All Happy Trails Lead West (II)

 Presently we saw a curious thing: There were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky.  Just as the lower edge of the red disk rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun.  We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it.  In a moment we realized what it was.  On some upland farm, a plow had been left standing in the field.  The sun was sinking behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share—black against the molten red.  There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.

The quotation above is written by Willa Cather in My Antonia describing John Deere’s polished steel plow, the instrument that, even more than the six-gun, windmill, and barbed wire, made the great migration West possible, attractive, and successful, an achievement at once domestic, political, and heroic.  Though faded, this great Western hope is present in millions of families, in their stories handed down, in the letters, diaries and memoirs left by their ancestors, measuring their lives now, subdued by debt and waste, even guilt, but lively in the young, and encouraged by their parents, even if they fear for its future.

It is to those letters, diaries, memoirs and stories that one should go to know it, either in one’s own family or, failing that, in others.  They are legion; every local historical society, library, or pioneer society has some, and many have been published.  The books about this great settlement are many.  The many volumes of Parkman’s France and England in North America tell the early sweep of it, and give proper attention to New France.[i] However, Parkman’s Oregon Trail is about his fling with Indians one summer, not about what was important that year, all the families headed west along the Oregon Trail.  For that I am now reading Bernard DeVoto’s The Year of Decision: 1846 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1943).  It has the very great merit of recounting the wandering, exploring, and immigrating experiences of individuals, families, and groups in the context of the political life of the nation, slavery, war with Mexico, and the acquisition of the far West.  You can see the lives clearly, you can see the life of the nation clearly, and their relation, how the lives add up to the nation, and how all along the nation was furthering those lives.  Mr. DeVoto’s writing is often pointed, always robust, and throughout expansive, in other words, Western.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

All over the West there are discrete settlements, groups of people who hung together, some arriving, writing to others they knew, and then making a community, partly based on origin, culture, and religion.  Willa Cather’s novels, especially O’ Pioneers and My Antonia are filled with brief visits between such adjacent communities.  The most organized were (and are) the Mormons, getting out a thousand miles beyond the line of the frontier, dropping seeds on the trail whose bloom would guide others, and sending rescue parties back in solidarity. About them I have found Wallace Stegner’s Mormon Country (New York: Hawthorn, 1942) and Thomas F. O’Dea’s The Mormons (Univ. of Chicago, 1957) instructive, and also by knowing some as friends and students at George Wythe College.

For authority, however, no single memoir and no history by someone later can equal the one the pioneers wrote themselves, wrote all together, each confirming those who came before.  The way they named the unusual rocks on the way shows you both who they were and what they sought, what they would institute, and who as a people they were: Independence Rock, Courthouse Rock, Steeple Rock, and Chimney Rock, that is—self-government, justice, worship, and home.[ii]  This is history writ by the people themselves.  Those rocks are impressive. And impressively scrawled.  For once graffiti adorns rather than defaces.  Stand at Independence Rock, read the names scratched on it, and read the passages from the diaries and memories of the thousands of families that passed this way.  They aimed to reach this mark on the Sweetwater River (which is not sweet) by the Fourth of July.  If you did, you stood a good chance of getting to where you were going before fall.  Those who did not might perish and even, on the way to death, meet the painful dilemma of the Donner Party.  It is a long way to walk or ride, from the shores of the Mississippi, across the plains, over the Rockies, day by day, month after month, in the dust and heat, all your worldly goods in one wagon.  And with some of the Mormon treks, it was with only a handcart.  That was truly ‘you-haul’.  Better get going.  Trudge lively.  Get to Independence Rock by the Fourth. Crosses to the right, crosses to the left.  Dead animals, too.  Keep going.  Through storm and sun.  I suppose that somewhere in Oregon there must be a Constitution Rock that you wanted to get to by 17 September, or maybe “where you wanted to get to by September” was too dispersed to have a single mark, other than the whole territory filling up, on the way to becoming that somewhat more perfect society, a State, a new part of that more perfect Union the Constitution sought and founded.  What might the rocks be named today by Americans setting out?  Dependence Rock, Protest Rock, Occupy Swamp, and Entertainment Pit?  We need not worry.  Such human beings would never set out in the first place. And sad to say, a host of Federal agencies would not let anyone start today. No seat-belts on those wagons. I know from wanting to take fifty Mujahedeen receiving medical help to visit the Alamo and being unable to secure the required insurance for the bus and driver.  Insurance! For fighters who prayed each day to find a Soviet officer to kill?  If the men at the Alamo had through of insurance, there wouldn’t be a Texas today.

There are a lot of station wagons, minivans, and Winnebagos on the roads of the West today, many with families I guess.  As they follow the cattle trails north and the overland trails west, as they whizz from Ft. Worth to Ft. Buford, or glide from Independence Missouri to the Willamette Valley in three days, do these my fellow Americans understand what they see?  If you can’t smell the grass, feel the heat, thirst for water, get soaked in a shower, get warm by a fire, look up at stars, and fall asleep wanting a homestead before fall, or at least imagine these, how much can you understand?  To the right and to the left of them are signs of toil, adversity, adventure and virtue.  The ‘historic’ markers are meant to help.  Crosses might be better.  The category “historic” might mean “This is important, it made you, be grateful,” and also “Could you do what they did?  Measure yourself here,” but usually amounts to no more than “Gawk here.”  I hope these tourists feel more than nostalgia.

Probably many of the families do.  I can well imagine such a retracing of the Oregon trail, in a mini-van, as being one of the best ways for the youngsters to learn American history, not just as a subject, but so that they might be worthy of it.  Likewise, it must be wonderful to be a Boy Scout and spend a summer at Philmont in New Mexico, or be a Girl Scout and ranch near Ten Sleep in Wyoming.  For us Americans some experience of the Frontier is indispensable, whether it is through a family trip, through a summer job, wrangling, logging, or watching for fires from a solitary mountain, through a summer at a good camp, or reading some of the good books that come out of the West.


The archetype of virtue in the West remains the Cowboy, for he combines the solitary, self-commanding virtues of the warrior with the caring virtues of the steward.  To the herd, he is the good shepherd; to his fellows, he is the good brother; and if he becomes the trail boss, he is the good steward to all.  Looked at in black and white, a cowboy is just an employee, an itinerant “temp,” the Kelly man, or as Eugene Manlove Rhodes says in his poetic autobiography, “a hired man on horseback,” but in the colorful archetype, he is the chivalrous mounted knight, courageous yet kind, resourceful, trust-worthy, and honorable. For this “cowboy” we boys use to put our ears to the radio to hear:

The Lone Ranger! [gunshots are fired]  Hi-yo, Silver!  A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust.  Hi-yo, Silver, away!  With his faithful Indian companion, Tonto, the daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains led the fight for law and order in the early West. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear.  The Lone Ranger rides again! [iii]

And with the aid of Rossini’s 1812 Overture, our souls would soar.  Now we were masked by youth, but someday we would burst forth “daring and resourceful.”

However wayward on hitting town the actual bachelor cowboys were, they seem to have preserved some respect for the married woman, one of whom might, some day, be his wife, and mother of his children.  Half of the double standard is good.  (Much better than the single, shared, but base standard of today.)  Thus, it was not too far a stretch to make the Cowboy chivalrous, the gracious, gentle defender of women and their honor.  Such a sentiment in the heart of the great rancher favors the family and ultimately becomes the bridge to the small rancher, encroaching with his claim and his barb-wire, and even to the sheep-herder, and then to the farmer, in other words, to those who can people the range with more family per square mile.  In the end, the good sight of a free herd on a free range leads to the very good sight, of a free people on a free land.  Thus the solitary cowboy could become the archetype of the man who benefits the family, the society, and the nation.

Owen Wister’s The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (1902) is the original of all Westerns.  Shane and High Noon are just a few of his worthy sons. Wister was the good friend of Theodore Roosevelt, of fresh air, and of America.  The story shows the virtues it took to found America, which must be renewed each generation, or at least every other, if we are to continue to confer the blessings of liberty to our posterity.  Madison’s discovery, the word “responsible,” our American word for “virtue,” so important in the Federalist, appears at least thirteen times in the story.  This book can also inform youngsters about what courtship is, or was.  Locked in courtship, hero and heroine prove the match of each other: in wit, in resolution, in love and in virtue.  On the way, slowly, patiently, self-sacrificingly, to marriage, both Molly from Vermont and our hero from Virginia improve.  (George Gilder and life teach the same lesson these two learn.)  Important steps are when the Virginian is able to wish for her good even if she decides against him, for then he merits her. Also important is his letter to her mother about himself, a model of what every suitor should write (and I failed to). That you cannot have homes without a country and cannot have a country without men willing to face down scoundrels at the risk of life is the final lesson of the tale.[iv]  No wonder Wister, like his friend Roosevelt, criticized the evasively idealistic President Wilson for keeping America so long on the sidelines in World War I.  In the aftermath, the Virginian, who is still an employee, however prized, gets to have his own cattle and range.  Thus does Wister resolve, in the archetype, the tension between the large and small rancher, which he knew in one bloody instance as the Johnson county wars, so pungently investigated by Helena Huntington Smith, in The War on the Powder River (Bison, 1967).

From the climax of the Virginian, springs “High Noon” whose theme song, “Do Not Forsake Me”, Eisenhower whistled so much his staff asked him to quit it.  Would that four years later Eisenhower had done for the Hungarians what Sherriff Will Kane does for Hadleyville, Arizona Territory. Instead of leaving on his honeymoon, Kane stays to face the released criminal come to kill him, alone except at the last minute for his Quaker bride who does stay and help him. Also springing from the Virginian, but with a tragic turn, came Shane by Jack Schaefer.  Here the virtue of a lone man, who defends the family, meets with such circumstances that he with virtue will never enjoy family life. As boys watching the film, we thrilled to Shane killing Wilson (played by Jack Palance, with his lynx-muscled face).  We didn’t grasp how much virtue Shane exhibits beyond a fast draw. His life proves the Socratic thesis, in the Republic, that virtue rewards others, which thesis Christ lived unto death, but Shane need only live unto exile, though permanent.  He will never be able to hang up his gun, marry a woman, kindle a fire in his own hearth, and watch a boy of his own grow up.  Fine as the movie is, the book is finer.  Having seen only the movie as a boy, I was not aware of a whole extra plot in the book, one not apparent to the boy-narrator himself, namely the mutual attraction of Shane and his mother, and thus, the honorable way that everyone deals with that attraction.  Neither Henry James nor Flaubert handled “point of view” better.  Every sentence in this novella is as concentrated, essential and beautiful as Shane in motion.  Zen and the Art of Gun-Fighting need never be written.  It already has been.

Someone with the same pithy virtues is Dorothy Johnson.  What others might trick out to a whole novel, she compresses in a short story.  It takes real insight to understand not how, but why a boy would plan to defang a visiting bandit, why a man might become an Indian, and real power to show, in a few pages, what a mother would feel, in the night as the Indians who have killed her fellow pioneers hurry her along, about whether to let her eight year old daughter down from her horse, in hostile territory, never to see her again perhaps. The story and movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is about how once founded a polity covers how it was founded, a theme Machiavelli mistreats by uncovering, and Aristotle and Dorothy Johnson do not.  Catlin is not more concise, Remington more colorful, and Harry Jackson more stark than Dorothy Johnson.  No wonder Jack Schaefer liked her work. See her collections, Indian Country, and Hanging Tree, if you can find them. When I asked at a bookstore in my alma mater’s town (Cambridge), the clerk explained, “The owner hates Westerns.”  Down the street, the bookstore opposite Widener stocked many things Eastern and many things depraved. Not a happy juxtaposition.  Zane Grey is better than the Marquis de Sade.  In truth, he is not bad.  Try Riders of the Purple Sage.  Bracing stuff.

That latter day Tocqueville, Fr. Raymond Bruckberger, previously chaplain to the French Resistance, was not wrong to believe that American foreign policy, such as the “police action” of Korea, has is roots in the American West.[v]  Twice America has rescued the peoples of Europe from tyranny and more than twice the peoples of the Pacific, all much in the spirit of the cavalry coming over the hill to the encircled wagon train, the posse catching up with the bandits, sometimes like the vigilantes stringing up the rustlers, or like the Rough Riders charging up a hill.  (Even our defect, withdrawing from responsibility after World War I, had a Western tinge, isolationism being something most mountain men would approve of.)  If so, then the passing of the Cowboy from our movies is a sign of our decline and a loss for free peoples around the world.

Jack Schaefer went on to write other Western stories, but different ones.  Canyon is set in the Great Plains after the horse had set the Indians to war and exalted the warrior over the hunter, the gatherer, and the peacemaker.  How much can a man differ from others, especially in a tribe?  Aristotle says that to live outside civil society a man must be either a beast or a god.  Little Bear differs from his tribe.  Though brave, though a good hunter, he does not relish war.  Can he live in a society of warriors, always raiding and being raided, to whom to be a man is to have scalped another man?  From his spiritual father Little Bear learns “no single man can change a tribe” and yet “no man should do what his heart tells him is wrong.”  (An analogy suggests itself: no assistant professor should suggest an innovation, and yet no teacher can fix grades and keep his self-respect.  Bless my students in Wyoming who declared, “Well Socrates changed the tribe, and so did Jesus.” And the old hand at Dartmouth who observed, “Tenure is given only to those who will never use it.”)  Treading the fine line between these maxims is not easy; there is no maxim to say which of two opposed maxims fits every “this case.”  How Little Bear does tread the thin line, while marrying, is the story of this fine novel.  To be a good father, he must give up the married sequestration of the canyon. At the end we are sure Little Bear has won (as well as chosen) a place in the tribe, but we wonder if he could become a Washakie, the statesman chief of the Shoshoni, who by never breaking a treaty even while the United States did, eventually secured for his people some of the blessings of liberty.[vi] As the stage of politics is greater, so is the virtue of the statesman.

In the ‘poetry’ of the West, the heroes are mostly men, later inheritors of Shakespeare’s Falconbridge, Talbot, Richmond, Hotspur, Fluellen, and Henry V, from the treasury of the English-speaking peoples.  There is in the poetry of the West, however, no equivalent of the witty, plucky, resourceful, honorable, and intelligent lasses of Shakespeare, from Rosalind to Miranda.  (Molly in The Virginian is “alright” only.)  It is not because such lasses did not exist in reality.

Some of the very best memoirs to come out of the West were written by the women of the West.  Written in old age, the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Woods, Farmer Boy, Little House on the Prairie, Plum Creek, Silver Lake, and the others recapture her young life on the frontier.  Knowing how the story turned out never stales its freshness.  Everything looks the way it did to the eyes of the child and is discerned the way it is because of the mind of the woman.  That beauty may rob you of your life, Laura learns from Plum Creek and keeps learning.  Mrs. Wilder’s mastery of phrase and view should satisfy the most fastidious aesthete, despite a wholesomeness a Flaubert would cringe at, a splendor he had no eyes for, and a courage he did not even know he lacked.

How glad I am I read the whole series aloud for each of my children. To be able to do so again must have sometime been a reason some couples had another child. There is something so clear and dear in them that they, like Tolstoy, become as intimate as memories of your own life.

No wonder children listening to these stories feel understood.  Adults as well.  Grim, unfortunate, and terrible things occur in these books: a plague of grasshoppers covers the sky and then the earth; fifty wolves escort Pa home and encircle the cabin; and Mary is left blind; but sufficient unto the day is the strength of quiet Ma and laughing Pa.  So too, although the bullies in Farmer Boy may frighten a small reader, Almanzo’s Dad teaches the teacher: ‘When you go to bullies, remember the whip.’  And Almanzo grows up with apple pie in his mouth for breakfast, which is the right way to begin the day, I can tell you. (My wife surmises that the reason boy Almanzo is always portrayed in Farmer Boy “feeding his face” is that Laura heard a lot about his mom’s cooking.) That beauty is a presage of the good of the whole is taught by Mrs. Wilder detail by detail, in a wedge of geese in the sky, in drops of water splashing up from a horse’s leg, and in how lovely and dark and deep a pool can be.  That beauty may take your life as well as your breath away, Laura learns from Plum Creek and keeps learning, which seems to be the human pattern; only what we learn three times becomes us.  Or should one say, experiences that should change us but don’t show us what we are, and cannot be otherwise.

Less well known are other memoirs, equally worthy.  One is Agnes Morley Cleaveland’s No Life for a Lady (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1941).  Read it and you will see, that she was a wrangler, a writer, and a lady, and you will see why it really could be an intellectual choice: to go to college or to stay on a ranch.  Other good memoirs are Elinore Pruitt Stewart, Letters of a Woman Homesteader (1913: Houghton Mifflin) and Letters on a Elk Hunt (1915: Bison); Mrs. Stewart had a cheerful courage in adversity and a gift to see what was joyful around her; that there was more adversity than she lets on one learns from a good work of scholarship, Susanne K. George’s The Adventures of The Woman Homesteader (Univ. of Nebraska, 1992).  Nannie T. Alderson and Helena Huntington Smith, A Bride Goes West (1942: Bison) covers a longer stretch of a life and Clarice E. Richards, A Tenderfoot Bride (1920: Bison) is closer to the events.  In Life of an Ordinary Woman (1929); Plain Anne Ellis (1931); Sunshine Preferred (1934) (all now from Bison), Annie Ellis tells her life, ordinary first for what happened to her, ordinary in those times even for her pluck, but not ordinary in the writing down.  Eulalia Bourne’s Ranch Schoolteacher (Univ. of Arizona Press, 1974) comes at a later time, but will be appreciated by all teachers.  I list these in the order I would read them.  All are good.  Also good is Isabella L. Bird’s A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains (1879), which I’ve just started.  These women were mothers, schoolteachers, home makers, and by being so, makers of the new land.  They were hard working, chaste, and cheerful.  Their virtues were esteemed and they were valued.  It is no wonder that the West first gave women the vote (in Wyoming).  Devoting yourself first to the common good usually secures your own good and it surely promotes your descendants.’

Though scarce schooled, these women could describe important events in their lives.  Clearly it was better to be home- and one-room schooled, reading the Bible and Milton and Shakespeare, in the nineteenth century than kinder-, grade-, junior-, and high- schooled by the National Education Association today, and home-schooled by TV.  One the great monuments in the West is Mt. Rushmore.  I understand a family that home schools pulled up there one summer day, and that, after hearing about Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, one of the children piped up that there ought to be a monument to famous home schoolers.  The dad paused and then, pointing to Mt. Rushmore, replied, “There is.” Perhaps that father had read Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children.  For those who don’t know what a father is, they show what one Western father was like.  I send copies to students who have just become fathers.

Though Theodore Roosevelt grew up in the East, he only filled out, on the range in the West rough-riding.  What was life like for a child growing up from scratch in the West?  The memoirs mentioned above and below include much about childhood.  For a comprehensive account, one can turn to a fine and unusual work of scholarship, with equal portions of those rarities, imagination and good sense, made more rare by their combination: Elliott West’s Growing Up With the Country: Childhood in the Far Western Frontier (Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico, 1989).  Home and some school, great plains and spacious, sunny sky, much work and some play made the West a good place to grow up in.  The good there was appreciated.  Some youngsters stood on their heads to read magazine pages insulating walls, some cowboys rode hundreds of miles to check out the report of a trunk full of Shakespeare, and mountain man Jim Bridger, who did not taste white bread for seventeen years, went a hundred miles to pay a mint for a complete Shakespeare.  And he paid another mint for an immigrant boy to read it to him and only quit when he saw Richard III was like to kill his mother.[vii]  In our times I have met students so keen on Shakespeare they would call a thousand miles to buy a ‘research’ paper, with their Dad’s mint credit card; I have heard of colleges with satisfy students so desirous to write, they provide a “Peer Writing Center,” offering to “brain-storm, order, revise, and polish” your paper, and I have heard of teachers who honor such “as-told-to” co-fraudulent efforts.

Mr. Elliott West’s impartial, judicious history is based on the author’s recognition that some adversity as well as some shelter is needed for children to grow into men and women.  Mr. West is a rare historian.  His book is based on hundreds of diaries, memoirs, and letters, most unpublished, but most historians would have succumbed to the historian’s temptation, to reduce all those lives, so precious to the possessor, to friends, and to their families, to smooth generalizations and pallid prose.  Not Mr. West.  In nine inter-chapters, each a few pages, nine of the best personal accounts of what it was like to grow up in the West are reprinted.  Each is an invitation to read more.  Mr. West respects the people he writes about.  Trust no historian who has not imagined what it was like to be the people, and the individuals that make up a people, he is writing about.


There have been a lot of books about the West.  I would not start with them, but after reading the books that come out of the West, it might do no great harm to read them.

Many historians are not certain when the Frontier ended, some wonder if it ever did, and others doubt if it ever existed.  However, they are very certain that as a subject for their ‘discipline’, the frontier was opened up on a single day by one man, the young Frederick Jackson Turner, when he delivered a paper to the American Historical Association, on 12 July 1893.  Reading some historians on this event, you can feel their imagination or ambition expanding, as if an Oklahoma intellectual land rush were about to begin and more ready to celebrate 12 July than 4 July.  Not so Turner; he was onto something and kept at it.  Walter Prescott Webb added important parts of the story in his Great Plains, such as the way the six-gun, barbed wire, and windmills got the North Europeans, who had never dealt with semi-arid nature before, past the 100th meridian.  Webb also expanded the horizon in which the Frontier is to be seen, in his The Great Frontier, but he did not, I think, keep what is central in Turner and untouched by any of the secondary faults attributed to him, his sense of how the pioneers practiced self-governing liberty, cherished it, and spread it.  In opinions and in character Turner was closer, I think, to the pioneers he wrote of.  Certainly he did not look down on them, or what often amounts to the same error, expect more from them, in justice say, than he expected from himself.

Many recent historians do.  The practice of writing textbooks certainly contemns students and it usually contemns the persons whose lives, shared and individual, are that history.  Trust no historian who does not include, with respect, the voices of those who lived it, in his Chairman-of-History textbook report.  As Tocqueville foresaw, in democracy most historians will emphasize developments, trends, and forces, not persons, and today such historians will emphasize material forces; they have, therefore, trouble understanding the place of choice in a human life and cannot recognize any heroism.  To write greatly of the great you have to have some greatness in you.  In truth, even to write of merely good things, you must have some respect for greatness.  It is always better to view of the low from on high than vice versa.  Even then there are difficulties. In Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House, the historian Godfrey St. John looks up to the heroic virtues of the Spanish adventurers and explorers he writes about; and he is the fitting teacher of a youth from the present West, who has together with a friend discovered Mesa Verde, but St. John is caught in the comfortable results of his academic success, reduced to nostalgia, lassitude, and nearly to suicide.  Unlike Mesa Verde with its observatory, whom his student Tom Outland has discovered, his new house is not a high place from which to look up at the heavens, smile upon the valleys, and look out in the distance and think good thoughts.

The older lower sort of historians of the West, who have never looked up, would seem to be no match for the indignant “new Western historians.” Judging from Larry McMurtry’s survey, “How the West Was Won or Lost,”[viii] the new bunch have been on the warpath for a couples of decades now, burning settlements of opinion, scalping reputations caught out in the open, and making off with herds of grants. They seem to be concerned with justice, justice to the red man, justice to women, and justice to the environment.  Cui bono?  Persons so filled with indignation are hard to trust.  Still, however unjust they may be, they do enjoy an advantage over the preceding generation of historians.  A soft materialist however balanced and fair can never hope to shoot it out with a champion of justice however mean and self-serving.  Between a ‘nice guy’ who feels everything boils down to gain, pleasure, and power and a fierce ‘devil’ who trumpets justice, it is no contest.[ix]  In form a duel, in reality a murder.

Since I have not read much from these new historians, I can only share the questions I have for them, for any historian, and for myself (writing about the innovation of the Teenager).  Does the author appreciate the fact that if it is hard for twelve men and women in a court to judge present evidence and eye-witness testimony, then how much harder must it be to do so for the past?  Does, then, the author have that vital measure of skepticism in his search for truth?  Does he sense how hard it is to discover the truth?  Of what happened, and even more of what the actors intended, and of how results often outstrip intensions?  And does he sense how, if you do know the truth, how hard it is to be true to it?   In a pinch, if there were something to be lost, would the author choose truth over all else? A big question, sometimes answered in the small cases.  For example, in the footnotes, does the author have the habit of justice in the treatment of other inquirers?  Much depends on character.  Does the author judge himself and his generation by the same standards as others?  What sort of a person is he or she?  One likely to acknowledge benefits from ancestors?  One likely to recognize high things?  When he encounters virtues in others does he measure himself thereby, try to draw up to them, or ignore them, or envying them, tear them down?  Finally, does the author think the standard of justice for individuals is the same for peoples?  Does he, for example, expect the same things of societies as of a friend?  Could a standard that condemns all previous societies, or almost all, possibly be just?  Rousseau, despite his appreciation of ancient Plutarchean virtue, and Nietzsche, despite his abiding admiration for the spirit of tragic Athens, are in danger of letting such standards become destructive, but Rousseau and Nietzsche, after all, bring great gifts.  Do present day nihilistic historians, such as Foucault and Derrida, or their enraged American followers, bring any gifts?  One of the gifts of history ought to be the moderation of extravagant hopes and utopian prophecies with their consequent contempt for the merely good present.[x]

It is sometimes asked whether there really were heroes in the old West.  When I consider the expanse of the plains stretching from the south of Texas all the way to Canada, when I think about the vast desert to the south and west, when I run my mind up and down the Rio Grande, the Brazos, the Colorado, the Green, the Humboldt, the Columbia, and the mighty Mississippi and all its tributaries, when I look at the Rockies and the Sierras, and then when I think that in less than four score years this vast expanse went from nomad tribes and solitary mountain men to populous, thriving, civil states, I do wonder what such persons are thinking about when they ask such a question.  Such things are not achieved without sweat, and tears, and virtue.

Jack Schaefer’s Heroes Without Glory: Some Goodmen of the Old West (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965) devotes a chapter each to ten heroes who made it happen, from Grizzly Adams to Elfego Baca.  Particularly interesting to me are: chief Washakie, who is like Little Bear in soul and in being an outsider but became the leader of the Shoshone, and led them well, like a real statesman; likewise there is the Indian agent McGillycuddy, a good, just, and sagacious man, and there is Thomas Smith, who brought order to Abilene by disarming the gunfighters, not with a law (à la the Brady bill) but with persuasion, gun-user friendly persuasion; all visitors were to check their guns at the first saloon they hit, something the saloon owners benefitted by, though the NRA might not approve today. These good men of the west were on a scale with the Virginian and Shane and Little Bear.  Another such is Pat Garrett, so finely celebrated by Eugene Manlove Rhodes, in his “Pasó Por Aquí,” a story that ranks with Conrad’s “Secret Sharer” for teaching sagacity in adversity.  There had to be such savvy heroes or the scoundrels would have prevailed and the middling sort perished. About the “bad men” of the West, almost nothing should be said.  The fascination with Billy the Kid and the glamorization of Bonnie and Clyde are not life-enhancing.  Undoing the justice they got encourages the same lost violent souls out there today.  It is their victims that deserve our pity, and it is the lawmen who gunned them down who deserve our respect.  They got what they deserved.  From Pat Garrett and Frank Hamer, respectively.

Editor’s note: The first part of this essay may be read here.


[i]           For that great statesman, the indefatigable Samuel de Champlain, with the tolerant spirit of Henry IV, read David Hackett Fisher’s Champlain’s Dream.

[ii]           I owe this wonderful observation to Elliott West’s book, praised in the body of this essay.


[iv]          For more on Wister, read “The Young, the Good, and the West,” in  America, The West,, and the Liberal Arts ed. Ralph Hancock (Rowman & Littlefield, 1993) (collection of essays by inter alia, Allan Bloom, Stanley Rosen, Harvey Mansfield, from a conference at Brigham Young).  Better yet, just read the Virginian.

[v]           Fr. Raymond L. Bruckberger, One Sky to Share  trans. F. C. Howell (New York: Kenedy, 1952) pp. 209-213; see also his Image of America.

[vi]          The comparison is pertinent to Jack Schaefer, for Washakie is one of the “good men” in Schaefer’s Good Men of the West.

[vii]         As reported by Capt. J. Lee Humfreville, Twenty Years Among Our Hostile Indians (1903), from Looking Far West ed. Frank Bergon & Zeese Papanikolas (New American Library, 1978), pp. 172-74; an anthology of choice out of the way things.  For an anthology of the central, indispensable things, see The Great West ed. Charles Neider (New York: Coward-McCann, 1958).

[viii]         New Republic (22 Oct. 1990).

[ix]          Western liberal economists used to say Hitler can’t possibly make war, he has no money, and then at a Nuremberg Rally, which they were disgusted by, find their hand rising in salute just like the throngs around them.  Even when it showed in themselves, they didn’t understand the spirited part of the soul.  See Helmut Kuhn, Freedom Forgotten and Remembered (Chapel Hill: North Carolina Press, 1943), pp. 120-141.

[x] The place to start with these critical historians is some of the ones McMurtry surveys, especially Patricia Limerick, who seems acknowledged their standard bearer.  Also Donald Worster’s essay in Trails: Toward a New Western History ed. Patricia Nelson Limerick, Clyde A. Milner, Charles E. Rankin (Univ of Kansas, 1991 and maybe his Rivers of Empire (Pantheon, 1985)]   In Trails, there is a good essay by Elliott West, “A Longer, Grimmer, But More Interesting Story” pp. 103-111.  Limerick is adept at made-for-media history, with a mix of anecdote, detail, buzz-words, and the correct highly-enraged attitudes.  She paints herself as fearless truth-seeker but never opposes current politically correct opinions, let alone examining them.


  • Michael Platt

    After study at Harvard, Oxford, and Yale, and teaching long stints at Dartmouth and the University of Dallas, with sojourns in Germany at Heidelberg and Greifswald and in Austria at the International Theological Institute (founded by John Paul II), Dr. Michael Platt now teaches politics, philosophy, and literature at George Wythe University (Cedar City, Utah; email: [email protected]); some of his writings, on Shakespeare and Thomas, on teaching and learning, and on the phenomenon of the Teenager, are on its website. He has been rewarded with generous students and supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Join the Conversation

Comments are a benefit for financial supporters of Crisis. If you are a monthly or annual supporter, please login to comment. A Crisis account has been created for you using the email address you used to donate.

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...