Growing up in the American West, one inherits a set of myths so grave and insubstantial they can only be passed on in the dark. In gestures and overheard sounds, in the half-remembered plots of bad movies. In the pose of advertising pitchmen or the way a person stands when wearing a gun. You might think one could dodge this heritage, until you realize that it’s all around you. That to live in the West is to spend your time unconsciously assembling a story in your head—like a melody that has been presented to you in parts. In this way, the myths of the West—when you live there—can feel as inevitable as the size of a sky or the heat of summer, the scarcity of water. Were they written down, no one would believe them. For to subject our myths to actual debate would shatter the projected nostalgia upon which they depend. So for a long time the culture encouraged itself not to speak of them but rather to perform them and allow them to enact themselves upon us.
I learned all this on a ranch 20 miles east of Sacramento, where my uncle Carl lived. He and his brother operated a slaughterhouse, and occasionally there’d be up to a hundred head of cattle, fattening up. Carl drove a long white Cadillac with cow horns on the hood and a tiny green MG convertible, which backfired and leaked oil. Riding in that smaller car down two-lane roads at speed was like hanging outside the cockpit of a crop duster. Grit and hot air would blow across your face—the engine felt dangerously close. One of the shocks of arriving back at Carl’s ranch after one of those buzzing jaunts was to walk through a gate to his inner sanctum, where a perfectly blue pool gazed at the sky unblinkingly. Carl was as tanned as a leather sofa, smoked cigars, and spent a lot of time in his swim trunks. He was kind to my brothers and me, and often dispatched us inside the house to get him another beer. One of the most intense memories of my childhood is running from the bright white light near Carl’s pool into the cool dark of his house, passing his guns and the wood-paneled TV set, usually playing a western on silent, and pulling a hand-chilling can of beer from a refrigerator stuffed with meat.
So much of what I know about the West I learned in that single brief pathway, out of the heat, through a living room, and into the artificial cool of a miniature ranch—the soles of my feet wet, but dry by the time I was standing by the refrigerator. It would be two decades before I realized that most of what we did on those weekends was impossible—that the land on which we stood was practically inarable, that to put a temperature-controlled pool at the center of it was a folly beyond words, that the access to water and food that seemed to never end in a house packed with domesticated objects of the West (tools, guns, animal heads staring out from their taxidermy in mute protest) was a way of enshrining a victory over the past.
This article was featured in Alta Journal's free Weekend Read newsletter.
This simultaneous flirtation with the past and declared victory over it is where the myths of the West begin. If I had to describe to you what these myths are, I would say they have to do with power and landscape and self-reliance. Growing up there, a white kid, I was taught that the land was empty, save for what was wild, before we got there. You might ask who this “we” is, and the answer is, of course, us. I might add that we were brave and tamed that landscape and made it useful, which is to say it was no longer a landscape but a backdrop for our ambitions. It became a resource. It was not our goal to bring justice and order to the land, but these things came because we were there and we were good. We had honor and dignity. We were ennobled by the land’s awful beauty, its sudden violences—but we remained its master.
Of course, while a small part of this was true—it is hard not to admire the determination of farmers wrestling with dry soil—the exaggerations and falsehoods of this larger mythos hid a far crueler, less flattering history. The westward expansion in the United States—from the Lewis and Clark expedition that told the government there was land, and huge amounts of it, to the War of 1812 to the Indian Removal Act of 1830—was a march toward empire that depended on sanctioned violence and bloodletting. Manifest destiny, the concept coined by newspaper editor John O’Sullivan, a proponent of annexing Texas, called on early American citizens and settlers to claim their right to land from coast to coast. As a doctrine, it depended on the notions that white Americans were morally superior, that these white Americans had a mission to spread our institutions as far across the continent as possible, and that they had a divine destiny under God to do so.
This combination of righteousness and license created the conditions for one of the worst genocides in human history. Civilizations that were many thousands of years old—whose modes of knowledge were as complex as they were old—were wiped out or widely subdued in a brutal 40-year period. Even if settlers came in peace, the U.S. government eventually came in force and removed or murdered Indigenous Americans. The gains were reinforced by the railroad and the Homestead Act of 1862, signed into law by Abraham Lincoln, which promised 160 acres of land to anyone who could prove they’d lived for five years in one place and made improvements to it. In many cases, this put homesteaders in direct contact with already displaced Native Americans, a form of neighborliness that was disastrous to them.
Genres emerge to turn myths into ritual—the romance spins yarn about how love can be sealed in a pact, ending in a marriage; the crime story is a tale in which civilization has some kind of order, even its crimes. What is a western, in the filmic sense, but a tale that slowly sands down the chaos and violence of genocide and turns it into a hardy parable of resilience, very often one in which white suffering is placed at the center of the story? Played or read over and over, these genres enumerate stages of belief, give fans or viewers or readers a sequence or ceremony with which to subdue reason. A way of living in a world that is cruel and turning away from that cruelty into fantasy. In this way, formality leads to familiarity, which feels, in part, like truth.
It is not by accident, then, that many western novels and dramas take place in the period between 1860 and 1930, the window between the Homestead Act and the Great Depression and the devastations of the Dust Bowl—an almost perfect storm created by a drought and bad farming methods. That 70-year period is when the everyday person was at the frontier, and it’s the behavior of that person that the western as a genre seeks to atone for, mythologize, and ultimately expiate. There were westerns as far back as the dawn of silent film, but they were very different from, say, the westerns you might catch on a Sunday afternoon in Sacramento. In Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 The Great Train Robbery, for instance, four gunmen hold up a train, blowing up compartments with dynamite and killing firemen, passengers, and anyone who tries to escape. They ride off on their horses proud and enriched, not as bad men who have done good but as bad men who have gotten away with a crime. This early film—notable not just for its violence but for its use of crosscutting and on-location shooting—predicted a genre as violent and lethal as the history of the West.
Instead, the western became a genre notable for how it tamed the West’s violence, made it into entertainment, smuggling in notions of decency and justice and honor along the way. The peak year of the western was 1959, when some 30 western series were shown on network television a day. This was not long after Dwight Eisenhower authorized the Federal Aid Highway Act, essentially setting in motion the closing down of the American frontier in symbolic automotive terms. What is the end of a continent if you can simply get in your car and drive on fresh tarmac to its terminus in a few days? A new frontier was developing around this time, though, which was the rest of the world, as the United States leveraged the military bases it had gained during World War II and moved toward an ongoing proxy war with communism around the globe. At about this time, an American actor named Ronald Reagan was hosting a television series called Death Valley Days, which featured so-called true stories of the old American West. The show was sponsored by General Electric, one of the largest U.S. military contractors.
The collision between Hollywood and its myths and the U.S. imperial expansion and need to declare new frontiers had long-lasting consequences for American culture. It gave birth to an era of American power and self-celebration so lengthy and ecstatic that it has managed to insulate the United States from its own imperial demise, even as the signs are all around it. With more than 800 bases in foreign countries, the United States is one of the largest empires the world has ever seen, by a long stretch. And yet, for quite some time, it has displayed an empire’s catastrophic inability or refusal to take care of its citizens at home. Predictions that this would happen began almost as soon as postwar expansion did. Beat literature rose up in the late 1940s and early 1950s as a political response to internal and external imperialism. And in the late 1950s, one began to see the rise of the anti-western—films by John Ford (The Searchers), John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven), and John Huston (The Misfits) that examined with a far colder eye what exactly had happened during westward expansion and what its legacy was and what the contemporary West felt like.
Two American writers, in particular, have done a great deal of heavy lifting to demythologize the West and how it was won. One of them is Cormac McCarthy, who in Blood Meridian tells the tale of a child runaway who winds up joining the infamous Glanton Gang, real-life scalp hunters in Texas who chased and murdered and tortured Indians while trying to clear the land for mostly white settlers. The other is a writer born in Texas who, until 2006, was largely lost to time—John Williams. In the past dozen years, thanks largely to the rerelease of his 1965 novel, Stoner, by New York Review Books, Williams has been given a posthumous embrace of staggering warmth. The book has stormed bestseller lists around the world, usually to the cry of, How has this masterpiece been lying right before our eyes unread for so long? Over half a million copies have been sold in England since 2013. Another million have been sold in France, Holland, and Italy. Worldwide sales topped three million in 2020. “One of the great unheralded twentieth-century novels,” Bret Easton Ellis has called it. “It is good,” the more judicious Julian Barnes has said, “and it has considerable substance, and gravity, and continuation in the mind afterwards.”
Whether the book is simply very good or even great, the spell cast by Stoner cannot be denied. “William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen,” the novel begins, after which unfolds a tale of ordinariness that is absolutely devastating. How much pathos and drama Williams wrenches from this brief, humble life. Stoner is a story of pain and grief and the accumulated slights that make a person. For Stoner, these slights begin early, disguised as boons. Williams’s hero comes from poor farming stock: “At thirty his father looked fifty; stooped by labor, he gazed without hope at the arid patch of land that sustained the family from one year to the next. His mother regarded her life patiently, as if it were a long moment that she had to endure.”
The family’s one hope of advancement takes the form of sending Stoner to the University of Missouri agricultural school. This was in the era when land grant universities—or colleges given federal land and funding so they could teach agriculture, engineering, and other practical skills—were adding liberal arts to their curricula. Away Stoner goes, quite aware of how much his family has risked, and he promptly falls in love with literature instead. Stoner emerges from school a man of letters and a teacher, estranged from his essential roots. He marries above his status, wedding a brittle, unhappy woman, and begins a life in which he slowly turns himself into another person. And then has all the safeties of this new identity stripped away from him.
The genius of Stoner comes from Williams’s close, sober observational tone and how the novel patiently plots out its hero’s destruction. We do not see this coming, necessarily; for a time, it feels as if Stoner has the capacity to make a hero of himself. The first of his family to go to college, he is on an intellectual frontier, and briefly surviving even. He is surrounded by war veterans and self-declared heroes, men who went out into the world and risked not coming back. Stoner dodges the service and instead becomes a perfectly functioning university bureaucrat with a slight dreamer’s edge. He is nearly there; he just needs a good year. And in this way, he builds a life within a university’s gentle halo as efficiently as a farmer creates next year’s harvest. But what he doesn’t plan for is his wife’s unhappiness, her desires. And in one passage, having returned home after her father’s death, wearing strange new clothes and sporting a far more engaged attitude toward living, Stoner’s wife kicks him out of his study. He remakes that room on the porch:
As he worked on the room, and as it slowly began to take a shape, he realized that for many years, unknown to himself, he had had an image locked somewhere within him like a shamed secret, an image that was ostensibly of a place but which was actually of himself. So it was himself that he was attempting to define as he worked on his study. As he sanded the old boards for his bookcases, and saw the surface roughness disappear, the gray weathering flake away to the essential wood and finally to a rich purity of grain and texture—as he repaired the furniture and arranged it in the room, it was himself that he was slowly shaping, it was himself that he was putting into a kind of order, it was himself that he was making possible.
This passage holds a kind of resonance because it comes from very close to the bone. John Williams was born in Clarksville, Texas, in 1922 and raised in Wichita Falls, the grandson of poor farmers who were almost wiped out by the hard conditions of early America. His parents moved frequently during the Great Depression until his father found a job as a janitor at a post office. Williams didn’t find out until he was nine that his father was not his biological father and that his birth father had been murdered by hitchhikers. He was a minor student who, while growing up, fell in love with writing. He flunked out of junior college, married quickly, and then went off to the army, flying supply missions in the China-India-Burma theater of World War II. He was shot down at one point, flying low over the treetops in Burma, crashing in a jungle. Half of the plane’s passengers were killed. Williams and three other survivors strapped supplies to their backs, used a compass to find the Burma Road, and walked to safety.
Upon returning to America, Williams wrote a war novel, Nothing but the Night. He wrote it quickly, and it took him years to get it published. Living in California and Key West, where he helped out at a radio station, Williams sent the manuscript off again and again to New York publishers—a pattern that he would repeat throughout his life: writing from the provinces and having the center turn him down. Eventually, the book was accepted by a man named John Swallow, who saw promise in its prose and agreed to publish it and later a collection of Williams’s poems through his small press in Denver. In gratitude and curiosity, and bored with drifting, Williams moved out to Denver, finished his degree, earned a master’s, and then went to the University of Missouri, where he took a PhD, writing his dissertation on the Elizabethan poet Fulke Greville. Williams wrote another manuscript during this period—a novel about bohemians in Mexico—that was turned down by 22 publishers. After graduation, he grabbed the only job he was offered—a teaching gig in Denver at the university where he had studied. He would help start the college’s writing program, and he’d be teaching alongside future Emerson scholar Robert D. Richardson. Upon moving back to Denver, Williams formed a friendship with Richardson and his colleagues; they drank great pitchers of beer together rather than hosting Algonquin roundtables. Williams also began to read about the West and found nothing but hokum, tall tales, and outright fabrications. “The subject of the West has undergone a process of mindless stereotyping,” Williams wrote in the Nation, “by a line of literary racketeers…men contemptuous of the stories they have to tell, of the people who animate them and of the settings upon which they are played.”
Meticulously researched, unflinchingly told, Butcher’s Crossing is Williams’s response to the mixture of drivel and lies he encountered about the West. Published in 1960, five years before Stoner, this novel begins in the eponymous town of its title, a dusty crossroads in Kansas. The town features little more than a butcher, a saloon, a whorehouse, and a brining pit where people coming back from buffalo hunts wash the meat and viscera off the hides they’ve gleaned. It is the early 1870s, and William Andrews, a young Harvard divinity student, has recently abandoned his sedate life in Boston to “find himself in the great wild West.” Shortly after arriving in Butcher’s Crossing by stagecoach, Andrews meets a guide named Miller, who convinces him that a great score exists out there, should they only show the gumption to go after it. Miller claims to know that a rare and not-often-seen herd of buffalo will be traveling through Colorado, and he persuades Andrews to finance a trip to go and kill them. All it will take is $600, or half of what Andrews is carrying with him. Miller’s idea is one part adventure, two parts boondoggle. They will go out and engage with nature and the masculine side of themselves and make a little money on buffalo hide along the way.
Of course, things don’t work out exactly that way. Miller leaves with Andrews’s money, and for a time it seems possible he will not come back. Meantime, rather than contemplating a life in nature, Andrews whiles away the hours in a dingy hotel, flirting with a prostitute named Francine—she later tries to unburden Andrews of his virginity, but he balks. As Miller’s absence stretches on, Andrews puffs himself up on notions of nature that one can sense—even this early in the novel—are going to be brutally dashed: “Always, when his gaze lifted from the town, it went westward toward the river, and beyond…. He thought of the times when, as a boy, he had stood on the rocky coast of Massachusetts Bay, and looked eastward across the gray Atlantic until his mind was choked and dizzied at the immensity he gazed upon. Older now, he looked upon another immensity in another horizon.”
Eventually, Miller returns, and with two others they begin a trek into the Rockies in search of buffalo. Williams takes pains not to romanticize the trip. Hardly high adventure, it proceeds as a series of near misses and making camp. They wake, drink bitter coffee, eat beans cooked with salted pork, trek for 10 or 12 hours, and then bed down and wake up and do it again, numbed by the repetition not into the trance state Andrews has anticipated, but into a simple creatureliness that has its own pleasures. Williams’s prose observes the landscape with a clean, unfiltered lens—simply describing what it is should be enough; man’s glory or vanity need not be inserted. When reading his descriptions of the gullies and mountain fastnesses, the high plains with buffalo grass, it’s hard not to think of Albert Bierstadt’s landscapes from the late 1860s—the awesome mountain peaks seen from high lake shores, the skies oddly blue, shafts of nearly heavenly light illuminating the spectacle as if to remind viewers where the true glory lies.
For every landscape description that feints at this idealized mode of viewing nature, Williams tacks back to portray the hard realities of traveling over rocky terrain by horse. The group does not pace itself well and soon runs dangerously low on water. At one point, the men must soak rags in a stream and shove their arms down the mouths of their oxen to wash the beasts’ swollen tongues. Astride a horse, Andrews feels alternately dizzy and cold, as thirsty as the oxen that lumber all around him. Andrews hardly possesses the strength for this sort of work and passes out from the labor. He’s even outworked by Miller’s one-handed alcoholic assistant, who mocks and judges him with the peculiar mixture of shame and righteousness one finds in hard-drinking evangelists.
Finally, they find a herd worth hunting, and for over 40 pages, Butcher’s Crossing lends another meaning to its title. There’s no word to describe what the men do other than butchery. The buffalo are big, slow, and stupid, and once they’re encircled, all there is to do is shoot them, wait for the blood to finish running from their noses, then move on to the next, and the next, and the next. The killing becomes monotonous—in three hours, Miller kills 70 buffalo simply by squeezing his trigger. And then the grisly, mechanical work of pulling off their skins begins, complete with all the false starts, quivering viscera, and growing disgust one would expect when a herd of majestic animals has been reduced by repeating rifle to a grotesque pile—not of meat, but of coin.
This is one of the truest passages one will ever read in all of American literature. By simply attending to the details of how the West was cleared—not won—Williams lays waste to the skin of mythology that still clings to the mud flaps of all the unnecessarily large pickups you will find out West today. Not surprisingly, Andrews returns from this journey a changed man, hardly ennobled. The market for skins has collapsed, so the wastage of what was sublime is doubly felt. He is also suddenly aware that all the tans and skins he has grown used to wearing as symbols of a western attitude have come from the hide of a living animal.
When I was a child, it was something that occurred to me as well—because I mostly didn’t grow up in a house with animal skins or heads or ephemera on the wall. As the long white hood of my uncle’s Cadillac carved its way down the smaller Central Valley highways, I used to look at the horns up front and wonder whether he would drive the car if it was adorned with parts of a human skull.