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Ah, Wilderness!

The Last Cowboy

by Jane Kramer
Harper and Row, 148 pp., $8.95

Coming into the Country

by John McPhee
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 438 pp., $10.95

Americans,” wrote Tocqueville once, “are insensible to the wonders of nature,” and only bent on subduing it. Now, it seems, whatever our intentions to nature itself, we cannot get enough of reading about its wonders. The new abundance of wilderness literature in America,* which seems to exceed what can be accounted for by transitory romanticism, reflects, I take it, both the disappearance of our frontiers and our dawning sense of their primal significance to us. As I write this (in February), John McPhee’s richly detailed account of Alaska is the best-selling book of nonfiction in a number of Eastern cities, something usually reserved for works on sex or self-improvement; this suggests that the new American feeling about wilderness springs from some similar deep source of anxiety and hope. In the matter of Alaska, some of the interest may also arise from responsible citizenship, since we are on the point of having to decide what to do with this vast state. Alaska, like a late baby to elderly parents, is a matter both for surprise and obsessive solicitude, a last frontier which provides an occasion for reviewing the mistakes that have blighted other, older frontiers, like the one described by Jane Kramer in her book on the Texas Panhandle.

There are many reasons for the enduring popularity of travel literature; the dreamer is led out of the confinement of his daily life on primitive adventures out of a legendary past; he indulges his dreams of a future life of freedom. At the same time, most travel accounts reassure him that where he lives is really best. The city-dweller, reading McPhee or Kramer in his New Yorker about the sixty-below winters of Alaska, the bullet-riddled signposts of Texas, will feel grateful for the locks and bolts that may at other times seem oppressive. Out there be dragons.

We are always grateful to redoubtable travelers, from Marco Polo to Kramer and McPhee, for braving our rigors for us. It is interesting to remember that the most entertaining, accurate, and cruelly analytical books about America used to be written by and for Europeans. Themselves urban, without frontiers, they devoured Anthony Trollope on the giant “Wellingtonia” trees of Yosemite, or his mother on our atrocious domestic manners, or Dickens’s account of his visit, or the dozens of Gold Rush tales. Busy, in the middle of their adventure, Americans on America were given to boosting and boasting.

But now the best books on America are written by Americans. Far from being leveled by television, we grow more and more unlike each other, more conscious of diversity and more interested in it (a recent public television series on American families provided subtitles for the speech of rural Georgians on the assumption that their dialect was not intelligible). The traveler from New York, teetering around the Panhandle in new cowboy boots, is in a foreign land and yet in a familiar one. With access to a common heritage of American traditions and myths, she knows what questions to ask, and yet retains that slightly condescending sense of wonder on which the liveliest travel literature depends.

In fact, Europeans seem to understand us less and less. Perhaps we no longer resemble the open, uncomplicated Jamesian Americans we were once supposed to be so much as the mysterious Europeans we, like James, so admire; perhaps complexity arises not so much from character as from having a complicated place to be in, and that is what Americans are now finding out about. At present, at any rate, certain American things appear to be mysterious to Europeans, in particular American environmentalism. Most could not seem to imagine that grassroots opposition to the Concorde, for instance, was not a US government or aircraft industry plot—any more than we can imagine, say, why the English would allow opera goers to blight the exquisite rural peace of Glyndebourne by arriving in helicopters.

Jane Kramer, an adaptable and shrewd reporter of diverse cultures (Morocco, Italy, Yugoslavia, Ireland), focused her study of Texas on one representative cowboy, Henry Blanton, his wife Betsy, their family and friends. Henry is the foreman of a large ranch in the Panhandle, and, at forty, is something of a burnt-out case, facing the likelihood that he will never have a place of his own, or the independence and self-pride that his understanding of the American dream, Western-style, has led him implicitly to expect. To Kramer, but also to Henry himself, he is the last of a “disappearing breed” of American. He is still a cowboy who uses traditional methods of handling cattle (range, rope, horse, corral, brand) in the face of developments which mechanize, depersonalize, and brutalize the production of beef, and dispossess people like himself. But he and people like him are disappearing also because they are poorly adapted for survival in America. They have accepted certain myths about the West, and extrapolated certain expectations and ideals of personal conduct which, like lethal mutations, put them at a disadvantage in the great struggle for existence. “The way we live, it’s just people helping people. It’s people neighboring. Like when a cowman has a grass fire,…why you just get everybody out there helping. Whereas I heard for a fact…that when certain farmers have a fire they have to go and call the firemen.”

Myth is a word with at least two common significances, one of them referring to a cherished core of ostensibly historical stories (Kit Carson, Paul Bunyan) which serve to explain present beliefs and practices; more and more it comes to be used in the sense of delusion. Kramer sees the myths Henry Blanton lives by in this second sense:

It took…the imagination of Easterners to produce a proper cowboy—a cowboy whom children could idolize, and grown men, chafing at their own domesticated competence, hold as a model of some profoundly masculine truth…. The proper cowboy was a fiction appropriate to a frontier so wild and inhospitable that most Easterners regarded it as a landscape of Manichaean possibilities. He became for those Easterners the frontier’s custodian. They made him Rousseau’s Émile with a six-gun. They turned man-in-nature into a myth of natural man, and added natural justice to ease the menace of a place that lay beyond their hegemony and their institutions. They saw to it that he was born good, and that if he died violently, he died wise and defiant and uncorrupted. They set him against outlaws and spoilers, card sharks and Comanches. Their fears became his own sworn enemies.

Kramer’s point is that Henry Blanton and others like him, believing this myth, believed in a West that never existed, “a West as sentimental and as brutal as the people who made a virtue of that curious combination of qualities and called it the American experience.” In the real West, where cattle is big business run by people who live in London or Pasadena, literal, trustful people like Henry are destroyed by their naïveté.

As we would expect, Kramer approves of neither sentimentality nor brutality, and deplores their association with the American character. She is sorry that Henry Blanton totes guns and acts up in barrooms and is so foolish as to believe that a handshake seals a bargain. Henry has been done out of several good deals in his life because he doesn’t think you should have to get things in writing. Kramer’s lack of sympathy for Henry’s credulity is in itself somewhat unsympathetic; credulity, of all human follies, is after all the easiest to spot, in other people. And, in her affectionate impatience with him, she perhaps does not do justice to the decency and desirability of some of Henry’s beliefs, to principles of conduct which will only be acted on as long as people believe in them.

People seem always to have had the sneaking suspicion that we need exemplary myths—noble lies, as Plato called them—defending their beneficial effect on the conduct of the unenlightened, the way enlightened Victorians who had given up religion nonetheless recommended it for the average person. Like it or not, we as Americans have had a deeply formative body of exemplary myths, of which the movies of Glenn Ford and John Wayne are some recent expressions; and one would have to agree with Kramer that the values they communicate, like those of many religions, do not seem any longer to serve the interest of the individual who holds them. But if Henry’s values (cooperation; a man’s word is his bond; responsibility to family) are dismissed without regard, society loses yet more props to its teetering structure—the “breakdown” so complacently predicted by all.

Betsy Blanton’s values are a little out of fashion, too, and Kramer’s impatience with her shows. She perhaps describes Betsy’s bathroom in too great detail. Betsy, sunk in her own crisis of becoming forty and wondering what it all means, finds relief in action, as Matthew Arnold would have advised; she redecorates her little house:

Two satiny blue shower curtains went up, drawn back on either side with velvet bows to frame the bathtub. Soon plastic ivy drooped from the ceiling. Plastic chrysanthemums, in little gilt pots, sat precariously around the rim of the washbasin and the tub. The room took on a wet, heady smell, which came from steaming bathwater and too much Airwick Herbal Bouquet, and one morning, after searching in the mist for half an hour, Henry was horrified to discover his toothbrush in a bud vase and his razor and shaving soap in a Maxwell House coffee can disguised by grosgrain ribbon and paper lace.

Kramer does not patronize—she is too kind, and too good a reporter for that. But one senses her lack of sympathy for that brave plastic ivy. Much could be said of the poverty of poor Betsy’s alternatives, in the Panhandle society of unreconstructed male chauvinists of vigorous sincerity: “I hear them liberated women don’t want no separate rest rooms. Well, I say fine. Let them fight in the wars, too. Let them have the same jails as what the men have. Let them play football….” Kramer wisely forbears to comment. Hers is the touch of a novelist and a satirist; her writing, although admirably economical, can seem a bit as if she is working hard to keep powerful dramatizing and shaping impulses under control.

The Last Cowboy is in fact so like a novel in many ways that it makes you wonder, as people have often wondered before, just why a work is or isn’t one. If you wrote the story of the people next door as factually as possible, but changed their names (just what novelists are always doing), you could call your book a fiction. Henry and Betsy Blanton are not the real names of Kramer’s cowboys. Perhaps The Last Cowboy is nonfiction because it contains true facts about the cattle industry—the way Moby Dick contains facts about whaling. Anyhow, this shapely narrative has the dramatic and suitable ending of a novel: the essentially gentle Henry, frustrated by yet another defeat in his wish to have a few cattle of his own, his own place, independence, vents his disappointment by brutally murdering a neighbor’s bulls, who have got loose among his cows. The distinction between genres of fiction and nonfiction is perhaps only of interest to librarians and literary critics, but novelists are entitled to complain, I think, of the politer way writers of nonfiction are treated and allowed, as the novelist is not, to say “that’s the way it really happened.” No one yet understands, I take it, why the serious reader of today, as much as the Puritan reader of Defoe, feels more trustful of “reality” than of imagination, which is often so much truer.

  1. *

    In three days, without effort, I came across: a Sports Illustrated spread on Alaska; another in the Smithsonian magazine; a report of The Wilderness Project from the University of Montana; two books from a friend who works for a press in Seattle which every eleven days prints a new book on the wilds: Fog Swamp: Living with Swans in the Wilderness and Harvest of Salmon: Adventures in Fishing the B.C. Coast.

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