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Part III:

Western Heroes
in American Literature

Rosalie More

 

People need heroes to look up to. From this need, comes legends. The earliest legends are tales told around a campfire perhaps, but in America, we have always had the printing press. We can write down our tales and make it possible for vast numbers of people to enjoy them.

James Fennimore Cooper

Who was the first author to gain popularity writing about a western hero? Americas first fictionalized heroes emerged before we even won our independence from Great Britain. You've seen Hollywood's version of The Last of the Mohicans, haven't you? It was based on James Fennimore Cooper's novel and altered to satisfy the modern movie-goers thirst for romance and adventure. That movie portrayed the epitome of the legendary western hero. Keep in mind that the Appalachian Mountains created a barrier to westward expansion for awhile, not to mention the French stronghold in the Mississippi Valley. You must realize that WAS the American western frontier in the 1700s.

But tastes change. The Last of the Mohicans as a movie was romanticized to suit modern tastes. Cooper’s intent was romantic, and Hollywood merely emphasized elements that Cooper had included. After the movie came out, Barnes & Noble and other bookstores stocked the original Cooper novel. I'd read it during high school and knew it wasn't quite the same as the movie. I felt sorry for any customers who didn't realize what they were buying. If I remember correctly, I had to read 100 pages of background before the story actually began. Readers had a lot of patience during the 1700s.

What was it about James Fennimore Cooper's stories that made them popular? What made Hawkeye a legendary western hero? Did it have anything to do with what was going on politically at that time? What was it about his stories that grabbed attention?  [Download "The Last of the Mohicans" free from Web-Books.com[Or free from Amazon.com]

Cooper, at age 32, told his wife that he could write a better story than the popular English novel she was reading, and, accepting his own challenge, he did it. His novel gained quick success. Why? Was it because America was brand new and the citizens were stilled annoyed with Great Britain and weary of Europeans setting all the trends and styles? Were their memories of the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War still fresh in their minds? Was their collective spirit still yearning to express rebelliousness?

Cooper, born in 1789 and living until the middle of the 1800s, was the first major American novelist. As a point of interest, the genre he wrote in was called romance. Let me repeat: He wrote romances.  I include him in the list of western writers because all of our country was east of the Mississippi in those days. Ohio WAS the Western Frontier.

He created a series of adventures called the Leatherstocking Tales which included The Last of the Mohicans. His protagonist, called Hawkeye, was a sharp-shooter who had been raised by friendly Indians. He was the first to idealize the Native American. The protagonist appealed to readers because he was a simple man, basically uneducated, with no military rank, no uniform, nothing but his loyalty toward his fellow colonists who were abused by both armies in the French and Indian War. That is, the British soldiers, and especially their officers, who were brought to the North American continent to fight the French, were shown in the book as stupid and corrupt. Because of his disgust with the English authorities, Cooper was motivated to write about a hero who showed contempt for and defied the British soldiers.

Rebels have always made popular American heroes. This was especially true during colonial America when people had a lot to rebel against. The English version of a hero at that time was quite prissy, with lace on his shirt and powder on his wig. He was intellectual and well-to-do.

On the other hand, American colonists admired the self-made man of courage and brawn. He didn't have to be highly educated, as long as he was honorable and willing to make sacrifices for the good of all.

Cooper's hero was fictional, but many western heroes were real people. During the War of Independence, it was Nathan Hale who said, "I regret that I have but one life to give for my country." He was a revolutionary soldier who spoke these words before being executed as a spy by the British. His loyalty to his country and to its cause, as well as his willingness to make the supreme sacrifice for his ideals made him the perfect hero.

Our legendary western heroes gained in numbers during the westward expansion, through the War of 1812, the Mexican War and the Civil War. Many were rebels.

Davy Crockett

Davy Crockett died at the Alamo, sacrificing his life so all Texans might enjoy liberty. That qualified him as a Wild West Hero; a folk hero. Ballads were written about him. Walt Disney, who provided adults and children alike with the romantic adventures they yearned for, made Davy Crockett the King of the Wild Frontier. Remember the theme song? "Born on a mountain top in Tennessee. Killed him a b’ar when he was only three…."

Classic heroes have kept many of the same attributes since the beginning of time. Our legendary western hero is recognized by his similarity to ancient legends.

Homer, a blind poet of 850 B.C., is known for The Odyssey, which numbers among the greatest works of Western literature. The hero Odysseus was stronger, braver, and much more clever than any other man of his time. Perhaps he was the first legendary hero. This set the standard for fictional heroes ever after.

King Arthur

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were legendary heroes. Arthur was a legend, said to have been king of the Britons in the sixth century A.D. and to have held court at Camelot. The knights lived by a code of ethics that set them apart from the average man. Our legendary western hero lives by a similar code of ethics. It's what makes him a hero and a legend. Remember the TV series "Have Gun Will Travel" starring Richard Boone? For all practical purposes, he was a knight with the required Code of Ethics. He rode the West righting wrongs and rescuing citizens in distress.

Are you recognizing the pattern that our legends take? They are about men who are stronger, braver, more clever, who have a code of ethics. And if they're rebels, so much the better.

Robin Hood

Speaking of rebels, during Medieval times, Robin Hood robbed the rich to give to the poor. You might wonder how this reflects heroism? Here was the situation: High officials of the kingdom resorted to extortion and called it taxation; they legalized the confiscation of private property to increase the wealth and power of the Pretender to the Throne. Robin Hood represented the minor lords and earls who were still loyal to the real King who happened to be off on a Crusade at the time that his brother overtook the throne. Robin Hood’s legend, which lived on, is said to be based on a real person. His heroic traits included loyalty to the true king, courage, a keen sense of right and wrong, and compassion for the poor. Definitely, he risked his life for the cause.

In 1382, England repealed the reforms granted to a rebel leader named Wat Tyler and reestablished serfdom, but the people had lost confidence in the Crown. They idolized and sang ballads about the outlaw Robin Hood to express their bitterness.

Real heroes often become legends, and our legendary western heroes share the elements we need to develop in our westerns. If we don't, we run the risk of failure by ignoring these patterns and standards.

Fictionalized heroes are based on legends from ancient times, and the birth of America's own legends from Colonial times are patterned after ancient myths. In the 18th and 19th centuries, more western legendary heroes appeared. What is remarkable is that the legends grew almost immediately, while the role models were still alive, and not waiting until the events and people were history.

Daniel Boone

Daniel Boone somewhat reluctantly guided settlers west into Kentucky. It’s hard to think of that as the Western Frontier, but it was then. He actually loved the isolation and didn't really want close neighbors. Legend tells us that whenever he spotted someone else's chimney smoke in the distance, he knew it was time to move on. He felt driven to explore and tame the west. It was his dream, his quest. However, in order to achieve that dream, he had to make monumental sacrifices. He struck out for parts unknown and lived where there was no law and order, or even protection from hostile tribes of Indians. He paid a very big price for his dream, because he lost his wife and children in a massacre.

Sam Houston

Sam Houston, Liberator of Texas, fomented rebellion among the Texan settlers and after driving the Mexican forces south of the Rio Grande, he became president of the new republic. Later he formed the Texas Rangers patterned after the Knights of the Round Table. They were the first to be equipped with the newly invented six shooter revolver. Armed and dangerous, they rode out to make legends of themselves in their own lifetimes.

Indian Chiefs

Recently recognized rebel heroes are Chief Joseph and Sitting Bull. It took awhile for our government and education system to recognize them as such, but no one ever questioned their courage and resolution and willingness to sacrifice all for what they believed was right.

Notice how many of these legendary western heroes were real live men? If you need inspiration for your western stories, you’ll find it in the history books. 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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