John Wayne
John Wayne; drawing by David Levine


Why, according to the annual Harris Poll of Americans, was John Wayne the Number One Movie Star as recently as 1995? He embodies the American myth. The archetypal American is a displaced person—arrived from a rejected past, breaking into a glorious future, on the move, fearless himself, feared by others, a killer but cleansing the world of things that “need killing,” loving but not bound down by love, rootless but carrying the Center in himself, a gyroscopic direction-setter, a traveling norm.

Other cultures begin with a fixed and social hearth, a temple, a holy city. American life begins when that enclosure is escaped. One becomes American by going out. We are a people of departures, not arrivals. To reach one place is simply to catch sight of a new Beyond. Our basic myth is that of the frontier. Our hero is the frontiersman. To become urban is to break the spirit of man. Freedom is out on the plains, under endless sky. A pent-in American ceases to be American. In his 1844 lecture on “The Young American,” Emerson said that Americans need the boundless West in order to become themselves.

Whatever events in progress shall go to disgust men with cities, and infuse into them the passion for country life, and country pleasures, will render a service to the whole face of this continent, and will further the most poetic of all the occupations of real life, the bringing out by art [of] the native but hidden graces of the landscape…. The nervous [strong-nerved], rocky West is intruding a new and continental element into the national mind, and we shall yet have an American genius [ethos]…. We must regard the land as a commanding and increasing power on the citizen, the sanative and Americanizing influence, which promises to disclose new virtues for ages to come….1

The “young American” Emerson imagined out on the horizon had the easy gait and long stride of John Wayne.

When, half a century after Emerson’s lecture, Frederick Jackson Turner gave an even more influential address announcing that the frontier was closed, that America had run out of “free land,” there was a crisis of identity in the country. Without frontiers, we were a place without freedom. If, as Emerson said, “the land is the appointed remedy for whatever is false and fantastic in our culture,” then we were left with no cure for our falsehood.2 We would become all City, after being all Frontier.

The city in the American imagination has played roughly the role of hell in Christian theology. America will cease to be virtuous, Thomas Jefferson said, when its citizens “get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe.” 3 When François Marbois inquired after the state of Virginia, Jefferson noted proudly, “We have no townships…[only] villages or hamlets.”4 His anti-city note sounds throughout our history. “A really human life is impossible in our cities,” said Henry Demarest Lloyd in 1894 (one year after Turner’s address).5

Why this fear and hatred of cities in America? Of course, people have hated cities in the past. Not many satirists can top Juvenal on the dangers of chaotic living in ancient Rome. The pastoral genre is built on the contrast between natural life in the country and the perversion of nature’s rhythms in clogged and disease-ridden towns. But the Rome from which Juvenal fled had begun in a glow of romantic myth. The gods guided Romulus and Remus to its foundation around an altar. Ovid, in his clever way, even reversed the commonplaces by saying that Rome was a good city when it started because it was that paradoxical thing, “a rustic city.”6 The cities of antiquity arose by divine favor. Poseidon built the walls of Troy and Delos, Apollo those of Thebes and Megara. Babylon’s and Mecca’s original sites were created by the gods before they made anything else. Nineveh’s plan was traced by the stars. Jerusalem was built on the central rock of the earth.7

Ancient cities had not only a sacred center—a temple, an arx (citadel), a hearth fire, an acropolis—but sacred precincts, a magic circuit of places protecting them. In fact, François de Polignac has made a strong case that all eighth-century BC Greek cities except Athens were founded from the periphery inward, rising within the sacred enclosure, with its guardian sanctuaries.8 Constantine’s Christian executors, and Saint Ambrose’s, created a similar circle of churches around Rome and Milan. The heroes’ tombs of ancient cities have parallels in the holy tombs of Italy: St. Peter’s in Rome, St. Mark’s in Venice, Ambrose’s own tomb in Milan. And where whole bodies could not be claimed for burial at sacred sites, major relics were: Saint John the Baptist’s arm, for instance, in Florence. Western culture felt this holiness of the city until the Enlightenment. Medieval Paris was the city of Our Lady and medieval London the city of Saint Paul. The city, that is, was central not only to the lives of citizens, but to the order of the cosmos itself. It was the place where heaven touched earth, where traffic with the gods was possible, where cult processions went up to the sacred place, as the psalms of ascent urged people to do.


There is no more defining note in our history than the total absence of a sacred city on our soil. We never had a central cultic place. Remnants of such a tradition exist only in names like “St. Francis” (San Francisco) or “The Angels” (Los Angeles) in Mexican territory we conquered. Our attitude toward the city is just one consequence of the greatest political innovation in our system: the separation of church and state. Even the religion to be kept separate from the state was anti-cultic. Religious sects in America have typically avoided building large, ornate churches. Congregationalist and Quaker meeting houses—not cathedrals, not shrines—have been our most authentic style. Even Episcopalians in Virginia resisted giving glebe money to religious ministers. When St. Patrick’s was built in New York, it was considered the foreign indulgence of Irish immigrants. True, St. John the Divine in New York and the so-called National Cathedral in Washington were raised, but lackadaisically, over many decades, on the fringes of American interest. Our attitude is best expressed in Henry Adams’s treatment of his friends’ work when H.H. Richardson and Oliver La Farge were creating Trinity Church in Boston’s Copley Square. He thought the whole exercise irrelevant to American culture and wrote the novel Esther to prove it. For most Americans, a church was not a structure but a body of believers, and this was so wherever they met—in a town hall, a revivalist tent, or out West in a commandeered saloon. The church as a building was not sacred of itself.9

In fact, even the body of believers mattered less than the individual soul’s lonely encounter with God. American individualism found its supreme New England expression in the practice of going off on your own to be saved, and then, after that entirely lonely experience, coming back to produce evidence for your salvation as the only credential that would allow you to join the congregation.10 You could, furthermore, save only yourself. Before the “Half-way Covenant,” children could not be considered saved just because their parents were. And New England purists denounced the Half-way Covenant as a terrible falling off from original purity.11

Just as one had to go off alone to be saved, Americans have always felt that reality will be encountered and spiritual growth will occur when we go out from society’s constrictions toward cleansing solitude, toward nature—toward Walden: “I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself…. I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars.”12 America’s religious art runs from the Hudson River painters, through Ansel Adams’s treatment of Yosemite, to John Ford’s celebration of Monument Valley. The great urge of the American imagination is to light out for the territory.

Israel’s psalmists might sing of ascent to the city. Our literature portrays the arrival in town as a dismaying fall from innocence. The classic instance is Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, where the heroine’s train trip to Chicago results in her being progressively stripped of her family, her friends, her known world, exposing her to physical disorientation, spiritual loneliness, and the first attentions of the seducer who will derail her life. Chicago, when Carrie entered it, was not an ancient holy city that had grown corrupt over time. The first generation of that city’s novelists—Henry Blake Fuller, Robert Herrick, Frank Norris, Dreiser himself—presented its founding energies as decidedly unholy.13 The place was a whirlpool of wheat, a cesspool of hog intestines, a soulless cash market. Chicago, Fuller wrote, was “the only great city in the world to which all its citizens have come for the avowed purpose only of making money.”14 He was exaggerating perhaps, but he and others obviously felt the lack of any social bond that was holier than the cash nexus.

Asked why he attacked the city so often in his novels, Herrick said he was trying to “raise this dirt pile to some dignity,” though his critics thought he was not elevating the dirt but lowering people into it. Subsequent treatments of the place by James T. Farrell, or Richard Wright, or Saul Bellow have not done much to dignify it either. Indeed, Chicago became the archetypal city of American literature because it is the midway place, the quick-growth metropolis, the truly native product. Cities on the East Coast still had some European airs, but Chicago was our very own, a place of risk identified with catastrophes: the Chicago Fire, the Haymarket bombing, the Pullman strike, the stockyard stench, the Capone mob, the Daley machine.15


Our cities are always sizzling in the American imagination and ready to boil over: the most destructive fire in American history was not the Chicago Fire, which killed about three hundred people, but the nearly simultaneous fire in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, which wiped out a whole county and killed 1,500 people.16 But who remembers Peshtigo? That was not an urban fire, and catastrophes are supposed to happen in cities. If they do not, then they do not count.

The relation of country to city was brilliantly traced in F.W Murnau’s Sunrise, the film he made at the Fox Studios, where it so impressed John Ford that he called it “the greatest picture that has been produced.”17 In that 1927 movie, the city woman comes out into the country and corrupts a Jeffersonian yeoman played by George O’Brien. At night, the two sit down on an idyllic riverbank and start talking about the city, and over this peaceful scene, up in the clouds, you suddenly see flashes of city lights, traffic, trolleys, moving things, jazz musicians, dancers. The woman is so excited, she stands up and starts dancing with the people in the clouds. O’Brien tries to pull her down but he cannot, so he lifts her up physically to the level of the visionary dancers. The next morning, of course, they leave for the city.

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


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.

This Issue

March 6, 1997