With thanks to Bryan Castañeda . . .
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Traditional Westerns work on many different levels. They embody an American national myth, a sense of the values and circumstances that forged the nation. They chart an ideal of the national character. They are pageants of pictorial and plastic beauty.
On a deeper level they are wisdom tales about manhood, and sometimes about womanhood — educations in the passage to adulthood.
John Ford’s My Darling Clementine is problematic in many respects, despite offering some of the greatest passages in any Western, indeed in any film. Its secondary narrative, involving Doc Holliday and his girlfriend Chihuahua, doesn’t seem of a piece with the rest of the film — Victor Mature, though he gives one of his best performances ever, and Linda Darnell, vexing as always, seem like visitors from another movie, another genre, another era.
Their story feels perfunctory, artificial — miles away from the deeper currents of the film, which show a wanderer, Wyatt Earp, seduced into the concerns of civilization, gallantry and love. Most importantly they present the image of an authentic manhood coming into being.
Henry Fonda’s Earp synthesizes a number of contradictory traits. He is boyish, instinctively reticent, even shy, but utterly fearless and thoroughly competent when called on to confront danger. He is unfailingly courteous towards others unless they cross the line of the unacceptable, in which case he is matter-of-factly punitive.
He is gallant towards women, even when he’s not sure what form gallantry towards women should take, even when he fears that in showing gallantry he might make a fool of himself. He’s coolly efficient when violent action is required, befuddled when dealing with etiquette towards women — but equally courageous in both predicaments.
His style of being a man defines the essence of manhood — a virility without bluster or show, a politesse without artifice or vanity. His practical resourcefulness and bravery establish his manliness without need of further proof — his humility and generosity lend his manhood a natural nobility.
There are no men like Fonda’s Earp in modern popular art, one sign of the degradation of our culture.
In his youth, Abe Lincoln made two flatboat trips down the Mississippi River (from Indiana and Illinois respectively) to New Orleans. They were formative experiences in many ways, Lincoln’s only visit to the Deep South, where he got a glimpse of slave markets in New Orleans — by far the biggest city he’d ever seen up to that time.
You might not think that a book devoted exclusively to those trips would be exciting, but this one is, surveying all that’s known of the trips from the documentary record and filling in what’s not known with a wealth of detail about river commerce and river navigation on the frontiers of America in that time, the landscapes and the settlements Lincoln would have seen.
Some of the information offered is extremely detailed, indeed — such as step-by-step instructions for building a flatboat — but the book vividly evokes a strange and exhilarating time in America, and the dreamlike journeys on rivers that helped build the nation.
. . . in 1971 I snapped this picture of my traveling companion Lang Clay. We had a map, as you can see, but really no idea of how big Texas actually is. We went a little nuts driving across it, wondering if we would ever get out. We were also sleeping mostly at rest stops, under picnic tables in sleeping bags, unless it was raining, in which case we tried to sleep in my vehicle, a tiny sports car, though this was pretty much impossible.
The image was part of a project Lang was engaged in at the time to take, or have taken, a photograph of himself every day for a year. In the end he missed only 25 days.
Lang has since become a successful and respected professional photographer — I’m still on the road, heading for another joint.
Photo © 1971 Langdon Clay
. . . by George F. Fuller, 1859.
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Steamboats virtually wiped out upriver traffic by keelboats on the Mississippi by the 1830s, but downriver cargo traffic by flatboats lingered on for many decades. Keelboats going upstream under sail or oar power were slow and labor-intensive, but farmers upriver could build their own flatboats for their own produce, steer them to markets downriver, break up the boats afterwards to sell as scrap lumber and then walk or take steamboat passage back home.
It was almost a rite of passage for young farmers up north, including Abe Lincoln, and reliably profitable — until the railroads in turn made the flatboat obsolete.
This is an extremely interesting combined biography of David Crockett, James Bowie and William Barret Travis. It follows their lives up to the moment they all found themselves with two hundred or so others inside the Alamo compound early in 1836, prepared to defend it against a Mexican army ten times as large.
Dying there, when they could easily have chosen not to make the stand, they became martyrs to liberty, in some sense transcending their troubled pasts, living on as myths.
That they were all flawed men, impelled out to the Texas frontier by humiliating failures, for motives both idealistic and self-serving, doesn’t really lessen their stature as American icons — in a way it enlarges it, showing how imperfect men can rise to great occasions.
The book is invaluable as a survey of the American frontier in the 1820s and 1830s, a rambunctious time when the common man, under the inspiration of Andrew Jackson, took hold of the reins of America and illuminated some of the fundamental contradictions of the American character.
Personal honesty and honor counted for much, except when big schemes were afoot, in which case skulduggery was tolerated, even admired. Notions of liberty were inextricable from notions of gain, a capacity for sacrifice inextricable from a capacity to bully and bamboozle.
The moral landscape of the frontier was as wild as the physical landscape — anything was possible, reinvention of the self and a renewal of one’s dreams lay just beyond the next river, the next mountain range.
Dying at the Alamo seemed to confirm that the journey for Crockett, for Bowie, for Travis, had always had a noble destination somewhere up the trail — a reassurance that America needed back then, and still needs.
. . . resides in America, creates his art out of America, helps illuminate America, but he doesn’t make his home in America.
Like David Crockett, Jim Bowie, William B. Travis, among others, he’s only at home, only himself, on the frontier, in places not yet settled, in places yet to be defined.
It’s hard to get your mind around Texas in 1835, a province of Mexico, officially, but really an experiment in political liberty and entrepreneurial skulduggery — a land of limitless corruption, limitless idealism, limitless possibility.
It was, in short, the heart of the American dream, where the only unforgivable sins were timidity and mediocrity. Dylan still sings from the heart of that heart.