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Part II:

Why Americans Love Westerns

Rosalie More

 

When the masses support something, it is called "popular." Popular movements are trends. If something is popular for a long, long time, it becomes "folksy." Folk music, folk dances, folk heroes. The attributes of our Legendary Western Hero evolved out of folk heroes of ancient times and based on Folk legends.

Remember these western heroes?

  • The Lone Ranger wore a mask and only Tonto knew his true identity.
  • Red Rider with his side kick, Little Beaver, was a Lone Ranger wannabee.
  • Hopalong Cassidy: Did you know that Louis L'Amour wrote several Hopalong Cassidy books under the pseudonym of Tex Burns?
  • Lash Larue had a lethal bullwhip which he carried everywhere. He could disarm an outlaw who was about to shoot him before the bullet could leave the barrel. Legends are made of nearly impossible feats.
  • The Cisco Kid and his sidekick, Pancho, were among my favorite western heroes. I always figured The Cisco Kid was based on the legend of Robin Hood. Their circumstances were similar, I thought, except Cisco rebelled against corrupt Mexican officials in the days before America won the Mexican War. When I was little, I named my imaginary horse Diablo after the gorgeous black stallion he rode.
  • Zorro wore a mask like the Lone Ranger, and like the Cisco Kid, he fought against the corruption of high officials in California when it was still under the rule of Mexico. Another take off on Robin Hood, I think. Cisco and Zorro were Hispanic heroes, which is appropriate since half the so-called West was Hispanic in the early days.
                One can't underestimate the effect of the Hispanic culture on the western frontier. On a side note, an editor once rejected one of my books, because some of the secondary characters were Hispanic--she thought they were in disfavor with readers. I recognized her attitude as bigotry. Our earliest western citizens were Hispanic, and one would have to twist history all around to change that. My book has Hispanic characters and I'm proud to have them there.
  • Gene Autry was good with his pistols and he could sing, too!
  • Like all legendary western heroes, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans stood for what was right and worked tirelessly to stomp out Evil. In addition, they sang some very nice duets. As a child, I heard jokes about how Roy Rogers loved his horse more than he did Dale. From that, I deduced that it was important to have a horse if you wanted to be a real hero or heroine. I enjoyed reading novels about Roy Rogers as well as seeing him in the movies. Dale was one of the first strong female protagonists I knew of. I recall yearning to BE Dale Evans and to marry Roy Rogers.
  • John Wayne starred frequently on Western Theater when I was in grade school. At least once in every episode, he would dive off a cliff into a river or lake while astride the back of his trusty horse. John Wayne, himself, became a legend, representing the classic western hero in nearly every movie he played in.
  • Clint Eastwood got his start in westerns, playing the ramrod on a cattle drive in a TV show called Rawhide. He had a long career playing western heroes. Often he rode the Southwest and wore a serape which provided the essential Hispanic flavor of his role.

For every TV and movie western, there was a paperback series.

The western hero is not like other heroes. The character is tied to a certain kind of story. You can't just put a wide-brimmed hat on your character and call him a western hero. How you plot your story is what makes him a legendary western hero. Not all westernized characters have that legendary status. This special plotting isn't something that is unique to the 1900s or the western genre paperback book.

The Hero's Journey is a traditional storytelling pattern that developed in various Western cultures and lasted for hundreds of years. The plot of the story follows an ancient pattern found in the world's myths, legends and folk tales. These patterns may be familiar to anyone who has read fairy tales or mythology: questing heroes, the heralds who call them to adventure, the wise old man or women who gives them advice and magical gifts, shapeshifters who alternately assist and interfere with the quest, dark villains who are out to destroy the hero and those foolish sidekicks who cause trouble but also bring comic relief. The Hero's Journey, as a pattern, is tailor made for legendary western heroes.

Textbooks that deal with the Hero's Journey include "The Hero With a Thousand Faces" by Joseph Campbell and "The Writer's Journey," by Chris Vogler. Campbell's work is theoretical and technical, yet fascinating. Vogler has synthesized Campbell's theories and placed them into an easily understood format easy to implement. You may find them good resources for structuring your western novel.

Based on this structure, the "journey" can be physical or emotional. In a traditional western, it's often physical. In a western romance, it might be an emotional journey, taking the protagonist from her normal life and challenging her ideas, beliefs and current existence. A strong independent heroine responds to such challenges, undergoing tests of her moral fiber and emotional strength. Frequently she will have to examine all that she has believed to be true. During a major confrontation, she pulls victory from disaster. And it is here that she seeks to return to normalcy. Many writers believe this is the end of the journey. But it isn't. The protagonist has not finished learning the lessons of the journey until she has released the old beliefs that had her stuck at the beginning of the story. If she can't do this, she really hasn't learned anything from her trials and tribulations. The final test often requires she let go of something she has cherished or hoarded all this time. Only when she has completed this final change can she return to a normal state of affairs, but her life will have been inexorably altered.

Legendary heroes grow out of tradition. America, as a country, is relatively new -- just over 225 years. That's nothing compared to China or Great Britain or Egypt. Yet we do have traditions and legends unique to our country. Have you recognized them?

When I was a girl, my favorite aunt gave me a coloring book with pictures of children from foreign lands wearing their national costumes. The boys from Slovakia wore brightly embroidered vests and hats with the brim turned up all around. The Greek fighters wore short white skirts over their leggings. The Macedonian warrior protected himself with a heavy leather tunic. Some countries had regional differences in costuming. These were based on the traditions of those countries, harking back to their beginnings and the major events in their histories.

At the time, I didnít realize that America had a traditional costume. In my coloring book, though, our legendary western hero was commemorated with a cowboy hat, vest, blue jeans, and a kerchief around his neck. Since then, I've recognized additional costumes from historical periods in America based on regional traditions, such as the frontiersman with his fringed leather jacket and moccasins--a style borrowed from the Native Americans--and the trapper with his coonskin cap. Grade school children celebrate Thanksgiving by dressing up in Pilgrim costumes and putting on plays. All these styles, and variations on them, are unique to American history. They help us remember our legendary heroes.

As far as appearance goes, men like William Frederick Cody aka Buffalo Bill, born in 1846, probably influenced how we first perceived the western hero. Cody worked as an army scout and hunted buffalo for railroad camps, but later he organized and then toured with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Up to that time, we had borrowed styles from Europe and admired the class of European entertainers who came across the Atlantic to put on shows, but Buffalo Billís style was 100% American and gave us an image to identify with.

Annie Oakley gave girls someone to relate to, as well. In the winter of 1902, "The Western Girl" ran in theaters back East. It was a play written especially to star Annie Oakley, and it succeeded because of her popularity as a western performer. Before that, she was part of an act billed as "The Great Far West Rifle Shots." Our idea of a Legendary Western Heroine grew out of her popularity.

Later "The Will Rogers Follies" reinforced the western style and introduced trick roping in the process.

So that's how our love of westerns began in this country, what our perceptions were based on, and how they were shaped.  Next part ....

 

Part I: The Legendary Western Hero
Part II: Why Americans Love Westerns
Part III: Western Heroes in American Literature
Part IV: Dime Novels and Early Westerns
Part V: Authors of Popular Western Fiction
About the Author, Rosalie More

 

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