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American Adam

That scene is the birth of film noir; the bringing together of German expressionism and pulp fiction to create the “naked city” through which criminals run—black sedans washing the mean streets with bullets in New York or Chicago. Woody Allen acknowledged the power of those images when he began his movie Manhattan with a voice-over: “God, I love New York. It’s a city in black and white with Gershwin music playing.” Then, attempting to go deeper, the speaker says, “No, no. I love New York. It’s beautiful women; it’s street-smart men. No, no, that won’t do.” He tries a third time. “I adore New York. For me it is a metaphor for civilization in decline.” That is the American dogma reasserting itself.

Serious literature in America has almost always treated the city as a trap and a delusion—as, in the title of oneplay, a Dead End. True, there have been journalistic celebrators of the city—Jimmy Breslin in New York, H.L. Mencken in Baltimore, Studs Terkel in Chicago. But when literary form is imposed on such jauntiness, we get tales of plucky people overcoming the pitfalls of the city—O. Henry stories, Neil Simon plays, Damon Runyon tales of gangsters shooting marshmallow bullets, Ring Lardner stories of athletes on the town, and any number of films: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, My Sister Eileen, Busby Berkeley’s 42nd Street. Ruby Keeler and King Kong dance on the skyline. Gene Kelly and Gwen Verdon dance in the ballpark. Much of the more hopeful literature of the city is the tale of creative enclaves in a hostile environment—Greenwich Village, the ethnic Bronx. But the push is still outward. People try to write in the Village; but if they succeed, they move upstate. The real “Miracle on 34th Street” is that Santa finds for Natalie Wood a perfect home in the suburbs; Mr. Blandings labors on Madison Avenue in order to build his dream house in Connecticut.

It is true that both blacks and whites celebrated Harlem in its brief Renaissance, and some African-Americans maintained a lifelong optimism about the city (Romare Bearden, for in-stance, or James Van Der Zee). But the hope the cities offered to black migrants from the South was soon blighted for novelists like Richard Wright or James Baldwin. Jacob Lawrence painted the process in his “Migration” series, which conducts Southern migrants into Northern labor camps, tenements, and white-terrorist riots. The view of the city as unhealthy and crowded is expressed in the funeral picture (Number 55), to which Lawrence appends this caption: “The Negro being suddenly moved [from] out of doors and cramped into urban life, contracted a great deal of tuberculosis. Because of this the death rate was very high.”18 That recalls the photographs of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine.

We have only one truly urban art form (pace Norman Mailer, who thinks that graffiti are urban art). The great art of the cities is jazz. And for many people even that is associated with the danger of the night. Hart Crane, beginning his poetic sequence The Bridge, mingled the Brooklyn Bridge’s spires at first with the stars, as if giving it a Nineveh holiness. But New York quickly becomes an unholy city. Not only are subways demonic, gaping to devour people like the jaws of hell in medieval art, but even comparatively innocent things like revolving doors turn sinister:

Avoid the glass doors gyring at your right

Where, boxed alone a second, eyes take fright

—Quite unprepared, rush naked back to light.

The real point to Crane’s epic of the Brooklyn Bridge is that it is not going to stay in Brooklyn. The bridge tramps off across the continent, moving on its girder stilts, seeking to catch up with the twentieth century. At times it drifts down the Mississippi, at times it hunts buffalo. It finds God lavish in Colorado but passing sly. So even the Brooklyn Bridge has to get out of Brooklyn.

Walk through any large gallery of American art, and you will be surprised at how little space is devoted to city life. Mountains, forests, rivers, glades, villages, farms—plenty of those, but few tenements or factories. European romanticism also concentrated on the countryside, but without canceling national traditions celebrating urban capitals, cathedrals, harbors, and railway centers. When a city is treated in our art, it is often unpeopled. In architectural photography, or in Lyonel Feininger’s crisscrossing girders of light and steel, the forms are pure. When people are shown, they are often anonymous: the blur of marchers in a Childe Hassam parade; the fleshy overlap of Reginald Marsh’s whores sluicing along the street; the eerie highlighting of Edward Hopper’s patron in a diner, creating an atmosphere more desolate than the darkness around. Even when people are shown, they are often escaping the city within the city—Eakins’s scullers at rest on their oars in Philadelphia’s Schuylkill, or George Bellows’s snowballers in Central Park.

For all these artistic indictments of the city, few denounce the farm. To curse a farm is like desecrating the flag. The note is so rare that it comes as a relief when Eugene O’Neill sounds it, as Anna Christie remembers her sojourn with Swedish relatives in Minnesota: “Men on the farm ordering me, beating me. One of them, the youngest son, starting me when I was sixteen.” Blame prostitution on the farm? That is supposed to be blamed on the city. When Greta Garbo, in her first talking role, recited those words of Anna’s in 1930, her Swedish accent was not the only foreign thing about her. Any American girl would have known what you ought to say about the farm, about Jefferson’s rustic virtues. To attack farmers is like cutting off aid for them, which is very hard to do even when the “farmers” are agribusiness magnates. It is very easy, though, to cut off aid to cities. They are sinful in any event.

Nor have big cities been the sole targets of these attacks. Dashiell Hammett found Chandler’s mean streets in the small towns of upstate New York (The Glass Key) and of northern California (Red Harvest). In the burg of that last novel, the Continental Op says, “There’s no use taking anyone to court here, no matter what you have on them. They own the courts.” Even small towns in Western movies, those repositories of American lore, are often in thrall to gambling interests, or huge ranching interests, or railroad interests. Everything, of course, except farm interests. The sod busters are the ones who have to be rescued from the other factions. In Shane, Van Heflin needs a golden knight to ride in and rescue his endangered stake.

To breathe free on the land, the real American must shake off the weight of institutions—not only of laws and government, but of schools and libraries. Emerson said that the wisdom of America would not be found by tending the gathered maxims of the past. The American hero must get out. Out of the capital cities: “Leave government to clerks and desks.” Out of the sickly company of bookworms: “Not out of those, on whom systems of education have exhausted their culture, comes the helpful giant to destroy the old or to build the new.” Out from the intimidating mass of dead knowledge: “I had better never see a book, than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system.”19 Out from the company of the great, to rub shoulders with nature’s noblemen:

I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; what is doing in Italy or Arabia; what is Greek art, or Provençal minstrelsy; I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familial, the low. Give me insight into to-day, and you may have the antique and future worlds. What would we really know the meaning of? The meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat; the glance of the eye; the form and the gait of the body;—show me the ultimate reason of these matters.20

Emerson’s hero is innocent, like John Wayne, of bookish ways—which would impede the “form and the gait of the body.” Emerson thinks even of thinking as frontiersmanship: “So much only of life as I know by experience, so much of the wilderness have I vanquished and planted, or so far have I extended my being, my dominion.”21

2.

Modern intellectuals are puzzled by the popularity of John Wayne. But their forebears created the cultural assumptions on which that popularity is based. He is the unwitting heir to the long tradition of anti-intellectualism created precisely by American intellectuals. George Bancroft, who had gone to Germany to get a doctorate in philosophy, said that Andrew Jackson’s greatness was the result of a blessed obliviousness to such things:

Behold, then, the unlettered man of the West, the nursling of the wilds, the farmer of the Hermitage, little versed in books, unconnected by science with the tradition of the past, raised by the will of the people to the highest pinnacle of honour….22

Jefferson had earlier warned against sending Americans to Europe for their education, a disastrous choice that would “admit the hollow, unmeaning manners of Europe to be preferable to the simplicity and sincerity of our own country.”23 The native wisdom of our fields can only lose by exposure to European artificialities: “State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The farmer will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.”24

According to Jefferson, American exceptionalism was to be maintained by closeness to the native soil:

Cast your eye over America: who are the men of most learning, of most eloquence, most beloved by their country, and most trusted and promoted by them? They are those who have been educated among them, and whose manners, morals and habits are perfectly homogeneous with those of the country…. [So] the consequences of foreign education are alarming to me as an American.25

The American homogeneity will be destroyed by too great an influx of people not formed by the native soil:

They will bring with them the principles of the governments they leave…. In proportion to their numbers, they will share with us the legislation [of this country]. They will infuse into it their spirit, warp and bias its direction, and render it a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass.26

This sense of American separateness, of exemption from the sins and follies of the past, is perfectly conveyed in Kenyon Coxe’s triptych painted for the Wisconsin State Capitol at the time of the Panama Canal’s opening. The Canal is presented as a wedding of the Pacific and the Atlantic, presided over by America’s tutelary goddess, Columbia. Seated above the isthmus in the pose of Pheidias’ Zeus, she raises a scepter to ward off undue influence from the East (Europe), while opening her hand and spreading rays of light to the West, where “natives” on their virgin land or South Sea islands receive her bounty. She raises a barrier between civilization and nature, corruption and purity. To the West there are no cities in this triptych, just what Melville called “that unfallen, western world, which to the eyes of the old trappers and hunters revived the glories of those primeval times when Adam walked majestic as a god.”27

John Wayne is the most obvious recent embodiment of that American Adam—untrammeled, unspoiled, free to roam, breathing a larger air than the cramped men behind desks, the pygmy clerks and technicians. He is the avatar of the hero in that genre that best combines all these mythic ideas about American exceptionalism—contact with nature, distrust of government, dignity achieved by performance, skepticism toward the claims of experts. The yearning back toward such ideals of freedom reemerges in the oddest places. When Jim Morrison of the rock group The Doors sang of freedom, he asked, “What have they done to the Earth?…Tied her in fences and dragged her down.”28 In Westerns, the Easterner is a dude, comically encumbered with useless knowledge, ignorant of the basics, too crippled with theory to act. In him, the instincts that lead to Wayne’s easy responses have been blunted, have atrophied in the stale air of commerce or technology, in the conditioning to life on a smaller scale than the open range.

The Western popularized the sophisticates’ claims for American exceptionalism by putting them in vivid visual form—the frontier was a landscape with freely moving men and horses. The equality of opportunity was symbolized by “nature’s noblemen.” This ability to put so much of the American myth into such visual immediacy made the Western what Jean-Luc Godard called “the most cinematographic genre in the cinema.”29 The appeal of the Western has been long-lived. The first narrative film of any complexity was a Western, The Great Train Robbery of 1903.30

The early cowboy actor Broncho Billy Anderson made nearly four hundred silent Westerns between 1903 and 1920. Over four thousand Westerns have been made in the sound era.31 For most of the years between 1926 and 1967, Westerns made up a quarter of all movies being made, more than any other genre over this long span.32 In 1925 alone, there were 227 put on film. There was a drop in production with the coming of sound (down to sixty-five in 1933); but those being made were larger-budget efforts from the mid-Thirties on. In the 1950s, there was also a falling off of movie production, mainly because the B Western gave way to an extraordinary number of Western series on television (forty-eight of them were running in 1959).33

The demise of the Western has often been predicted over the decades, but something always seems to revive it. In the 1960s, there was a surge of nihilistic Westerns by Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. The form is plastic to many reshapings. Though the Western is considered “old-fashioned,” it has been used to explore sensitive “new” issues—the evils of war (Soldier Blue, 1970), the plight of black Americans (Buck and the Preacher, 1972), ecology (Dances with Wolves, 1990), feminism (Unforgiven, 1992).

Though there has been a drastic reduction in the production of Westerns, most of it is accounted for by the disappearance of product aimed at a juvenile market—the matinée features of Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and others—and the reduction of Westerns on television. Ambitious large-budget movies have been steadily produced. In fact, in all of movie history up to 1989, only one Western had won the Academy Award for Best Picture—Cimarron, in 1931. Since 1989, two Westerns, Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven, have won—and the 1995 winner, Braveheart, used many formulae of the Western on a different frontier. In 1985, moreover, Silverado deserved the award.

The fact that so many Westerns were aimed at children has led many people to dismiss the whole genre as juvenile. But the kiddie market was boxed off almost entirely from the adult Westerns. Only one real star crossed the boundary dividing the two—Wayne, when he moved up from the B series to Stagecoach and what followed.34 And once he made the shift, he hardly ever resorted to the clichés of the formula Western. After Stagecoach, he rarely walks down the street to a conventional shoot-out—as Gary Cooper did in High Noon.35 He is not a “quick-draw artist”—in fact, he usually prefers a rifle to a revolver. He does not play the lone ranger who comes to a place, solves its problems, and rides off—as Alan Ladd did in Shane or Clint Eastwood in Pale Rider. Wayne was not invincible. His movie character dies in nine movies, and four of those are Westerns (The Alamo, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Cowboys, The Shootist). The man who “never dies” in Westerns is Clint Eastwood.

It is true that Wayne became what Richard Widmark called him, “the ideal Western hero.” When, in 1988, British critics chose the best ten Westerns of all time, Wayne was in four of them, the ones ranked 2, 3, 5, and 7. No other leading man appeared more than once on the list.36 If Wayne became archetypal, it was not by playing typical cowboys in typical cowboy movies. He made an impact when he carried his Manifest Destiny assurance into compromising situations—into the clash of cultures in The Searchers, the trauma of economic change in Red River, the demands of empire in Ford’s cavalry trilogy, the pathos of social displacement in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Westerns, like science fiction or horror movies, push a fixed moral system out into alien space where its assumptions no longer apply; but the Western does better in a “realistic” setting, making the challenge more intimate to us.

The Western can deal with the largest themes in American history—beginning with the “original sin” of our country, the seizing of land from its original owners. It deals with the waves of emigration west—trappers, miners, herders, ranchers, farmers. It tracks the racing, overlapping new technologies—the stagecoach, the Conestoga wagon, the telegraph, the cavalry, the railroads, barbed wire, successively improved firearms, new breeds of horse. It explores the relations of people with the land, of the individual with the community, of vigilante law to settled courts. It is entirely a story of change, since the disappearance of the frontier is the necessary corollary of pushing the frontier on. These themes may be exhausted in our culture, though the continuing popularity of Wayne seems to suggest that the need for this hero will call up again the kinds of story where he operated best, and the problems native to the form have certainly not disappeared.

Is Wayne a threat to society, as the critic Eric Bentley argued?37 Or the American Adam of Melville? He is both. He is the former because he is the latter. He reflects our society back upon itself, which is the source of his appeal, and of his danger. It is a mixed and terrifying image, full of the unresolved contradictions in our own ideal country. We may have no literal frontier left; but neither do we have a cult city, a temple, a holy center to our society. Our meaning lies still in motion, or so we seem to think—in the independent individual, the need for space as an arena of freedom. Do we really believe that we have escaped the myth of the frontier, the mystique of the gun, the resistance to institutions?

That’ll be the day.

  1. 18

    Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, edited by Elizabeth Hutton Turner (The Rappahannock Press, 1993), Plate 15.

  2. 19

    Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar” (1837), in Essays and Lectures, pp. 67, 62, 57.

  3. 20

    Emerson, “The American Scholar,” pp. 68-69.

  4. 21

    Emerson, “The American Scholar,” p. 60.

  5. 22

    Quoted in Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (Vintage Books, 1963), p. 159.

  6. 23

    Thomas Jefferson, letter to Walker Maury, August 19, 1785, in Papers, Vol. 8, pp. 409-410.

  7. 24

    Thomas Jefferson, letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787, in Papers, Vol. 12, p. 15.

  8. 25

    Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Banister, Jr., October 15, 1785, in Papers, Vol. 8, p. 637.

  9. 26

    Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query VIII, p. 211. Franklin, too, feared an influx of Germans into Pennsylvania, which would make it impossible to preserve the native language so that “even our Government will become precarious.” Benjamin Franklin, letter to Peter Collinson, May 9, 1753, in Papers, edited by Leonard Labaree and Whitfield Bell, Jr., Vol. 4 (Yale University Press, 1961), p. 485.

  10. 27

    Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, Chapter 42 (Library of America, 1983), p. 996.

  11. 28

    Jim Morrison, “The End.” In “Break on Through,” Morrison loved a woman for “the country in your eyes.” He also wrote of the need “to escape sin and the mire of cities.” See James Riordan and Jerry Prochnicky, Break on Through:The Life and Death of Jim Morrison (Morrow, 1991), p. 26.

  12. 29

    Jean Narboni and Tom Milne, editors, Godard on Godard (Viking, 1972), p. 117.

  13. 30

    Though Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery was not the first film to tell a story, it was the first to weave together three strands of narrative. See Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema (University of California Press, 1994), pp. 352-355.

  14. 31

    Les Adams and Buck Rainey, Shoot-Em-Ups (Arlington House, 1978), p. 15; and Buck Rainey, The Shoot-Em-Ups Ride Again (The World of Yesterday, 1990).

  15. 32

    Edward Buscombe, editor, The BFI Companion to the Western (Da Capo, 1988), p. 35.

  16. 33

    Buscombe, The BFI Companion to the Western, pp. 426-428.

  17. 34

    Randolph Scott made a partial move in the opposite direction when he went from major non-Western roles to low-budget films with Budd Boetticher. But even those “Oaters” were made for adults, not kids.

  18. 35

    There is an aborted shoot-out in Tall in the Saddle, where Wayne sees that his opponent is too drunk to draw. Even in Stagecoach, Wayne does not do a quick draw from a standing position, as in the classic shoot-out’s resolution, but throws himself on the ground where he can steady his rifle.

  19. 36

    Buscombe, The BFI Companion, p. 427. Wayne’s films were The Searchers (#2 on the list), Stagecoach (#3), Red River (#5), and Rio Bravo (tied for #7). Clint Eastwood was on the list once, for The Outlaw Josey Wales (tied for #7), and Gary Cooper once, for High Noon (#1).

  20. 37

    Eric Bentley, “The Political Theatre of John Wayne,” in Theatre of War (Viking Press, 1972).

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