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Monday, March 13, 2023

March 13, 2023: Wild West Stories: Gunfighter Nation

[175 years ago this coming weekend, Wyatt Earp was born in Illinois. Earp would go on to become one of the most iconic Wild West figures, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy stories of that complex and mythic region and history. Leading up to a weekend birthday post on engaging Earp!]

On what a groundbreaking AmericanStudies book can help us understand about the Wild West mythos.

In one of my early posts, attempting to understand the kinds of histories of political and social violence that could help contextualize the January 2011 mass shooting that had targeted and badly wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (and of course have been all too applicable to the so, so many mass shootings since), I cited historian and cultural commentator Richard Slotkin’s trilogy of books on the myth of the frontier in America: Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (1973); Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890 (1985); and Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (1992). As the words “violence,” “fatal,” and “gunfighter” in their respective titles suggest, Slotkin’s focus across all three of these important books is not just on the frontier mythos overall, but also and specifically on themes of violence and destruction, as part of that frontier mythos and also within the larger American narratives and histories to which Slotkin consistently connects that myth.

All three of those books likewise have a lot to do with a second and of course closely connected mythos, that of the Wild West. Indeed, it might seem that the middle one, with a focal time period that directly covers the late 19th century era in which that Wild West mythos first developed, would be especially applicable. But I would argue that it is Gunfighter Nation which has the most to tell us about why and how the Wild West came to take such hold on our collective consciousness. For one thing, while of course there are many layers to the Wild West myths, gunfighters have always occupied a significant (and I would argue significantly oversized) place in that imagery. Even a deeply revisionist cultural work like Deadwood, a show which worked very hard to undermine or at least complicate all sorts of Wild West myths, featured in a central role in its opening episodes the character Wild Bill Hickok—and involved him in a fast-draw gunfight at the end of the very first episode. We’ve had a collective love affair with gunfighters for nearly 150 years now, and I’m with Slotkin: there are serious consequences to those particular mythic images.

But there’s another and even more troubling layer to the close association of gunfighters with the Wild West (and both of them with America writ large). The entire premise of a gunfighter culture—as exemplified again by that concluding scene in Deadwood episode one—is that the best solution to many social problems and challenges, if not indeed the only viable solution, is to see who can draw first and/or draw first blood (to quote another great Wild West-set cultural work, Jon Bon Jovi’s “Blaze of Glory”). Even as we’ve come to better understand the social and cultural realities of the Western U.S., the real challenges that faced the individuals and communities who lived in and through those histories, we’ve still tended to fall back on gunfighter stories and myths—meaning, inevitably, that we still see violence as an integral part of both that society and period and our own. And I would say that those two narratives are frustratingly interconnected: that if we continue to imagine a Wild West full of gunfighters, it becomes all too easy to see such violence as a necessary part of our story and identity overall. Just because those narratives might have dominated much of the last century-plus, that is, there’s no reason why we have to remain a gunfighter nation as we move forward.

Next Wild West story tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Wild West stories or histories you’d highlight?

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