The facts and shared mythology of an imaginary Western United States.
This paper was presented at the Glasgow International Fantasy Conversations (GIFCon) conference at the University of Glasgow in May, 2019, as part of the panel ‘Mapping the City Fantastic’.
Wild Bill Hicock was one of the greatest gamblers and gun shooters in the The West. He only sat with his back to the door once. It was during a card game, and no sooner had he sat down, then a young buck rolled into the saloon and shot him square in the back of the head. A giant fell that day, slumped right over a hand of cards, scattering everyone’s glasses of whiskey.
The chair where he died is still in that tavern, and for $5, you can sit in it. They don’t have a high enough liquor license, so a glass of whiskey is out of the question, but a bartender dressed as a saloon girl will get you a bottle of Miller Lite or an airplane bottle of chocolate liqueur shots.
Throughout Deadwood, South Dakota’s thinly attached facades, the neon colors of slots and dayglo permalighting spill out into the street. It is a town for gambling and drinking, but only if you like cheap, international brands of beer and plastic cups of tokens. There is a museum, and space for a rodeo, but they close early and open late. The Chinatown is commemorated with a plaque in an empty lot full of weeds and garbage.
Walking down the hill from our hotel in 2014, Deadwood is a city we know from television. A band of drunks roves the avenues, the street lighting leaves much to be desired. Walking from the miniscule downtown area back up to our hotel, still sober, and aching for anything to eat, we realize there is nothing to know in Deadwood. It’s a mythology as thin as its facades. It is, afterall, a quintessential Western town.
The Western is a genre conflated with a sense of place and presented from a singular point of view. It is a conglomeration of hyper-masculine morality and white superiority. Most importantly, it is a fantasy genre.
When we talk about the “The West” we’re describing a region of North America that was colonized by Americans beginning in the 19th century and had a shifting border. American claim to the midsection of the North American continent depended largely on resources discovered and how many settlers they could convince to move out, set up the framework for functioning communities, and ultimately process those resources.
Some of the region was purchased decades before it was worked into the American framework, but even in those areas claimed by nations, there were thriving communities with their own complex histories. Mythmaking is central to American identity. We are very little as a nation without the stories we have crafted about ourselves.
Convincing folks to move to these regions required hyping up the beauty and freedom of the American Frontier, weaving stories about what will be, while also dismissing the threats of making a life in country that was sometimes wild, and at other times made dangerous by the people already living there. Much of that propaganda still exists in our narratives today. This is the legacy of Manifest Destiny.
Three works I have chosen to discuss today are what we will call historiographic Westerns. They are not spaghetti, which offer a simplified lexicon of ethics in the West. Instead they are based on real writings, include larger-than-life characters who did in fact live, and may have citations. But like Spaghetti, they are based on the assumption that whites deserve their placement in the West; that their imperialism is not only only intended by a higher power, but has been worked at, and died for, and ultimately earned righteously.
Let us begin with Percival Everett’s “God’s Country”. In 1994, Everett published what may be the best spoof of the Western genre ever created. In an interview with VQR in 2015, he said:
God’s Country is a western because I’m playing with the form of the western. The western, to me, is a very precise genre. Precisely defined. Being placed in the West — I mean, is a movie that’s set in Los Angeles in 1997 a western?
Beginning with the raiding of main character Curt Marder’s homestead, we learn little about Marder’s background, but understand most of his character through basic tropes. He is white, because he holds himself superior to and uses slurs toward every person of color he meets, including the much more capable Jake. We know he is a man because he owns land, he lusts after women, and he understands that after his dog is shot and his wife carried off (while he watches, seemingly helpless against the faux-Indians raiding his household, or perhaps, too cowardly) it is his duty to carry her home. This last goal he never achieves.
It is a journey of only a few days, but after enlisting a black tracker, picking up a girl disguised as a boy, and having a brief love affair with a “saloon girl”, he has small character development that culminates in him having learned nothing. Why should he? The women, the land, the money he keeps “lending out” by losing card games exists for him, and is owned by him.
The West may be a White Fever Dream, but it was comprised of more than just Caucasian cowboys. Everett’s work is one of the best examples of a piece of true fiction centering people of color, which is ironic because the main character is a clueless white guy. To build the story as an understandable spoof, Everett still falls back on recognizable tropes. The tracker, the cowboy, the saloon girl, maybe even the “True Grit” style tough girl are all included in the story, but even in an elevated spoof, it fails to compassionately introduce all identities who built the West. This is indicated when we are introduced to General George Armstrong Custer.
General Custer is one of the most important figures in American history, and certainly the most important in Western expansionism. He wrote about his battles during the American Civil War, but also his diplomacy with the First Nations of the American region, which almost always ended in bloodshed. He was killed by several who would claim the honor at the Battle of Little Bighorn. Interestingly, this shattering victory on the part of the unified tribes of the First Nations was not the end of the West, but instead a tragic footnote in its total decimation. … which is where the little town of Deadwood comes in. But we’ll get there.
Many in the West won acclaim in service of Custer’s exploits, such as Calamity Jane who, among the dozen or so jobs she held throughout her life, possibly acted as tracker for Custer. This is discussed in Deadwood, but Custer has already died. In “God’s Country”, General Custer is introduced as a character who has been “queered” as a means of spoofing, feminizing, and ultimately dismissing him. Everett presents Custer as a cross-dressing, ridiculous character sitting in camp without much of a plan, ultimately dismissing Western expansionism as the hard-won success of white Americans who were smarter and better than other groups of people. Which plays in the Western’s view of queer identity as a whole.
Deadwood provides some of the clearest representations of queer identity in the West. Instead of pivoting a town of moral heroes, it offers a complicated and filthy representation of men we are still meant to take as “good”, despite the hard lives they’ve led. The show Deadwood is based on the history of mining community Deadwood, South Dakota.
Deadwood was a town of heroes and epic struggles, because it had to legitimize its existence. It was an illegal settlement on land that had already been stolen and given back to a displaced group of people. Even in historical writings, the American Indian is villainized while fighting against invaders. Watson Parker, in his trusted history of Deadwood says, “It is easy for the modern observer to shed a tear for the American Indian. However, to the pioneer they were a very real and ever-present threat.” This would be the attitude of American historians from the time after the brief Wild West period to the 1980s, with few exceptions. Commentary at the time seemed to both acknowledge and push aside what would be known as the “American Indian Problem.” Take for instance, this writing by fantasy author L. Frank Baum at the time:
Having wronged them for centuries, we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.
A slightly less incendiary argument for the murder and pushing out of First Nations was a paternalistic take that the regions white settlers moved into were not being taken from anyone, because they were not being used to their fullest extent. Infantilization is a theme common in Westerns as well. The government knows what is best for the American Indian, men know what is best for their wives and the sex workers they manage, the bosses make the decisions for their workers. In all cases, straight white men not only control the narrative, but shift the narrative as needed to hone in on those who may threaten their power, seize their control.
Gay men rarely make an appearance in Western canon, but indicators of queer culture are omnipresent. These might take the form of a generalized term like “cocksucker”, which serves both as a catch-all means of referring to other men, as well as a means of denigrating those men. The assumption is that those who suck cock, whether women, queer men, or anyone else, are pushovers or at least not true to their word and therefore less than men.
This dichotomous disrespect and ultimately, strange recognition of the cocksucker’s place in this universe is evidenced in the storyline of the character Joanie Stubbs in Deadwood. A sex worker turned madame, turned massacre survivor, Joanie does not act under the thumb of her pimp after striking out on her own. Instead she appears as his equal, caring for him and running things from afar after he is stabbed. His toadies, who would have otherwise been in line to run the powerful Bella Union saloon, refer to her, the first for a woman in Deadwood, as a cocksucker, but also keep their distance in fear.
Queer women have a different place in the West, but also one that is largely unexplored in narratives like these. In Deadwood we’re given a romance subplot that includes two women who have been through the worst of it finding comfort in each other. It’s a growing trope in literature that men are so terrible, so horrifying, that there is love and compassion to be found only in each other.
We would not understand the need for a place for women separate men if we did not understand that in the West, women have no agency. They are sex workers who owe money to the proprietors of their brothels. They are wives brought out into the great unknown by husbands who are not taking their desires or needs into view. The most memorable female characters break these molds or have been fictionalized.
In Deadwood itself, all female characters with the exception of Calamity Jane and Seth Bullock’s wife, Martha, are fictional. The vast majority of the male characters were real people, some of whom, like the morally upright seeming Seth Bullock, left writings that were the basis for the show. Of further interest is that there were a great variety of women who were fascinating character studies who made a mark on Deadwood the town and even wrote extensive histories and journals.
But we don’t get to talk about any of those women today, because Deadwood has twice been colonized by white men. They have privilege of storyline and history, as their names have become household ones in the wake of the television show.
Calamity Jane survives the cull because she is as much a self-made myth as a historical personage. The fictionalization is simple, because much of her communicated life (captured in an autobiography co-authored for her) had been simplified for readers by her and many tales heroicized, including her time as a tracker for Custer. In order to read into other historical women in Deadwood, South Dakota, it would require us to do the work of digging through their lives and attempting to make them fit or understand why they cannot fit our preconceived notions of what is femininity in the West.
Another fictionalized character is Francis Wolcott, a notorious character because of his penchant for finding sexual pleasure in slitting the throats of women. The sacrifice of three of these women in a single evening solidifies the place of female characters in our Westerns: they are sexual objects.
Literally, they are passed between clients and proprietors as a means of income. Women also represent the simplification of masculine sexuality in Westerns. Their sexual fulfillment is brief, often implies rape, and can be fulfilled for $1 after a shot of 50 cent whiskey. Men who love, who enjoy sex beyond taking it in simple terms from women are feminized and weakened by it. It complicates their lives, as in the case of Bullock, who married his brother’s wife then fell in love with a widow over the course of weeks, and his partner, Starr, who is the target of constant ridicule over his care for a particular saloon girl, including from the girl herself.
Where are the women’s stories? Netflix’s Godless gained an early fanbase when its trailers and art featured fierce women in a variety of roles, usually wielding shotguns while taking no guff from men. To this end, the penultimate scene, a long-promised gun fight of high quality Western design, delivers most pleasurably.
However, the story of Godless is not a profile on the town of La Belle, left somewhat helpless after its men are all lost in a mining accident. It is the story of a psychotic preacher and his “sons”, a wild gang roving the West to murder and graphically rape their way across the landscape. The trouble is kicked off by a “hero” who, while raised by this preacher, we are supposed to assume is good. After all, he’s good with horses, quickly stepping in as a father figure for a boy with tragic origins, and learning to read. He is masculine, but gently so. He can also shoot the head off a snake.
Even in a show that was marketed as being about women, we cannot have a town of them on screen for more than the classic black hat characters we see in every other Western. There are clumsy attempts at defining each of the women, but each of their storylines circle around men, how they care for them, and how their lives circle around them. Very little is from their point of view and there is no introspection.
American Indian characters are interlopers, stuck into the narrative as spirit guides or to rape and then save a main character. They are a motif, a feature, a signifier of the Western, but play no real part in the tales of good and evil that happen around them on their stolen land.
Godless is a rare instance where we see the aftermath of the “Indian Wars” in the form of a dinner at the home of a group of ex-Buffalo Soldiers, but these black men, considered extremely dangerous by the men who encounter them, are murdered in seconds and the story moves forward. It could be read as commentary for how black troops were used as a means to a Manifest Destiny end in the American West, but it views more like they ran out of time in between shoot outs for their white men folk.
There are several reasons a show marketed as a new take on the Western could not provide anything new. One comment I’d like to highlight from its creator is on the Western cliche:
I love the Western so much. Why not embrace every single cliche I can think of from, you know, the breaking of horses to the train robberies to the two guys facing each other in the street — all of that stuff? The mysterious loner — why not find a way to put them all in here and see if I can do it in some sort of different way?
In response, I suggest that if every cliche is based on the right of white men to act out their plays of vengeance and resource management across a continent, it is impossible to use those tools in an homage to elevate the genre.
The people we have erased from narratives like God’s Country, Deadwood, and Godless built the West, but we have no tools to discuss their contributions or appreciate them as characters. Instead shaving them down to easily usable archetypes, we have set ourselves up so we need only glance at a character who is not a white man to fully understand their place in the story. There is no fodder there for narrative, it would have to be invented. And unlike other fantasy subgenres, the Western has lagged behind in innovation.
In closing, I’d like to suggest that the Western is not necessarily without saving, but we cannot provide a salvageable genre by turning again and again to the names and production houses and authors we recognize. Innovation will come from names like Percival Everett, Emma Tammi, Leslie Marmon Silko, N. Scott Momaday, and Diane Glancy. It will come from acknowledging the writers and historians whose history extends further back than white American Western Expansionism.
Sources Not Linked Above
Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. New York: Owl Books, 1970.
Chang, Iris. The Chinese in America. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.
Chung, Sue Fawn. In Pursuit of Gold: Chinese American Miners and Merchants in the American West. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2011.
Everett, Percival. God’s Country. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.
Fannon, Frantz. A Dying Colonialism. translated by Haakon Chevalier. New York: Grove Press, 1965.
Keeley, Lawrence H. War Before Civilization. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Kimball, Gary. Life Under China Bridge & Other Stories. Park City: Tramway Books, 2013.
Parker, Watson. Deadwood: The Golden Years. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981.