In a lonely open space I wish I knew,
A world of splintered wood and metal tools,
Lived those who came before, the barely known:
The wanderers, who had to elsewhere go,
Although the reasons of the time are lost.
So much, so many, blowing winds of life:
The randomness of one when viewed by all,
Or all when viewed by one from distant time.
But we have categories that we use
To sweep away the lives of many gone,
To boil down to sentences the mass
Of groups of people, as though no one lived
Who had the movement free that we enjoy
Or ever had a conscience, before us.
For the last two weeks, I’ve spent eight hours a day in a nursing home, and if the TV has been on, it has been on westerns.
Both of my parents loved westerns, yet I remember two things they told me about them as a kid: (1) they’re fiction; and (2) they’re often perniciously wrong, particularly in their portrayal of antagonists.
One of the distinctions between good and bad drama is how fair it is to antagonists. Good drama manages to be fair without lessening the audience’s engagement. Bad drama gives us two-dimensional villains.
In the quasi-historical world of westerns, bad-drama portrayals of antagonists materialized in ways we would now call racist. Which was what my parents meant by “perniciously wrong”.
My parents were both born circa 1930, which means that the pre-automobile era was strong in the memory of many of the adults they grew up around. The culture of horses for transportation had been widespread for hundreds of years before its sudden and rapid demise, and westerns put their generation in touch with a world that had disappeared within the lifetimes of people important to them.
Westerns were often called “horse operas”, which is a more descriptive name in many ways. All of the dramatic ridiculousness of operas, plus horses.
The term “western” has come to have another connotation in academic circles. It means “bad”.
Westerns, as a movie genre, are looked at similarly, and in many ways, as related. Most everything bad about western society can be found in westerns.
So they died out, as a genre, in movies and on television.
Many of the tropes and conventions of westerns, however, have found a home other places: Star Wars, to mention one. Lucas just put his antagonists in faceless white masks and helmets, and set his gunfights in outer space.
Watching westerns, after all these years, I can see both why they were so popular and why they now aren’t. It’s hard for people now to imagine how popular westerns once were. It’s a lot like trying to explain how big Sears or even Woolworth’s used to be.
My mom, in the severely weakened state she’s in, finds comfort in them, though. So on they’ll stay.
In a couple of days, my brother will be here, and I will head back to Georgia. But I will, in the meantime, have seen more episodes of “Laramie” and “Death Valley Days” than I ever knew existed.