in American Literature
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
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
"The Last of the Mohicans" free from Web-Books.com] [Or
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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
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 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 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
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
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 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, 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.
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 I: The Legendary Western Hero
Part II: Why Americans Love
Part III: Western Heroes in American Literature
Part IV: Dime Novels and Early Westerns
Part V: Authors of Popular Western Fiction
About the Author,