Monday, July 8, 2013

Owen Wister’s Virginian Would not Approve

women pioneers
Poor, but smiling nonetheless

Last month, Paul Mountjoy of Virginia wrote a snarky article for the Washington Times website titled, “The Old West: When men were men and women knew their place.” He opens with the following paragraph. 
“How many times have we heard men declare of the days of the old West, ‘men were men and women stayed at home and knew their place’? This is a common refrain after folks watch a movie based on the period.”
How many times? None, that I've encountered. This is not a common refrain of Western film enthusiasts. It is a writer’s cheap trick. Attribute a sexist comment to something you intend to denigrate.

Mountjoy proceeds to make commonplace observations about the true nature of gunfights in the Old West, list everyday hardships as if they were unique to the frontier, and reminds us that people died of disease and attacks without good medical assistance. The West, of course, was completely void of compassion due to men “witnessing 25 thousand deaths in a matter of days” during the Civil War. (I'm sure this callousness never afflicted men in the actual battleground state of Virginia.) Mountjoy has a penchant for hyperbole. He also claimed prostitutes in the West took “up to 50 or more customers nightly, more often than not, in an alley between two buildings.”

Perhaps Mountjoy’s motive is to promote employment for his friends in the nation’s capital. He writes, “If their farmer husband became disabled and had no older sons to take over the farm, they were in deep trouble. There were no government programs to help.” That seals it; the real Old West was nothing like the movies. And I thought White House Down was a documentary.

Mountjoy misses the whole point of Western mythology. I wrote an article titled, “Is the Mythologyof the Old West Dead?” Here's one paragraph. 
“The West, outer space, the future, or a make-believe land represents a new beginning in a fresh place away from home—the shrugging off of disappointments and a chance to start all over again. The romance and adventure of frontiers draws people desperate to escape the travail of their current existence. We've seen this in real life with the migrations to the New World and the Old West, but today many people satisfy this longing vicariously with fiction. If you're poor, your family makes you miserable, you've committed an act that offends society, or wanderlust has gripped you, then the adventure and limitless opportunity of a frontier beckons like a siren's call. Emigrating to a frontier means you get a do-over in a land with no rules, no fences, no referees.” 

It’s the absence of civilization that draws stalwart people to a frontier. They can start over and build a better life. Maybe they won’t, but they’re willing to take risks just for the chance. Listing hardships never dissuaded pioneers, whether they were setting off for Plymouth or Tombstone. They were a tough and hopeful breed. We lament the demise of the frontier and the Old West because we need more of these courageous people.


  1. Very well said, Mr. Best. Speaking of the West as a place of both new beginnings and fantasy longings, have you seen the new LONE RANGER movie?

  2. I saw the Lone Ranger just last night. I liked it and was glad to see the theater fairly crowded for a Sunday night. I wasn't attached to the TV show. I watched The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry, but but was not a huge fan. I preferred Paladin and Wanted Dead or Alive. Even as a child I liked my heroes a little darker.