Proulx’s Bunchgrass Edge Of The World

Farm Scene American Artist (1851–1899) perhaps built in a similar era to the farmhouse in Proulx's short story
Farm Scene American Artist (1851–1899), perhaps built in a similar era to the farmhouse in Proulx’s short story

This modern retelling of The Frog Prince by Annie Proulx was published in the November edition of The New Yorker in 1998 and included in her Close Range collection of short stories.

PROULX’S STORY STRUCTURE

If I hadn’t had it pointed out I probably wouldn’t have picked up, on first reading anyway, that this is a re-visioning of the fairytale The Frog Prince. But this is an Angela Carter kind of subversive re-visioning in which the woman comes up trumps, though not in the patriarchal ideal of ‘happily’ married and subdued, but having chosen her own man and inheriting a property which ordinarily would have passed down the male line. (This is called patrimony.)

In “The Bunchgrass Edge of the World” the frog prince gets substituted by a monstrous, talking tractor. Ironically, the broken down, hybrid tractor shows misogynous prejudice, as it forbids Ottaline to repair it, claiming that “‘It’s men that fixes tractors, not no woman.'”

Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

In common with “The Frog Prince” she’s outside the house, though unable to go very far. Something unexpected starts talking to her ‘at the bottom of the garden’. Both the tractor and the frog are pretty awful characters and you’d never want anything to do with them even if they did transmogrify into handsome princes, though I feel the original readers of Frog Prince fairytales weren’t meant to think so.

There are other fairytale elements to this story. The story starts two generations before the ‘princess’ gets her story. Modern retellers of fairytales don’t do this, but Charles Perrault did. In Perrault’s version of Rapunzel we hear all about her parents and how the mother craved some kind of parsley and sent the father off to steal it from the witch’s garden. This practice of establishing heritage helps to give a story a sense of history, even though short. It also contributes to that ‘deterministic’ feel — a word often used to describe the work of Annie Proulx and fairytales alike. The father is called Aladdin. There is a crop of almost magical wheat — seeded from Aladdin’s pants cuffs when he somersaulted off the porch, exuberant and playful before his new wife.

Even the setting seems alive to Ottaline:

The calfskin rug on the floor seemed to move, to hunch and crawl a fraction of an inch at a time. The dark frame of the mirror sank into the wall, a rectangular trench. From her bed she saw the moon-bleached grain elevator and behind it immeasurable range flecked with cows like small black seeds.

This is not quite magical realism, but through Ottaline’s eyes we get a sense of what it’s like to view a grimly realistic world in a magical way. Mirrors, moons and rugs which seem alive — these are all reminiscent of fairytale.

SHORTCOMING

The raw loneliness then, the silences of the day, the longing flesh led her to press her mouth into the crook of her own hot elbow. She pinched and pummeled her fat flanks, rolled on the bed, twisted, went to the window a dozen times, heels striking the floor until old Red in his pantry below called out, “What is it? You got a sailor up there?”

[…]

Ottaline was dissolving. It was too far to anything. Someone had to come for her. There was not even the solace of television, for old Red dominated the controls, always choosing Westerns, calling out to the film horses in his broken voice, “Buck him off, kick his brains out!”

We naturally settle on Ottaline as the main character of this story, even though it’s really about an entire family. She’s the last to be introduced for starters, and there’s a certain power which comes with being the ultimate.

There aren’t many women in the Close Range collection — Annie Proulx was mainly writing about men at this time. Ottaline is the third and most hard-working child of this ranch family — in true fairytale style the last of three (usually sons) is rewarded. But first she is put through the mill:

Most of the women depicted by Proulx […] have low self-esteem and very few illusions about life, being used to isolation, abuse, heavy drinking, cheating, domestic violence, taboos, and unwanted pregancies. […] However, Proulx’s stories also bring to the foreground a few strong-willed women getting out of marriages gone sour, suggesting that if you can’t leave Wyoming, you can always leave an ill-suited husband. […] Ottaline’s mother also provides an example of resistance as she warns her father in law: “Keep your dirty old prong from my girls or I’ll pour boilin water on it.”

— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

Ottaline’s problem is that she is heavy set and for both self-driven and culturally-driven reasons this puts her on the sidelines as far as the marriage market is concerned. This body weight acts in a modern story as a disfigurement or magic spell might in a fairytale — Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are unconscious; Cinderella and the heroine of Beauty and the Beast are poor (but their beauty eventually redeems them); Rapunzel is hidden away; witches are old and ugly. There’s always some reason in a fairytale why women can’t just go forth and find a man if they want one. Ottaline’s weight is presented as a kind of grotesque, represented in other narratives by gargoyles and chimeras. The grotesque is a feature of gothic literature.

As miserable Ottaline turns for company to her scanner, which allows her to capture disjointed bits of other people’s cell phone conversations, her eavesdropping similarly may point to Annie Proulx’s ventriloquist tales. As the writer explains, she herself is “a good eavesdropper,” who likes to “listen to ordinary people speaking with one another in bars and stores, in laundromats,” to “catch fragments of conversations and fill in the blanks. Indeed, her highly heteroglossic short stories feed on recuperated sociolects, myths, and discourses in a way that brings her readers to reflect upon the polyphony and intertextuality worked into her texts, and wonder at the artful recycling in her poetic yet violent and crude stories.

— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

 

DESIRE

Annie Proulx doesn’t even want fairytale happy endings for her female characters and this has been foreshadowed earlier with Ottaline’s treatment of the tractor.

While crafting female characters nearly systematically doomed to a tragic downfall, Proulx deconstructs traditional fairy tales so as to pinpoint the noxious power of the Prince Charming and happy ending archetypes. Indeed, many of her short narratives may read as subversive rewriting of old folktales and fairy tales, showing awareness of the potency of storytelling. […] Like Ottaline conversing with the enamored talking tractor, Proulx’s fiction implies that one should be wary of false expectations inherited from stories passed on to little girls: “‘Are you like an enchanted thing? A damn story where some girl lets a warty old toad sleep in her shoe and in the morning the toad’s a good-looking dude making omelettes?'” The ironic, self-referential metalepsis draws attention to the patrimony of fairy tales and folktales which Proulx’s stories often tap into.

— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

Metalepsis = a figure of speech in which a word or a phrase from figurative speech is used in a new context. This is an example metalepsis because the reader knows how things go in fairytales — the girl isn’t meant to expect a handsome prince. She’s meant to be disgusted by the frog and be utterly surprised later.

So Ottaline doesn’t want a fairytale romance. What does she want? Satisfying sex (not with the off-again, on-again farmhand), and a stable life.

Her only chance seemed the semiliterate, off-again, on-again hired man, Hal Bloom, tall legs like chopsticks, T-shirt emblazoned Aggressive by Nature, Cowboy by Choice. He worked for Aladdin in short bursts between rodeo roping, could not often be pried off his horse (for he cherished a vision of himself as an 1870s cowboy just in from an Oregon cattle drive). Ottaline had gone with him down into the willow a dozen times, to the damp soil and nests of stinging nettles, where he pulled a pale condom over his small, hard penis and crawled silently into her. His warm neck smelled of soap and horse.

Being a woman, she’s liable to be turfed out at some point if the handling of the farm turns to her wayward brother.

OPPONENT

The natural order of society stands in Ottaline’s way. Patrimony, societal (and internalised) rejection of her heft. But these things don’t make for interesting opponents in a fleshed out narrative.

Her father keeps her locked up in the rural equivalent of a castle:

It is implied that her father, only too happy that one of his two daughters should fill in for the son who has deserted the ranch, treacherously keeps her from going to town to get a job and fires Hal Bloom, “the semiliterate, off-again, on-again hired man” whom desperate Ottaline, in spite of her obvious lack of attraction to him, had perceived as her “only chance” to ever get away from the family ranch.

— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

We have the farmhand who is an example of a man she could easily end up with — someone who coerces her into unsatisfying sex and who has no prospects.

Then we have the ‘monster’ (in the Courage The Cowardly Dog sense) who arrives suddenly from outside this established community — here it comes in the form of a talking tractor, though I read this tractor as Ottaline’s own awakening, perhaps provoked by her hobby of listening in on other people’s conversations on her scanner.

PLAN

Ottaline has an anti-plan in this ironic, subversive story. She will plant herself right where she is, thanks. There is a narrative reason for her heft. She is grounded to this land. Instead, when things happen to go her way, it’s luck. If she had any hand in things at all, it’s because she learned to put her foot down and not accept any crap from ‘the tractor’ (ie. men who treat her badly).

Luck is the thing. Proulx introduces the stochastic nature of things in the very first paragraph, a paragraph which looks at first glance like a simple description of setting:

The country appeared as empty ground, big sagebrush, intricate sky, flocks of small birds like packs of cards thrown up in the air, and a faint track drifting toward the red-walled horizon.

Ottaline’s plan thus far has been to shun feminine skills in favour of masculine ones, hoping to stay on the farm I guess:

With a physique approaching the size of a hundred-gallon propane tank,” grotesquely obese Ottaline in “The Bunchgrass Edge Of The World” quickly shuns feminine attires and house chores, opting instead for ranch work with her father, “manure-caked roper boots” and “big jeans”. As a result, she is tragically even more cut off from the rest of the world. 

— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

BIG STRUGGLE

Ottaline’s internal big struggle with the patriarchy takes place astride the tractor:

Ottaline turns out to be one of Proulx’s subversive tools, as her rebellion against the wannabe prince turns the tables on gender stereotypes. Indeed, the scene in which Ottaline fixes the tractor contains innuendos pointing to the implicit subtext of sexual empowerment:

She had bought a can of penetrating oil with her and began to squirt it on studs, bolts and screws, to rap on the rested colts with a heavy wrench.

“You make a wrong move I might hurt you.”

“You know what? I was you I’d lay back and enjoy it.” Something Hal Bloom had said.

— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

Ottaline is brought to her knees in terms of bad fortune when her father gets her to bring a buyer in for the cattle.

ANAGNORISIS

The ‘twist’ (revelation) for the reader comes when the cattle buyer’s son comes instead. There’s an instant connection (a ‘love at first sight’ fairytale trope?) and Ottaline marries the son, thereby keeping the cattle.

What’s the revelation? Luck can turn on a dime, but in both directions.

It turned the other way for Aladdin, who is killed instantly in his new plane.

NEW SITUATION

They ‘plant’ (bury) Aladdin on the farm and Ottaline runs the ranch with her new husband.

Like Charles Perrault did with his fairytales, Annie Proulx offers an extra bit to make sure the reader gets the point of the telling. Though unlike in those misogynistic, didactic tales, Proulx has a much less romanticised view on life:

That was it: stand around long enough you’d get to sit down.

 

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

“Tits Up In A Ditch” is another story by Annie Proulx conveying a deep disregard for fairy-tale romance. It starts a bit like a fairy tale but events for Dakotah turn tragic.

There are also strong parallels with “The Mud Below”:

Ottaline grows up on her parents’ ranch, “adrift on the high plain” where “the wind isolate[s] them from the rest of the world.” As she starts having conversations with an amorous talking John Deere tractor, the story suggests that pathetic Ottaline has gradually  been driven insane, out of line, by the “raw loneliness then, the silences of the day, the longing flesh”: “Ottaline was dissolving. It was too far for anything. Someone had to come for her.” For some of Proulx’s characters, marriage is definitely presented as the least worse off option, the only way to rise from “the mud below” as one of the short story titles has it.

— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

Tractors must be a very real worry to farmers. Here in Australia, some groups are wanting the law to change around four-wheeler use in children. In fiction, too the tractor or farm vehicle is quite regularly used as a means of death. Reese Witherspoon’s debut film featured a death by tractor.

John Cheever wrote a magical realist story about someone listening in on other people’s conversations — “The Enormous Radio” — though this lead to a family’s downfall, not to a woman’s awakening.

Ottaline reminds me a little of Aunt Beryl from Katherine Mansfield’s best-known short stories (“Prelude”, “At The Bay”), but she really describes any unmarried woman from late 19th, early 20th century literature, enjoying fantasies in her own bedroom but due to failure in finding a marriage partner, can never become a fully-fledged member of society.

“The Bunchgrass End Of The World” reminded me at times of a documentary I watched once about men who fall in love, romantically and sexually, with cars. Because I’d seen that, I wondered if that’s where the story was going.

 

Stream of Consciousness vs. Interior Monologue

Interior Monologue Narrative Technique

  • Interior monologue is a stylised way of thinking out loud. (Technically: thinking ‘on the page’.)
  • Some people call it ‘internal’ monologue. This is the same thing.
  • Unlike stream-of-consciousness, an interior monologue can be integrated into a third-person narrative. The viewpoint character’s thoughts are woven into description, using the author’s own language.
  • This is the essential difference between interior monologue and straight narrative:
  • Straight Narrative = the narrator talking (You know ‘the narrator’ — that made-up character who sounds like the author — but please don’t mistake authors for narrators – not all authors are crazy axe-wielding, mentally unstable murderers, unlike many of their narrators.)
  • Interior Monologue = a character talking/thinking, using words specific to that character, making assumptions, mistaken judgements, conclusions RIGHT FOR THAT CHARACTER.
  • If interior monologue is done well, you won’t even notice it’s happening.

Two Men Contemplating The Moon by Caspar David Friedrich makes me think one of them is telling the other a solioquy, or some other old-fashioned narrative device.
Two Men Contemplating The Moon by Caspar David Friedrich makes me think one of them is telling the other a solioquy, or some other old-fashioned narrative device.

Stream of Consciousness Narrative Technique

  • Like interior monologue, stream-of-consciousness is another stylised way of thinking out loud.
  • It is the 19th and early 20th century version of what has become ‘free indirect style/speech’. (A style of third-person narration which uses some of the characteristics of third-person along with the essence of first-person direct speech.)
  • Stream-of-consciousness tends to read more like a pure soliloquy. (A famous soliloquy is Shakespeare’s To be or not to be.)
  • There’s a lot of interior monologue in stream-of-consciousness but the difference is, there’s no punctuation to mark it out as such.
  • The terms ‘stream-of-consciousness’ and ‘interior monologue’ are used interchangeably by some — but stream-of-consciousness refers more often to a first person narrative which mimics the jumble of thoughts, emotions and memories passing through a character’s mind. (That said, interior monologue is not necessarily written in first person.)
  • Stream-of-consciousness tends to be less ordered than interior monologue. That’s because consciousness has no beginning and no end — thoughts flit quite randomly from one thing to another.
  • Stream of consciousness is a regular feature of The Psychological Novel.

Neo-Regionalism And Realism In Literature

Grapes_of_Wrath_75

REGIONALISM

“In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect, the extremist form of the backwoods South-Western dialects; the ordinary “Pike-Country” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last”

Huckleberry Finn

Regionalism is an largely American term which refers to texts that concentrate heavily on specific, unique features of a certain region including dialect, customs, tradition, topography, history, and characters. Regionalist writers include Mark Twain and Kate Chopin (The Awakening, 1899), Harper Lee (To Kill A Mockingbird), Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner. Features of regionalist works:



  • Analysis of attitudes characters have towards their community
  • There is generally a narrator, offering a kind of ‘translation’ for the reader (presumed to be from a different region)
  • Dialogue might be written to emulate local dialect, spelled wrongly/informal grammar
  • Regionalist works tend to spend a lot of time painting the setting; plot comes second and is often slower moving than your genre thriller or whatever.
  • Many feed into the fantasy of a hermetic community, sealed off from all that is bad about modernity.
  • Some of these works are purely nostalgic; others attempt to start a national dialogue about a topic.
  • A typical topic might be: how to reconcile the values of the home/neighbourhood with freedom and self-determination?

American Regionalism can be broken down into three separate movements.

  1. The first reached its peak in the 1880s and 1890s
  2. The second in the 1920s and 1930s (Jeffersonian romanticism — depression incited a need for  ‘rootedness’)
  3. Back-to-the-land stories of the 1960s

Realism

Realism overlaps regionalism in many ways. Realism is the literary depiction of life how it is lived. Henry James is an example of a realist writer.

  • Rejection of social mores and traditions
  • No wish to hide the unpleasant/socially unacceptable
  • The flip side of realism is romanticism, in which characters and events are dramatized, idealized, and exaggerated

NEO-REGIONALISM

In a modern global community there is no longer the wish to read quaint regionalist stories and revel in their quaint customs. Audiences are better travelled and, if not, at least more worldly. Neo-regionalism emerged in the late 20th century as a response to that.  The world wide web undoubtedly had something to do with it. From the 1950s critics would describe a work as ‘romantic localism’ or ‘sentimental’ or ‘nostalgic’, and didn’t mean it in a good way. Writers started to shy away from regionalism. It is thought to be missing important perspectives, politically naive. While characters of regionalist stories were often depicted with realistic harshness, they weren’t necessarily afforded dignity and their culture wasn’t fully understood. This was called ‘the literary equivalent of a drive-by shooting’ by John Ed Peace. Others considered it scapegoating aka. psychosocial projection.

Is any sin greater, in the parishes of literary fiction, than sentimentality? Novelists pride themselves on using artifice to get at the truth, but sentimentality is all falseness, emotion over-boiled by grandiosity of expression and served up rank and limp. “Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel,” James Baldwin wrote in his essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” blasting “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” “The wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart.” To engineer synthetic emotions for cheap effect is bad enough; even worse, Baldwin says, is the sentimentalist who believes her own schlock, confusing the imitation of emotion for emotion itself.

The New Yorker, 2015

Regionalism remained popular with audiences long after it started to annoy critics. That’s how we ended up with Faulkner, Edna Ferber, John Steinbeck and similar in the mid century. Newer examples include Larry McMurtry, Wallace Stegner (West), Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor (South).

So now we have a more sophisticated version of regionalism.

Authors such as Barbara Kingsolver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Richard Russo, Russell Banks and Howard Frank Mosher, Cormac McCarthy, Pam Houston, David Guterson, Kent Haruf, Kathleen Norris, Louise Erdrich, Walter Mosley and Mary Swander are described as neo-regionalist. Neo-regionalist settings stretch from the Maine hinterlands (e.g. Carolyn Chute) to the Texas borders (e.g. Cormac McCarthy). This list could go on for ages. See for example my analysis of The Half-Skinned Steer by Annie Proulx.

Authors of neo-regionalist stories write of:

  • hardscrabble farms
  • second-growth forests
  • struggling towns
  • There’s still plenty of description of setting — weather, sky, terrain, buildings etc.
  • The best books of this type balance a sense of ‘the purposeful earth’ with a sense of purposeless drudgery
  • The most literary neo-regionalist books tend to juxtapose a romantic attachment to locality with rootless alienation and something like rooted cosmopolitanism. Perspective is widened.

Neo-regionalism transcends the stigma of the older regional writing. These authors remind us that these hardscrabble landscapes are no less “national literature” than fiction set and written elsewhere.

ROMANTIC (ORIGINAL) REGIONALISM IN MODERN WORKS

This continues to be written though it is not considered Literary with a capital L. An example is Jim the Boy by Tony Early (2000).

  • These stories use many of the local colour techniques of the 19th century in the telling of the story
  • Will probably be set in that early 19th century era as well, but not necessarily.
  • We’ll be shown the impact of the larger world into the local scene e.g. a railroad being built in the town/introduction of electricity. These technologies won’t necessarily be presented as a good thing.
  • The readers are assumed to themselves be outsiders, bringing their own perspectives with them to the text. This assumes that the people being written about aren’t literary enough to even be reading.
  • Characters will  probably be living with poverty.
  • Relations among the specific populations represented are less important than the meaning they have as markers in other debates, about poverty, about violence, child abuse etc. None of the characters themselves will be articulate enough to say anything important about these things. Also, there’s a suggestion that these horrible things happen to poor, regional people, turning family violence into a regional issue rather than a human one, say.

Westerns, Anti-Westerns and Neo-Westerns

cowboys

For more than fifty years, one third of all films released in the United States were westerns. They could be made cheaply, and a certain proportion of the male population could be predictably counted on to see them.

Howard Suber (who notes the exact same thing about horror films which came later)

Why The Western Needs To Come Back: Arguments For

  • From its inception, the Western has been key to the communication of America’s national ideals and the mythologizing of its past and present.
  • A resurgence o f the genre that does best at forcing America to reckon with itself is sorely needed.
  • Focusing its attentions on what motivates rural-dwellers and keeps them up at night is what the Western was born doing, and so more films in the vein of Hell or High Water could bring us closer to understanding the parts of America we don’t hear much about outside of election season — even if we don’t like what they show us.
  • The particular vulnerability of Native American communities in the face of the environmental threats posed at Standing Rock has been highlighted elsewhere, but I think it deserves cinematic attention from the Western, too.

courtesy of Film School Rejects

Brief History Of The Western

  • The heyday of the Western genre was from about 1880 to 1960. The Western film goes through phases of popularity and has been particularly popular in the 1930s and the 1950s and 1960s. There has been a recent resurgence of the popularity of (neo-)Western novels with the TV series Longmire.
  • The conflicts in westerns, horror, gangster, and science fiction films must end in a man-to-man, man-to-moment, or man-to-machine climax.
  • Examples Of Classic Westerns
  • The Great Train Robbery (1903)
  • Edwin S. Porter‘s film starring Broncho Billy Anderson, is often cited as the first Western
  • Shane is an example of a film which uses every single Western symbol without irony.

The popularity of the Western for adult readers has been mirrored by the rise then the fall of cowboy stories for children. Jerry Griswold, with fond memories of his cowboy story childhood writes, “My hope is that with pirates making a comeback, cowpokes can’t be far behind. All it really takes is a few parents ready to provide a stick horse, a cowboy hat, and stories like these.”

If cowboys (with extra girls) do come back into fashion, it will be interesting to see how authors and illustrators deal with the invasion aspect behind the glamour. Perhaps these stories are for Native American writers to write.

The 7 Plots Of Classic Westerns

Author and screenwriter Frank Gruber listed seven plots for Westerns:

  1. Union Pacific story. The plot concerns construction of a railroad, a telegraph line, or some other type of modern technology or transportation. Wagon train stories fall into this category. (CLASSICAL WESTERN)
  2. Ranch story. The plot concerns threats to the ranch from rustlers or large landowners attempting to force out the proper owners. (WESTERN DRAMA)
  3. Empire story. The plot involves building a ranch empire or an oil empire from scratch, a classic rags-to-riches plot. (CLASSICAL WESTERN)
  4. Revenge story. The plot often involves an elaborate chase and pursuit by a wronged individual, but it may also include elements of the classic mystery story. (WESTERN CAT-AND-MOUSE)
  5. Cavalry and Indian story. The plot revolves around “taming” the wilderness for white settlers. (CLASSICAL WESTERN)
  6. Outlaw story. The outlaw gangs dominate the action. (WESTERN CRIME)
  7. Marshal story. The lawman and his challenges drive the plot. (WESTERN DETECTIVE)
Setting Of A Western
  • The setting of a classic Western will be in the latter half of the 19th Century in the American Old West, often entering on the life of a nomadic cowboy or gunfighter. Westerns often stress the harshness of the wilderness and frequently set the action in an arid, desolate landscape of deserts and mountains. Specific settings include ranches, small frontier towns and saloons of the Wild West. Some are set in the American colonial era.
  • Characters also include Native Americans, bandits, lawmen, outlaws and soldiers.

Throughout most of human history, towns were situated next to dependable rivers. Western towns in films such as High Noon, The Searchers, The Wild Bunch, and Unforgiven, however, are situated in the middle of some of the driest places on earth. Perhaps that’s because deserts, in the Hebrew, Christian, and Islamic Bibles, are places of spiritual conflict.

Howard Suber
In a Classic Western You’ll Also Find
  • A rational grid of clapboard buildings on the flat, dry plain of the Southwest
  • A bustling community under the benevolent gaze of the marshal
  • A showdown, which happens in the middle of the main street where everyone can see the hero’s bravery. The cowboy hero waits for the bad man to draw first, still beats him, and reaffirms right action and law and order for the growing community.
  • The modern Western story is really a mixture of other genres with a setting in the latter half of the 19th Century in the American Old West, or a similarly desolate but modern American setting.
The Following Genres Can All Be Found Mixed With Myth:

Filming Locations Of Westerns

A spaghetti Western was filmed in Italy, where the landscape looked enough like America but was a lot cheaper to use as a location. Red Westerns (a.k.a Osterns) are filmed in Russia. More recently we have the ‘Pavlova Western’ filmed in Australia or New Zealand e.g. Mike Wallis’ Good for Nothing or John McLean’s Slow West. While these films can still have great storylines, having grown up in New Zealand and emigrated later to Australia, the trees and landscapes look far too familiar to work for me as American stories. Australian locations are also known as Meat-Pie Westerns.

You can probably guess what Curry Westerns and Indo Westerns are.

Westerns set and filmed within America itself are even broken into subcategories. Take Florida Westerns, also known as Cracker Westerns, set in Florida during the Second Seminole War.

Characters Of Westerns

A character in a New York novel might look at the city, the press of diverse humanity, the huge buildings, the hum of activity, and feel that his/her life is insignificant or at the very least, a exceedingly small cog in the greater machine of human endeavors.

A character in a Western novel looks out at a terrifyingly empty prairie, an expanse of jagged mountains, the infinite wash of stars in an unpolluted night sky, and feels not so much that his/her life is insignificant but that humanity as a whole has vastly overestimated its own importance to the universe.

The characters in a Western are fairly regular forced to acknowledge the real scale of the world and their place in the cosmos, and I find that refreshing.

Callan Wink, Publishers Weekly

Problems With The Western

Reading Against Genre: Contemporary Westerns and the Problem of White Manhood by Donika DeShawn Ross (2013)

Examples Of Anti-Westerns

  • Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
  • The Wild Bunch —  set in the last days of the American Frontier. In both Butch Cassidy and The Wild Bunch (about the same real-life group of outlaws) the characters aren’t keen on new technologies. Butch Cassidy and the townspeople want nothing to do with the bicycle, for instance.
  • Is Lonesome Dove an anti-Western? Before its publication in 1985, McMurtry was known as a contemporary novelist who made a point of denouncing unrealistic, romantic period novels about the frontier. The old myths were destructive, he argued, and they ignored the complex, urbanized realities of the modern West. Then he wrote “Lonesome Dove,” an 843-page frontier epic that seemed to be exactly the sort of book he had been attacking. […] McMurtry thought he had written an anti-Western, one that critics and readers then perversely took to be the greatest Western ever. “‘Lonesome Dove’ was a critical book,” he still insists, “but that’s not how it was perceived. The romance of the West is so powerful, you can’t really swim against the current. Whatever truth about the West is printed, the legend is always more potent.
  • His response to the misreading of “Lonesome Dove” was “Streets of Laredo,” which takes place 20 years later, and “Comanche Moon,” which deals with the same characters as young men. In both books (as well as in “Dead Man’s Walk,” the prologue to the series) he tried everything possible to destroy the romantic aura of the original novel. Where “Lonesome Dove” was heroic and sweeping, the subsequent books are bleak and austere. And “Streets of Laredo,” written during the long siege on that couch in Tucson, is the darkest of them all.
  • Woodrow Call, who survived “Lonesome Dove” intact, is shot several times in “Streets,” finally losing his arm and leg. “He would have to live, but without himself,” McMurtry wrote of his shattered hero. “He felt he had left himself faraway, back down the weeks, in the spot west of Fort Stockton where he had been wounded. … He could remember the person he had been, but he could not become that person again.
  • Hud McMurtry’s first book, published as Horseman, Pass By is often listed as a Western, or rather the first of the ‘revisionist Westerns’. I’m not sure how Larry McMurtry feels about it, but the screenwriters consider this story a domestic drama.
  • The Homesman — published a few years after Lonesome Dove in 1988, and made into a film by Tommy Lee Jones in 2014. This is such a harsh story it would be hard for audiences to mistake it for a love-letter to the Old West.
  • The work of Annie Proulx is unambiguously anti-Western (if we’re calling it Western at all). In her Wyoming Stories she offers a searing critique of cowboy culture and satirises the mindset that Wild West culture is some kind of aspirational ideal. Brokeback Mountain is the most famous of these. However, Annie Proulx would not call this story any kind of Western (or a romance). It is the exposure of a community with rot and hatred at its core.
  • Richard Ford is another author who, early in his career, released a short story collection set in Wyoming and Montana, frequently described as ‘hardscrabble’. The collection is called Rock Springs.
  • Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson  Set in the haunting rain-soaked Northwest, Robinson’s characters are dogged by loss, encroaching transience and the siren call of the cold mountain lake that exists at the center of the narrative.
  • Cowboys and East Indians by Nina McConigley McConigley’s stories explore what exactly it means to be the “wrong kind of Indian” in Wyoming. These characters subvert our expectations and give us a new way to look at place, even one as saturated with myth as the American West. Funny, poignant, and incredibly smart.
  • True Grit the movie and the Coen Brothers remake
  • The Son by Philipp Meyer 
  • Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison
  • Winter in the Blood by James Welch 
  • The Proposition Australia’s version of an anti-Western
  • The Englishman’s Boy a Canadian example
  • The Misfits
  • Sin Nombre
  • Lonely Are The Brave
  • The Rounders
  • The Reward
  • Moon Zero Two
  • The Traveling Executioner
  • Deadlock
  • The Resurrection of Broncho Billy
  • Angels: Hard as They Come
  • The Day of the Wolves
  • Squares
  • Pocket Money
  • Longmire is often marketed as a neo-Western but it is more of an anti-Western. Walt Longmire is the dedicated and unflappable sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming. Widowed only a year, he is a man in psychic repair but buries his pain behind his brave face, unassuming grin and dry wit. He is an anti-hero.
  • Justified another TV series set in the West
  • Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee
  • Meek’s Cutoff cinema verite, which means it’s like the camera isn’t there. Also means it doesn’t hew closely to dramatic structure, most apparent in the ending of this film.
  • They Die By Dawn
  • Hell Or High Water Before 2016 inflicted itself upon us, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan pre-empted the election results with Hell or High Water, a neo-Western with anti-capitalist undertones. With banks ripping off policemen and robbers alike, and its politically charged juxtapositional images of oil wells towering over foreclosed homes, the film tapped into an Occupy-inspired sense of moral outrage at corporate tyranny shared by both rural and urban Americans alike.
  • Wind River  Sheridan’s film touches on the intrusion and violation of the reservation land on which it’s set by encroaching oil giants and their employees.
  • etc.

Examples of Neo-Westerns

  • Kill Bill Vol. 2 directed by Quentin Tarantino — another good versus evil story but with an almost futuristic Japanese setting
  • Mad Max sometimes called a ‘road Western’. Australian Westerns like this dystopian franchise can be viewed as cautionary tales on resource greed: when oil (or “guzzolene”) runs out, the films tell us, nuclear war and a kill-to-survive mentality will plague the earth, decimating populations and sharply cleaving society into the exploited many and the soul-sucking, resource-hoarding few.
  • The Proposition Australian
  • The Rover Another Australian film
  • Serenity  2005, based on the Firefly TV series
  • Star Trek Famously Gene Roddenberry pitched the concept of the TV show Star Trek as a Wagon Train to the stars