THE MAKING OF THE WESTERN MYTHOLOGY
And the Two Frauds Who Helped It Along
In the Hall of Statues just off the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., each state is permitted to place statues of two of its native sons whose lives or works were somehow worthy of enshrining. These bronzed personages on pedestals include presidents and statesmen and generals—Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Robert E. Lee, and so on. Exactly the kind of roll call you'd expect. Until you get to Montana.
Montana's two statues are of Jeannette Rankin and Charles M. Russell. Never heard of ’em, you say? How can they be heroes if they're unknown? Depends on your idea of heroism, I guess.
Jeannette Rankin (1880-1973) was a leader in the women's suffrage movement and in 1917 became the first female member of the U.S. House of Representatives. She served until 1919 and was one of only 50 members of the House to vote against declaring war on Germany. She was back in the House in 1941, and when war was declared on Japan following the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, she voted against the declaration—and this time, she was the only dissenting vote. Why? She was a pacifist, first of all; but she also felt that "a good democracy" should not be on record as voting unanimously for war.
Charlie Russell (1864-1926) is renowned as the self-taught "cowboy artist" whose depictions of the old West in watercolor, oil, pen-and-ink, and in clay and bronze sculptures are highly regarded for their authenticity. And for their sense of humor. Before he became famous as an artist, Charlie hunted and trapped, herded cows, and broke broncs. One winter, he lived with the Blood Indians in Canada. They gave him the name "Ah-wah-cous," or antelope (possibly because the pattern of his riding breeches in the back reminded them of the south end of an antelope running north). Charlie always spoke of Indians as the only "real Americans," and he was an early conservationist and environmentalist (before there was such a term).
A pacifist equal rights advocate and an artist. With heroes like these, Montana is my kind of place.
Russell's is the only statue of an artist in the Capitol. Fittingly, the only artist monumentalized in the Capitol is a cowboy artist: the West, after all, is the most distinctive aspect of American cultural history, and the history of the country's expansion into the West—and the legends and lore associated with that expansion—is the nation's mythology.
We call this mythology “the Western.” The classic formula— a lone sometime gunman rides into town and single-handedly defeats the land-hungry mogul or the marauding band of bad guys or the lurking tribes of blood-thirsty natives— the formula embodies the spirit of the American experiment. Like the American political experiment, the Western champions the individual: the former guarantees his rights; the latter trumpets his prowess, his fitness.
Like any good literature, the American mythology contains an animating conflict. Unlike most literature, however, the conflict in this mythology seldom, if ever, surfaces. The conflict is between the individual and society, a conflict inherent in the contradictions of the formula. Individual rights are guaranteed by the rule of law; individual prowess, by the rule of individual might. Each threatens to destroy the other; neither can triumph while the other survives.
The myth manages this contradiction by never confronting it. The myth insists that the solitary champion emerge only when the rule of law has been overthrown. And, once order is restored, the champion rides off into the sunset—alone—leaving society to thrive now that the rule of law has been reinstated.
Whether the champion could himself thrive under the rule of law—whether he would, in effect, submit to being ruled by something other than his own sense of justice— is a question never actually examined. After all, the champion usually believes in the rule of law and enacts its spirit (if not its letter). But with all the power and resourcefulness he represents, he could, if he wished, stand against that rule. But in our mythology, he never does.
We invent him in a way that insures that the contradiction never arises.
Invention is the literary version of fraud, and, fittingly enough, two famous persons intimately associated with the American Western are made-up people. They invented themselves, and in so doing, they made themselves the heroes of their own, personal mythologies. But under the gloss of literary invention, they were both hoaxes.
One of them—a magnificently appropriate happenstance, a colossal stroke of poetic justice—was the first King of the Celluloid Cowboys, a champion fraud in the tinsel capital of make-believe. Tom Mix (1880-1940).
Mix was, above all else, a showman. In his movies, he created with flash and action and costume, the movie cowboy. The power of the motion picture lies in its ability to blur the line between reality and illusion, and Mix set about doing just that. His big screen personality defined the future for the Hollywood Western.
And in his personal biography, he defined himself. In his version of his life, he was the epitome of a soldier of fortune: he went to Virginia Military Academy, fought in the Spanish American War in Cuba, joined the marines, went to China to fight in the Boxer Rebellion and was wounded in the chest, returned home, recuperated in time to go to South Africa to fight in the Boer War, and, when back in the U.S. again, accepted numerous lawman assignments throughout the West. He was back in uniform for the Mexican troubles in 1915 or thereabouts, and he somehow acquired all the riding, roping, bronco-busting, sharp-shooting skills of a cowboy so that when he arrived in Hollywood, he was ready to assume his on-screen persona.
Actually, Tom Mix never attended the Virginia Military Academy, and although he did enlist in the army at the outbreak of the Spanish-American hostilities, he served in a regiment whose job was to guard the DuPont powder works in Delaware. He saw no action. He re-enlisted in 1901, though, hoping to get sent to South Africa but wasn’t. Disappointed at this unglamourous turn of events, Mix deserted and took off for the West.
In Oklahoma, he got a job as a drum major in a marching band. He was, at last, in show business, and he was soon a member of the Miller Brothers 101 Real Wild West Show, an operation in the tradition of Buffalo Bill’s traveling extravaganza. From then on, it was all showmanship.
In comic books, the Mix legend was perpetuated by Fawcett in Tom Mix Western, 1947-1953. It was a memorable performance, arguably the best work ever by Carl Pfuefer teamed with inker John Jordan— lively, energetic action on every page. And Pfuefer could draw Tom Mix to look exactly like Tom Mix.
The other famous Western fraud was a cowboy artist like Russell. Neither ever made it to comic books, but Will James (1892-1942) wrote stories, books of them--which he illustrated himself. He wrote the books in a made-up lingo that suggested, with bad grammar and country syntax, that the author was a somewhat less-than-educated person— like a real cowboy, in other words. But James’ jargon was as phony as his own personal history.
One of his most celebrated prose works is The Lone Cowboy, which James asserts is his “life story,” the story of the youth and maturation of a cowboy artist. According to the book, James was born in a covered wagon in Montana. He was orphaned at an early age and subsequently raised by a French-Canadian trapper named Bopy, with whom he wandered the Judith Basin in Montana, learning how to survive and how to draw.
I read this tome as a youth. Avidly. I was growing up in Denver, a West somewhat different than that of the Lone Cowboy’s, admittedly; but I’d just figuratively apprenticed myself to Dick Sebald, who was producing a quaint weekly masterpiece of cartoonery called Sage, Sand, and Salt that humorously retailed the amusing “doin’s”of a ordinary cowpoke named Balin’ Wire Bill on his one-steer spread at Broken Spoke, Wyo. (“Apprenticeships” among cartoonists entail nothing more exotic than copying religiously the work of an admired cartoonist.)
Will James and Dick Sebald and Balin’ Wire Bill and me—we all seemed pointed in the same direction, and I devoured the paragraphs in The Lone Cowboy about James’ artistic aspirations and exercises. Wonderful stuff.
All invented. Well, the French-Canadian trapper and orphan stuff anyhow. Will James was actually born in Canada and raised in a French-speaking household in and around Montreal. He fell in love with cowboying at an early age and left home, with his parents’ blessing, at the age of fifteen (after completing an education) to spend three years in western Canada, learning the cowboy trade and how to speak English. At eighteen (or about 1910), he crossed the border to the U.S., realizing that only in the American West could he be a real cowboy.
Beginning with Chapter Nine, The Lone Cowboy more closely approximates James’ actual life. He bummed around the West for the next decade, rustled some cattle, spent a year or so in jail for it, and drew pictures a lot. He also told stories, and when he wrote down the story of his life with a horse named Smoky and submitted it to a magazine, his career as an artist-author took off.
He didn’t survive fame well: he drank himself to death by the age of fifty. We probably wouldn’t ever have found out about his fraudulent past if he hadn’t left money in his will to Ernest Dufault in Ontario, Canada— “the sole heir and survivor of my dear old friend, Old Beaupre [Bopy], who raised me and acted as a father to me.”
This was a mistake: James probably meant to write “Auguste Dufault,” the name of his brother. Will James was himself Ernest Dufault. And in tracking down the beneficiary of the Will James’ legacy, the diligent authorities found Auguste who told them about his famous artist-author brother, Will James.
Despite all the make-believe, Tom Mix and Will James had actual accomplishments to point to. Mix’s daring as his own stunt man probably equaled anything he claimed to have done as a soldier of fortune. And he created, as I said, the Hollywood cowboy hero, which did more to establish the Western as our mythology than any other narrative genre.
Meanwhile, Will James, in fabricating his own past, created one of the most luminous portraits of the West and of living the great adventure in it that our literature affords. And his pictures of cowboys and, particularly, of horses in the Old West reek of authenticity. Because most of his artwork illustrated his books, he left far fewer color paintings than did that other painter of the West, Charlie Russell, but the genuineness of James’ work is in the same league.
But to speak of fraud when discussing the Western is to describe the American mythology, after all. As I said earlier, the lone champion of that myth is a piece of fiction, a literary construct, as much make-believe as Will James or Tom Mix. But myths are like that— engaging, absorbing, and their truth, like Will James’ and Tom Mix’s, is in the make-believe.
And what of the American mythology now that the comic book Western has all but disappeared? If it hasn’t become transparently obvious that the hero of the Western myth is perpetuated today in the vigilante adventures of the four-color longjohn legions, you’ll need to browse a chapter or two in a couple of my books, The Art of the Comic Book and the latest, Insider Histories of Cartooning—both advertised and sold elsewhere on this website; just return to the main page, click on Enter Here, then scroll down until you see pictures of the books’ covers.