THE WEST OF THE IMAGINATION

This excellent book by Wiliam H. Goetzmann and William N. Goetzmann (father and son) attempts to explain how perceptions of the West (of the USA) live and how many are myths and legends. Our views are sculpteed by lands which are artworks in and of themselves. No artist, painter or photographer can ever represent Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon or numerous physical features elsewhere. In and among these monuments to the earth have come human beings, many illiterate and others incapable of recording life. The motto for the American West (and perhaps for all human history) is best described in a John Ford movie: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Art and painting represent the legends of the West. Most paintings were made put on canvass in the West. Early on, painters sketched and painted in the off-season in the East. OR, paintings were made in a studio long after an incident occurred e.g. Custer’s Last Stand. Indeed, one depiction was known as the “Anheuser-Busch Poster” a marketing tool. Beer drinkers could sit in bars and saloons and speculate about the Last Stand. Of course, recent forensic studies have proven all the paintings, legends and eye-witness accounts, are pure fantasy. In 1913 another Indian battle Wounded Knee, was filmed using as many participants of the original incident as could be gathered. All but one reel of the film has been lost.

More myths? How many United States soldiers did Native Americans kill after 1865? Another history gave the answer of fewer than 1000. But given the massacres depicted in film and in some books, it seems the total amounts to a genicide. Until reading the Goetzmanns’ book I did not know that forts west of the Mississippi were not attacked by Native Americans alone; they knew the futility of attacking fortifications. The books mentions one of the last attacks of a fort or settlement, circa 1770, Booneville, Kentucky, the settlement of Daniel Boone. Yet, film is primarily responsible for perpetuating the myth of numerous attacks in the nineteenth century.

The chapter on Frederick Remington is excellent. When individual artists come up much humorous stuff comes out: Buffalo Bill’s first impresario, Ned Buntline, had the unprofitable careers as an U.S. Army deserter, an politician-instigator of race riots in St. Louis, a bigamist and a temperance reformer, all before he went into entertainment. But the best chapter is about Charles Russell and his business-savey wife, Nancy. When he was considered to paint a mural for the Montana House of Representatives, Russell told the committee in very Western fashion: “If you want cupids and angels and Greek goddesses, give this New Yorker the job. If you want a western picture, give it to me.”

What Remington and Russell show in paintings, drawings and sculpture was motion in the world they knew. They did that as well as anyone. Viewers can see a paintings and know what had happened in time before the painted scene; the viewer can anticipate what will happen. Viewing A Dash For the Timber  (Remington) horses and riders are coming at the viewer. Russell’s, Smoke of a .45, the viewer is in a gun battle and wants to stand out of the way of bullets and fleeing men on horses. These paintings catch motion as completely as Rembrandt did in The Night Watch, or Michelangelo did with Moses. (see Sigmund Freud essay) Yet contemporaries of Remington and Russell (Impressionists) did not show motion well. Their paints relied on technique and style to project the images.

The painters and most other Western painters knew the animals they painted and drew – standing still, at peace, cold, war, running, off balance. At art schools in the East horses and other animals were dissected in classes to demonstration motion of the animal, for the greenhorn students. And all artists knew the magic of horses: Frank Tenney Jackson explained, “People like to buy pictures with white horses. If I paint a picture with one horse in it – it’s a two-hundred dollar picture. If I paint the horse white, it’s a four hundred dollar picture.” (319)

This book is entirely too short. Not every picture discussed is shown. There could easily be another 100 prints. More text could be hand about a painter’s impression of his intervention with nature to produce art; and the historians could tell by interpretation the painter’s impressions. In its survey the text runs through movies as being an extension of painting and photography, but movies distort the history, perpetuating myths and legends. The text about movies runs until 1970; Westerns are on the decline; comedy rips apart the genre in Blazing Saddles; also omitted is the saloon scene from The Great Race. The end of the Western era arguably lasted in 1976 with John Wayne’s, The Shootist.

A sidebar about Westerns and movies: Taking the place of Westerns and its heroes  and anti-heroes in this day of Machines Take Command are crime stories whether the protagonist be a detective, a private investigator, a low-life cop or a rogue spy. The common elements to these characters, whatever be the previous job, is an obsession for truth, justice and the underhanded way, plus a speck of heart that is gold. 

Finally, the authors of The West of the Imagination observe an disturbing trend that is running amock today:  “Modern publishers seem to think that the eye measures the depth of the popular mind.” (314) As for this book, READ IT.

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