What is it about the cowboy that is so enduring? What was it about this breed of man that has made the cowboy such a part of our national mythos? Sometimes, the word “cowboy” has been used in a derogatory manner—but for the most part, the cowboy is the good guy. He might be taciturn, but when he spoke, people listened to him. He was as careful with his weapons as he was with his words. He tipped his hat to a lady, regardless of her status in life, because that was just how he was expected to act toward a member of the fairer sex and this myth of the cowboy and the frontier West was born shortly after the Civil War, when heavy industrialization was the experience of many Americans, and out of the need for a unifying image after the bloody and deadly divisions of the Civil War. “It’s a kind of fiction with a traditional shoot ’em up formula. A hero who is tall, handsome and taciturn and skillful with a gun and a rope rides into town, and he saves everyone” (Don Graham, professor of English literature, U of TX).
I can only speak for myself, but I know why it is I look up to cowboys and why they hold such a large part of my heart. I grew up, figuratively, in the Old West. My childhood heroes were John Wayne, The Rifleman, Matt Dillion, the Cartwrights, the Lone Ranger, and Superman. Superman? Yes, the Man of Steel, too. The cowboy lived by a creed—don’t lie, don’t take advantage, respect and defend women and children, stay on this side of the law, your word was your bond…sounds suspiciously like Superman fighting for “Truth, Justice and the American Way.”
In those Westerns I cut my television viewing teeth on (and in the novels, as well), the good guys were discernible from the bad guys, and it just wasn’t the white hat which let me know who the good guys were. Those good guys lived that cowboy creed. Call it chivalry, if you will, because it was a form of chivalry. It was a much simpler time, then. You knew who the bad guys were. They didn’t live that creed. They didn’t care, so long as their nefarious plans didn’t go awry. Cardboard villains shooting it out with cardboard heroes. Those Westerns offered predictability and simplicity. Most are morality plays—set against the backdrop of a landscape huge, sweeping, and intimidating. It was the simplicity and the predictably which made the Western and the cowboy so much a part of our national psyche.
Yet, there is something to be said of those simpler times. Perhaps that’s why even though the genre fades in popularity (including in the movies), it will never go away. The cowboy has made comeback after comeback because I think deep inside of us, there is a longing for a bygone era when we knew who our friends were, who we could trust, and who was the bad guy. It’s certainly not so simple today.
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