Eric Mottram on Triggernometry (3)



Walter Prescott Webb’s The Great Plains described the development of the cattle kingdoms of the American West and of the cowboy who worked the ranches and ranges. The Homestead Law of 1862, the invention of barbed wire in 1874, and the advent of the windmill, the railway, artificial irrigation systems, and the automobile combined to shape – and ultimately displace – the West: ‘The life of one man spanned the rise and complete transformation of the ranch; it spanned the rise and fall of the cattle kingdom.’33 The western man became legendary. ‘The ordinary bow-legged human,’ the worker on horseback, disappeared ‘under the attributes of firearms, belts, cartridges, chaps, slang and horses, all fastened to him by pulp paper and silver screen.’ (Not until 1968 would he be analysed back into something nearer fact, however parodied, in Andy Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys) Webb describes the reality of the original life:

Where population is sparse, where the supports of conventions and of laws are withdrawn and men are thrown upon their own resources, courage becomes a fundamental and essential attribute in the individual. The Western man of the old days had little choice but to be courageous. . .. Where men are isolated and in constant danger or even potential danger, they will not tolerate the coward … because one coward endangers the whole group. .. .There arises within the group a tradition of courage, and this tradition develops courage in those who come into the group and as surely eliminates those who lack courage. . . .

Throw fifteen or twenty men who have been selected on the basis of proved courage and skilled horsemanship into one camp, let them live all day in the open air and sunshine, ride horseback fifty or a hundred miles, and wear six-shooters as regularly as they wear hats, and you have a social complex that is a thing apart. Such men take few liberties with one another; each depends upon himself, and each is careful to give no orders and to take none save from the recognised authority. There is no place for loquaciousness, for braggadocio, for exhibition of a superlative ego . . .

… women were very scarce there. The result was that they were very dear and were much sought after, prized, and protected by every man. The men fitted into the Plains; the life appealed to them, especially to those who were young and in good health. But the Plains – mysterious, desolate, barren, grief-stricken -oppressed the women, drove them to the verge of insanity in many cases, as the writers of realistic fiction have recognised …

The cowboy dwelt among horses, cattle, and men. Everything he wore and used – his boots, chaps, spurs, shirt, hat, gloves, and his workbench (the saddle) and his defensive iron (the six-shooter) – was adapted to the horse, to riding, and not so appropriately outside his own domain. These habiliments were picturesque only to those who did not know their uses; they were out of place when the cowboy was in town or on the ground.

As Charles Olson observes in A Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn, Webb ’caused the local to yield because at least he applied process, and some millenial sense.’34

Out of a cattle economy reliant on huge ‘open range’ grazing and lengthy cattle trails, a cowboy culture developed from the 1840s onwards. At first, the Texas cowboy penetrated the cattle kingdom of the Great Plains as an itinerant, free-spending, non-permanent resident, and therefore as a threat to whatever family and township stability was possible. Mobility between Texas and Montana kept boundaries fluid for those with a particular set of skills and knowledge of the land. In such an environment, the man from New York, Vermont, Virginia or Kentucky became part of a Texas-originated culture. According to John A. Hawgood’s authorities in The American West, the word ‘cowboy’ was from the outset associated with ‘cattle rustler’ and ‘outlaw,’ and was a long way from the hero-image later presented in Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902).3S A stabilized cowboy culture in turn moved into lawlessness. In 1867, Joseph C. McCoy of Illinois – ‘The Real McCoy’ – set up his ranch in Abiline, Kansas, on grass and water. The Kansas Pacific Railroad soon reached him, and by 1872 Abiline had become a cattle town and cowboy culture centre. However, the marshal appointed early in 1871 was trigger-happy Hickok. The railroad continued westwards to boost other centres, and in 1874 McCoy thought it time to write up his memoirs as Historic Sketches of the Cattle Trade of the West and South West. Abiline became as lawless as Dodge City, although, according to Andy Adams, the later was not as wild as reputation claims. Local gun law was fairly in control:

Don’t ever get the impression that you can ride your horses into a saloon, or shoot out the lights in Dodge; it may go elsewhere, but it don’t go there. . . . You can wear your six-shooters into town, but you’d better leave them at the first place you stop, hotel, livery, or business house. And when you leave town, call for your pistols, but don’t ride out shooting; omit that. Most cowboys think it’s an infringement of their rights to give up shooting in town; and if it is, it stands, for your six-shooters are no match for Winchesters and buckshot; and Dodge’s officers are as game a set of men as ever faced danger.

A large influx of foreign capital aided the cattle boom of the 1880s, but overstocking, low prices during a beef glut, and the severe winter of 1885-86 bankrupted stockmen’s corporations. Within one generation the cattle kingdom rose, boomed and slumped. In the 1890s cowboys and cattlemen published memoirs. Mechanization eventually changed the cowboy into a jeep driver who learned his songs from the radio and whose bosses did business by telephone and air. Movies echoed the tale:

Hoot Gibson, considered the top horse-man of all the Western stars, won the World Championship at Pendleton, Oregon, in 1912 before trekking to Hollywood, and was the first to bull-dog a steer from a car.

A tragic first: Tom Mix, hailed as the most terrific cowboy in the world – he had fought in the Chinese Boxer Rebellion, had been a Texas Ranger, and had started as a guard with gun in hand in wild animal films – lost his life to his second greatest love on a lonely Arizona road in 1940.36

What emerged from the Plains cowboy were the gunman-cowboy, whose methods of self-reliance became more violent as the economic and social supports of range and ranch eroded, and the dude, part of the spectator-sports world of the rodeo, where onlookers dressed in leisure-wear versions of cowboy gear. (By 1961, 542 rodeos offering over three million dollars in prize money were organized annually by the national Rodeo Cowboys’ Association).37 The gunman gained approval as a characteristic western hero: courageous winner, self-reliant and stylish performer, a man who would – sometimes literally -sacrifice himself; or at least the legend needed him in this form. Such criteria of manliness also fleshed out the buckaroo and the broncobuster.38 Cowboy novels developed the notion of a certain lonely introspection, which may well have been present, and movies familiarized millions with the often vacant, lost eyes of Fonda, James Stewart, Gregory Peck, Glenn Ford, and Audie Murphy. (Paul Newman’s Billy the Kid, in Arthur Penn’s The Lefthanded Gun [1958] was not, however, a cowboy version of David Riesman’s inner-directed 1940s hero, but purely impulsive, a prefiguration of Penn’s ambivalent gunman in Bonnie and Clyde[1967]).39

The myth of the villain is encapsulated in the ‘desperado,’ (with its chauvinistic incorporation of Spaniard and bandit), a figure who is an extreme expression of the American ethic of self-reliance and (in his role as leader) corporate power, and who lives as a lawless force in opposition to social order. The terms applied to the desperado indicate the range of his operations: badman, outlaw, two-gunman, tough guy, gangster, hoodlum, gunman (and gunmoll), trigger man, mobster, thug, high-jacker, vandal, public enemy. Both his agrarian and urban heroism lie in his courage (albeit always with a gun), his independence, and his lack of restraint. He is the figure who can make a fool out of those who hold power or legitimate authority, something always shaky on the frontier or in the laissez-faire city. He deflates and debunks. His opponent in the Western is the sheriff or marshal who sets limits to what a man may legitimately get away with in a society of loose law. But the badman also represents hardness in a world which is said to be going soft, yet which continually threatens to define masculinity either through muscle power in unarmed hand-to-hand combat, or through some kind of mental acumen. The gunman lives close to death and maiming in that region of pornographic thrill at the body’s vulnerability to breakage and extinction. The villain and hero edge into each other at the point where stoicism and endurance demonstrate how a man can take it, live beyond the worst, and anticipate the inevitable by mocking its approach, as does Robert Jordan at the end of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940).

That there was money in these actions was first blatandy demonstrated by Buffalo Bill, the original dude westerner. William F. Cody (1846-1917), who once defined hmself as having stood ‘between savagery and civilization most all my early days,’ underwent metamorphosis from scout to pre-movie Western show via the dime novel.40 In the process, he converted himself into a mythic figure and became the tycoon of a West-as-theatre in which Americans, Indians included, acted out their own recent history. Cody’s promoters belonged to both war and fiction: he was backed by General Sheridan, Civil War hero, socializing bachelor and friend of President Grant, and written up by Ned Buntline, dime novelist, ex-actor, jailbird, drunkard, and temperance lecturer, whose Buffalo Bill novels became best-sellers.41 His show fixed the myth as a universal, far beyond those associated with Kit Carson, Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. Cody’s long hair and white buckskin-fringed jacket established the dude image and its theatre. The Winchester rifle he used lies in the Buffalo Bill Museum of Cody, Wyoming. When, early in 1974, John Ford died, he was surrounded by six Motion Picture Academy Award statuettes, a war bonnet from the Battle of Little Big Horn, and a pair of gloves worn by Buffalo Bill in his Wild West Show.42

Another example of the transition from gunman to theatre hero is the Jesse James story. James, a killer who used a Navy Colt .45, was sixteen years on the run. He terrorized weak local officials, enjoyed the protection of the James clan, and was certainly no Robin Hood. His gang’s robberies were planned by expert guerrillas, even if their marksmanship seems to have been less accurate than legend prefers (they were not as accurate as, for instance, Harry Lonbaugh, the Sundance Kid.) James was an organizer and a man of nerve whose loneliness bred a streak of cruelty. As the ballad said: ‘He was born one day in the County of Shea / And Came of a solitary race.’43 His career affected Missouri politics from 1874 onwards, since the state oscillated between ex-Confederate and ex-Union political factions and their supporters. James used the Civil War as an excuse: ‘they drove us to it’ – ‘they’ being the Yankees. His parents were from old frontier people in Kentucky. His father, Robert, died as a result of the privations of the California gold-rush of 1849. Jesse himself was assassinated in 1882, at the age of thirty-four and a half, while straightening a picture in his home. The killer, his cousin, Bob Ford, became a wanderer, was treated everywhere with contempt, and (like Cody) took to the stage with The Outlaws of Missouri, during the interval of which he told how he killed the outlaw chief, Jesse James. Then he joined P.T. Barnum’s circus freak show, began to drink and gamble, and bought a saloon in Las Vegas, New Mexico. But no one would drink the booze of a Judas, so he tried a wild silver town in Colorado. Ed Kelly, a relative of Jesse, finally killed Ford in his fairly successful saloon, while Jesse himself lived on in dime novels and movies.

Few of the gunmen of the West were accurate marksmen. Their weapons were poor or old and their nerves less than steady. So that Burt Kennedy’s movie, Support Your Local Sheriff (1968), is not only funny but accurate. The aim of his sharp parody of the Western is to debunk the morality of manliness based on guns and fighting; it is appropriate, therefore, that in the final shootout the villainous Danby family are incapable of hitting anything accurately, and that the sheriff – who is a marksman – is reluctant, apparently easygoing, accurate with a gun simply in order to survive, and under no illusions that shooting straight brings potency.

The hero-villain of the West is more complex, a hero of Schadenfreude, the ambivalence we feel towards successful villains, the Devil himself, Judas (celebrated in Mexico for his function of focussing aggression), and other opponents of law enforcement. In American mythical history he is exemplified by Simon Legree, Billy the Kid, and the traitor Benedict Arnold, figures who gain strength as the Devil wanes, whose villainy psychoanalysis tries to explain by tracing causes, and whose guilt juries find difficult to identify clearly or punish severely. Education and analysis destroy the idea of the pure villain, the crude ethic of wickedness, and national stereotypes of villainy.

The first recorded victim of the six-shooter ‘spin’ was Fred White, shot down by Virgil Earp in 1880, according to Eugene Cunningham’s Triggernometry: A Gallery of Gunfighters With Technical Notes, too, on Leather Slapping as a Fine Art, gathered from many a Loose Holstered Expert over the Years.44 Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys takes up this frontier of fantasy and reality in the cowboy situation, with its emblems, scenes and movements fey now reduced to a fixed terminology. The male group bisexuality is explicit without being pornographic, although its abject fetishism – through holster, hat, boots, stirrups, and gun – is clear enough. Warhol masters the sense of dressing-up, the assertion of masculinity as freedom, the extralegality and loneliness, the repetitive rituals of work and leisure, the isolation of the sheriff (in this case a transvestite, among his other problems), the latent anarchy and violence, and the endless practice in drawing a gun and holstering it.45

[to be ctd.]

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