A recent trip to the LA’s Autry National Center of the American West, aka the Cowboy Museum, yielded huge Westness moments. I don’t remember much of it–being so transported in ecstasy I wasn’t on the earthly plane–but I know I took a lot of pictures.
What is Westness? It’s the romantic thing that anything West of the Mississippi has, to greater or lesser degree.
For example, the grubby clothing shown worn by 1980s-era ranch hands on the basement level has Westness. The gift shop of the Autry museum, does not, as most of its wares come from another hemisphere. I have none, although I yearn to have it (without having to ride a horse). My relatives from LA, who do many things but neither work on ranches nor wear grubby clothing, have that certain something. Are you born with it? No, otherwise Teddy Roosevelt would’ve stayed the toothy Dude and John Wayne would’ve starred in football movies.
Westness is born, or it can be developed, by you or others, as you will see.
Nice saddle, right. Must be a great cowboy. WRONG!!! This was created for Altman’s 1976 film, Buffalo Bill and the Indians; or, Sitting Bull’s History Lesson. While not a fantastic movie, it does skewer faux Westness well, at the expense of Buffalo Bill, who was probably not such a bad guy.
Speaking of Buffalo Bill (no, I have no pics of authentic western wear from the great man–like his legend, nobody knows what’s real anymore), one of the originators of white man riseth / red man descendeth–a common western theme–has a script in the museum, addresses as “written for Buffalo Bill.” Jack Crawford, the “Poet Scout,” wrote plays glorifying his deeds and Buffalo Bill’s. His work can be found here. He had been a soldier in the Civil War, but his fame came from making things up. In so doing, he started a whole slew of dreaming/scheming get-rich-quick types, still found out West.
Next: The Real Deal
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“I have often been asked how my characters differ from the traditional, larger-than-life heroes of the mythical West,” Mr. Kelton said in an interview with The Dallas Morning News in 2007. “ ‘Those,’ I reply, ‘are seven feet tall and invincible. My characters are 5-8 and nervous.’ ”
Elmer Kelton died August 22 in Texas, after a long and profitable career of a western writer’s western writer. He didn’t have the populist appeal of Louis L’Amour–Kelton’s writing apparently being a little more, um, literary–but he had the kudos of his comrades: in 1995, the Western Writers of America voted him the greatest western writer of all time. (whew!)
His prose is stark and detailed, the way a West Texas landscape appears in the hard morning light. I prefer my heroes seven feet tall, but I can’t deny Kelton’s ability to develop characters that just happened to be cowboys or ranchers or oil men. And after reading an excellent obit in today’s New York Times (click here to read it) I am even more impressed. The man worked for a living–first as a ranch hand and then as a reporter and editor, so when did he write his sixty-odd books? (no excuses permitted anymore, you writers out there) He wrote them in his spare time.
And the song sung as he was laid to rest? “Happy Trails.” Naturally.
The book cover above is from my collection. (Have I told you yet that I have almost three hundred of these beauties? Oh, yeah? Well, lemme tell you again.) It’s a well-loved copy of a book, perhaps a serviceman’s, that was printed during wartime “in accordance with the government’s regulations for conserving paper and other essential materials.” It also has the phrase “Books Are Weapons in the War of Ideas” opposite the title page, which I find kinda creepy given the aggressive and ultimately very flawed trajectories of recent military endeavors. Elmer Kelton, a master of truthiness, would hate the ridonkulousness of the title. Singing Guns was written by Max Brand, who unlike Elmer Kelton, was neither a Westerner nor a cowboy.
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