Sunday, July 28, 2013

Eric Hobsbawm on the Mythic Appeal of the Cowboy

Fans at the Mragowo Country Piknik festival in Poland, 2006. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

When the communist historian Eric Hobsbawn died last autumn at the age of 95, he was putting the final touches on his last book, Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the 20th Century, which was published in March in the UK. (It will be published in the US next year.)

The book is a collection of essays on a wide variety of topics -- one of which is the creation and worldwide appeal of the myth of the cowboy.

This, of course, is one of the things I have been exploring in this blog and in the research I've been carrying out on and off over the past decade. 

When the book came out, the Guardian newspaper ran a lengthy excerpt from the Cowboy chapter.

There is ... no shortage of potential cowboy myths in the western world. And, in fact, practically all the groups I have mentioned have generated macho and heroic semi-barbarian myths of one kind or another in their own countries and sometimes even beyond. But none of them has generated a myth with serious international popularity, let alone one that can compare, even faintly, with the fortunes of the North American cowboy. Why?
Our starting point is the fact that  in and outside Europe, the "western" in its modern sense – that is, the myth of the cowboy – is a late variant of a very early and deep-rooted image: that of the wild west in general. Fenimore Cooper, whose popularity in Europe followed immediately upon his first publication – Victor Hugo thought he was "the American Walter Scott" – is the most familiar version of this. Nor is he dead. Without the memory of Leatherstocking, would English punks have invented Mohican hairstyles?
The original image of the wild west, I suggest, contains two elements: the confrontation of nature and civilisation, and of freedom with social constraint. Civilisation is what threatens nature; and their move from bondage or constraint into independence, which constitutes the essence of America as a radical European ideal in the 18th and early 19th centuries, is actually what brings civilisation into the wild west and so destroys it. The plough that broke the plains is the end of the buffalo and the Indian.

It is well worth accessing the Guardian web site and reading the whole essay (I don't have copyright permission to run it here). Hobsbawm elegantly touches all the expected spots, from Buffalo Bill to western imagery in advertising -- for a detailed discussion of this, see the essays in Western Amerykanski: Polish Poster Art & the Western, the wonderful catalogue of a 1999 exhibit at the Autry museum.  I'm not at all sure I agree with everything Hobsbawm says, but he makes some interesting points.

what carried the west into the hearts and homes of five continents was not movies that aimed at winning Oscars or critical applause. What is more, once the late western movie had itself become infected by Reaganism – or by John Wayne as an ideologist – it became so American that most of the rest of the world didn't get the point, or, if it did, didn't like it. 
In Britain, at least, the word "cowboy" today has a secondary meaning, which is much more familiar than the primary meaning of a fellow in the Marlboro ads: a fellow who comes in from nowhere offering a service, such as to repair your roof, but who doesn't know what he's doing or doesn't care except about ripping you off: a "cowboy plumber" or a "cowboy bricklayer". I leave you to speculate (a) how this secondary meaning derives from the Shane or John Wayne stereotype and (b) how much it reflects the reality of the Reaganite wearers of dude Stetsons in the sunbelt. I don't know when the term first appears in British usage, but certainly it was not before the mid-1960s. In this version, what a man's got to do is to fleece us and disappear into the sunset.

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