated over this incident finally gave the Indians their due, and had finally allowed the Indians to tell their story in their words (Deloria). From this point in the history of the TV Western until today, the image of the "Red Devil" has been replaced by the "Noble Warrior" (Aquila).

      Women, like African-Americans and the Native Indians, were relegated to a support role in the Western. The woman's role was to support the heroic cowboy in his quest for justice, teach school, or stay at the homestead and wait for trouble to find you. Then swoon with affection as the cowboy saves the day and rides off with the girl, happily ever after, of course! (Etulain 122).   

   Dale Evans was the first and only visible woman with a lead role in TV Westerns for many years. Her success along side of her husband, Roy Rogers, came from playing the stereotyped Western woman. Her good looks, good nature and excellent chemistry with Roy, helped to propel them to star status on the big screen. When they made the switch to the small screen, the success continued because their Christian values and nostalgic look at the carefree West went over well with adults and kids. In the troubled time of the Cold War, the nation yearned for a campy, nostalgic look at the American West and the values it mythologized (Etulain 35).

    The breakthrough role for women in TV Westerns came from A-list movie actress Barbara Stanwyck, in 1965’s The Big Valley. After making guest appearances on Rawhide and Wagon Train, Stanwyck proposed a series that would have her as the head of a matriarchal ranching family. As Victoria Barkley, Stanwyck had definite ideas about the way Barkley would be portrayed. Stanwyck wanted her character to "play a real frontier woman, not one of those crinoline-covered things you see in most Westerns…nuts to the kids and cows" (Etulain 137). Almost sixty when she took on the role, Stanwyck saw Victoria Barkley as "an old broad who combines elegance with guts" (Etulain 137). The Big Valley enjoyed a four-year run and Stanwyck's role as a powreful woman in the West was well received by critics and fans alike. She was able to break the stereotype of the civilizer, schoolteacher, or "bad" woman roles that had plagued female actors for generations (Etulain 138).

    Stanwyck's work on The Big Valley, opened up America's consciousness and allowed women to be seen in a role they undoutedly performed in the "real" West. By breaking the myth of the women in the West, Stanwyck gave credibility to the notion that it was possible to see the image of the West in more than one way.   




Social Change and the Decline of the TV Western   


   The social and political upheaval of the late 1960's and early 1970's had a drastic effect on the television Western. No longer was the white, cowboy loner seen as a hero there to protect American values. The image of the cowboy became associated with what was wrong in American society. He had become a symbol of oppression, greed, violence and white supremacy. This backlash on the Western was the result of growing dissatisfaction among America's youth towards the "establishment". The Western was caught in the crossfire of political ideals that now saw the United States as the aggressor in the Vietnam War, the tyrant bent on bulling the weak and downtrodden (Moses). The values the Western had always stood for; truth, justice, and fairness were now turned against the Western.  







Works Cited


Aquila, Richard. Wanted Dead or Alive: The American West in Popular Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois


     Press, 1996.



Bloodworth, William. "Writers of the Purple Sage: Novelists and the American West." Wanted Dead or Alive:



      The American West in Popular Culture. Ed. Richard Aquila. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996.



Dalton, Kathleen. Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life. New York: Random House, 2002.



Deloria, Philip. Indians in Unexpected Places. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004.



Etulain, Richard W. and Glenda Riley. The Hollywood West: Lives of Film Legends Who Shaped It.



     Golden: Fulcrum Publishing, 2001.




Moses, L.G. Lecture. The Romance and Reality of the American West. Tulsa. 27 Feb. 2007.



Moskowitz, Jennifer. "The Cultural Myth of the Cowboy, or, How the West Was Won."



     Americana:The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900 to Present). 5 (2006): 1-15. Online.



     http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/spring_2006/moskowitz.htm. 24 November 2007.



Murdoch, David. The American West: The Invention of a Myth. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2001.



Yoggy, Gary A. "Prime-Time Bonanza! The Western on Television." Wanted Dead or Alive: The American



     West in Popular Culture. Ed. Richard Aquila. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996. 160, 181.  

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