“Saving the Appearances: John Ford’s Rescripting of the American Mythos”
On the film director’s transformation of the American Western.
Although rarely acknowledged in a scientific age, even the most advanced nations depend on a narrative interpretation of reality to guide their everyday decision-making. New technologies can radically empower us, but the application of those powers, whether the “shock and awe” of our smart bombs or the virtual friendship of social networking, is still shaped by the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. At the deepest levels of human reckoning, our motives are animated by populist narratives, the character of the nation imprinted and sustained by our co-participation in a meaningful mythos, one whose heroic figures embody communal ideals and whose familiar plots metaphorically address the most pressing and perennial problems we face.
Politicians grasp the implicit authority of these populist narratives, hijacking their symbols to influence opinion. So it was that when trying to drum up support for an American imperialism after 9/11, one neoconservative op-ed author evoked Cary Grant in Gunga Din riding to the rescue of the British Raj. More effective politically, the official campaign photo for Ronald Reagan in 1980 pictured him in a cowboy shirt and hat (both white, of course), and twenty years before that, John F. Kennedy cleverly associated his presidential candidacy with the most potent American myth of all by defining the era as a New Frontier. But although those familiar tropes successfully generated the sort of emotional allegiance that converts into votes, were the new sociopolitical conditions in each case really illuminated by the old mythic metaphors, or were they obscured? And if the answer was mixed, then which aspects of the old likeness still held true and which did not? More crucially perhaps: to what degree were the leaders themselves guided or misled by the myths they borrowed to articulate their intentions and garner support?
Such questions are not unique to 1960 or 1980. Foundational myths are fashioned to fit site-specific historical conditions, social and material facts on the ground, and those conditions do shift over time, challenging the relevance of both the old story line and its central characters. And because rapid material gains can disrupt any community’s inner compass, these challenges are especially frequent in a society committed to technological progress. Although our engineering culture disingenuously discounts the danger, preferring instead to flatter its work in utopian terms, powerful inventions—the assembly line, radio, the birth control pill, wiki software—do undermine prevailing ethical conventions, creating confusion and contention, and potentially destabilizing the communal order. Charged with preserving social cohesion through rehearsing those stories that encode communal values and redress common problems, the mythic imagination must somehow incorporate these new facts on the ground, rescuing coherence (and eventually consensus) out of what may initially seem an incompatible mix of traditional beliefs and emergent practices.
We are well acquainted with an analogous process in the sciences: how, when new and anomalous discoveries occur, practitioners rush to render the alien familiar by subsuming it under the day’s prevailing theoretical frame. In early astronomy, maps would be redrafted to include newly observed stars, but those changes were inscribed in ways that were careful to preserve the traditional geocentric model of the universe. This practice was called “saving the appearances,” and what was being saved in the process was not just the unanticipated observance but also the reigning paradigm for making sense of the observable world. As Galileo could attest, adaptations that went so far as to threaten the logic of the paradigm itself were in danger of inviting a hostile response, and the peril was far greater when the map being redrafted was not a chart of the stars but the story of human origins. As driven by the spread of the printed book—one of the most empowering, and so disruptive, inventions in Western history—the translation of the Bible into the common tongues of the people led to contending interpretations of the foundational mythos, and these in turn helped to spur brutal bouts of revolt and repression. Scholars were burned at the stake with their own heretical manuscripts used as tinder, and neighbor slaughtered neighbor as civil wars of the sectarian sort erupted throughout the continent and England.
Akin to the vicious ethnic cleansing recently evident in Rwanda and Iraq, these far earlier examples from Christian Europe remind us that managing the tension between material change and moral continuity can be a life-or-death affair, and that if transformations in cultural identity are to remain peaceful, the collective imagination must somehow manage to counterbalance innovation with conservation. As the utter failure of the past century’s totalitarian regimes proved, a new identity cannot be imposed by force alone. Nor can it be imported like grain as a form of foreign aid to feed the needy minds of the Third World poor: a gritty lesson that the avid supporters of “nation-building” have too often ignored. Instead, significant changes in communal beliefs must evolve over time, and can only be achieved through a gradual reformation of the most familiar tropes and terms. Given the narrative nature of human reasoning, such changes require an artful rescripting of the traditional mythos by those intimate with the inner logic of its symbols. I want to examine here one instance of effective rescripting, as achieved by John Ford in his 1939 cinematic classic, Stagecoach. First, though, we need to consider the origins of the story that Ford was amending: the myth of the old frontier that long preceded Kennedy’s proclamation of the new.
From Leatherstocking to Lone Ranger
The creation of nation-states in late eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe (nation-building in its original phase) required incorporating a variety of long-lived local cultures, each with its separate traditions and lore, and often its own language. Modernizing armies secured borders and squelched revolts; powerful economic interests endorsed an expansion of authority that could enforce uniform rules for lending and trade; the evolution of a rationalized bureaucracy made it easier to administer the extended state; and the rapid expansion of literacy allowed the state to establish an official language and so, over time, a truly common tongue. Still, to read the same language and obey the same laws were not sufficient in themselves to generate those ties that can bind separate clans and tribes into a fraternal whole. To love one’s neighbor is an emotional allegiance founded on actual everyday experiences, but to love one’s nation is an imaginative act, achieved in part through an empathetic participation in a myth of common origins, the artful conjuring of a virtual past. During the nineteenth century, the printed novel became the West’s most advanced medium for mythological thinking, and the new genre that emerged to serve the urgent social purposes of nation-building was the historical romance, first established by Sir Walter Scott in 1814. Characterized by melodramatic plots based on real historical crises, these popular novels generated a series of heroes, symbols, and allegorical events that, revered by their readership, created a new and broader imaginative commons, a sense of belonging on a national scale.
In America, the early master of this new form was James Fenimore Cooper, and the historical crises he utilized to advance a literary nationalism were the violent conflicts associated with settling the frontier. Born himself in a frontier town in upstate New York during the year that Washington assumed the presidency, Cooper belonged to the first generation who lived from cradle to grave under a constitutionally defined federal government. Still, cultural unity was hardly a given: the divisions of class, race, religion, and region that had characterized the colonial period, and that would eventually erupt into civil war over the question of slavery, persisted. Both the North and the South, however, possessed open borders to the West, and internal immigration (moving from the settled township to the latest frontier) remained a perpetual possibility for all Americans except the enslaved for some 260 years. Deeply engrained in the collective memory, the challenges of pioneering did provide, then, a plausible set of common experiences suitable for imagining a national identity: an American character in mythic terms that managed to transcend regional differences.
In the five volumes of his Leatherstocking saga, Cooper infused Scott’s historical romance with key elements from homegrown genres, borrowing from colonial captivity narratives and from legendary accounts of actual frontiersmen like Daniel Boone to create a story line and set of character types that would calibrate the American imagination for many years to come. The saga dramatizes the adventures of the frontier scout Natty Bumppo—alternately known as Leatherstocking, Deerhunter, Pathfinder, and Hawkeye—from the French and Indian Wars in the 1740s until his death on the prairie in 1804. Four of the five volumes are set somewhere on the American frontier during that initial period when white civilization, newly arrived in the wilderness, is still threatened by the so-called savage; and aping the primary pattern of the captivity narrative, the plots’ central events involve either protecting or rescuing their white heroines from hostile natives.
A highly idealized figure, Natty is the original model for all of America’s “lonesome heroes”: the first in a long line of rugged individualists who, despite their self-chosen exile from civilized society, always come to its rescue in times of crisis. As a white Christian who lives in and loves the wilderness, Natty has acquired all the site-specific skills necessary for survival there; he is intimate with nature and with the crafts and customs of native ways, and is closely allied with the noble savage Chingachgook, his loyal companion and the last of the Mohican line. A master marksman and tactician, he is a formidable warrior, yet like most mythic heroes, his violent ways are always applied toward virtuous ends: slaying the savage kidnapper, rescuing the current damsel in distress, selflessly leading the white settlers into the heart of the wilderness—whose forests they will then clear and fields fence in, thus ironically domesticating the very wildness that Natty most cherishes, and so sending him into exile again, chasing the ever westward recession of the American frontier.
The Leatherstocking saga also establishes a representative set of secondary characters, encoding through them values that clarify the proper relationships between the races, social classes, and sexes, as endorsed by the actions and speeches of Leatherstocking himself. Despite his humble background and native ways, for example, Natty always allies himself with the Anglo-American aristocratic class, whose traditional heroic figures, the gentleman officer and genteel lady, remain unchanged: these are the civilized roles and codes that Natty’s frontier heroism formulaically saves. Meanwhile, the other races are assigned their separate “gifts,” each acknowledged and praised but in ways that affirm the ultimate ascendancy of the white colonials, who, the story’s climax assures, will win the war for the wilderness and safely reestablish their traditional social hierarchy there.
The noble savage can be admired, even tacitly desired in the sexual sense, but miscegenation itself, the fulfillment of that desire, is strictly prohibited. And idealized though they are, even Natty’s interracial friendships and hybrid skills (the highly effective mixing of his white loyalties with his red “gifts”—his deerhunting, pathfinding, and hawkeyed marksmanship) have a limited license, restricted to the temporary phase of frontier settlement. This is why Natty must always leave the civilized scene at story’s end and why too, in contrast to those many heroes who wed the damsels they save, he remains a chaste bachelor throughout. As the symbolic perfection of a necessarily transient period, Leatherstocking, too, must remain the last of his genealogical line. In Cooper’s romance, the imminent passing of both the frontier scout and the noble savage is explicitly acknowledged even as their roles are mythically idealized.
Their final passing, however, could easily be deferred in the American mind so long as more open territory to the West awaited settlement, supplying a new locale for a similar drama of interracial conflict and class rivalries during a period of dangerous lawlessness. There, another Hawkeye could always emerge out of the wild to save the civilized life, accompanied by another Chingachgook belonging to a different but equally doomed tribe. And beyond its literal relevance to the nation’s long history of pioneering through internal immigration, the standard plot and archetypal characters of Cooper’s frontier myth symbolically addressed three enduring tensions especially relevant to the American experience. Due to the ongoing impact of slavery and an unusually open immigration policy, interracial and ethnic conflicts, fear of and attraction to the cultural other, have been a perpetual feature of American life. So, too, with the tension between an equality of rights implicit in the democratic spirit and the reality of persistent class differences in wealth and power. Finally, in the most democratic culture in the world, there was, and still is, a constant tension between extolling the rights of a liberated individualism and assuring the sorts of compliant loyalty that any stable society requires.
Through crafting a hero whose mastery of violence always served the genteel; who “went native” without violating his loyalty to white civilization, and who, though freed of all social restrictions, still remained true in times of real crisis to “the ties that bind,” Cooper wed the raw individualism and adaptive pragmatism of frontier settlement to the conservative idealism of an established cultural order. As such, his mythic tales both acknowledged and assuaged the primary anxieties of internal immigration in a democratic society: that cluster of experiences which, despite many regional differences, supplied a common grounding for a national identity.
What happens, then, to the exquisite equilibrium of tensions that characterized Cooper’s myth when its allegorical-historical frontier ceases to work as a credible metaphor for the American experience? The question proves more subtle and subdivided than it first may seem, for our myths shape as well as mind our given place, and when they change, they tend to evolve by degree, their various elements transformed unevenly and in ways that are often concealed (as in the cases of Reagan and JFK) behind a gestural allegiance to the old symbols. A metaphor is never an exact equation, and when the metaphorical scheme in question is one as internally complex, collectively adopted, and multiply expressed as a national myth, the hope of finding a single cause or certain date for either its final devolution into irrelevancy or its radical transformation into a wholly new form is an illusory proposition. Certainly the closing of the frontier—the practical end to the availability of free land in an unsettled West still populated by native tribes—presented a formidable challenge to Cooper’s original formulation. But insomuch as the mythic frontier had always stood for something more than the literal places and events it depicted, insomuch as it continued to redress many of the perennial anxieties of the American experience in a highly mobile, individualistic, and multiracial society, key elements of its underlying narrative could manage to retain, with suitable adjustments in costume and setting, their unifying relevancy.
Initially, those adjustments were relatively minor as the old mythic figures were refashioned to fit that deeper, drier West whose regions would absorb, in serial fashion after Cooper’s death in 1851, the characteristic conflicts of frontier settlement. There, Natty’s fur cap and moccasins give way to a brimmed hat and spurred boots, his graceful dash along forested trails to a masterful horse ride across a dust-plumed desert. In many cases, his rifle is replaced by a six-shooter, and the names of the native tribes and the issues dividing the contending white parties are recast to fit the historical times. Adjusting to the literary realism of the post Civil War period, this next incarnation of American virtue drops the extended sermons that Natty Bumppo favored for the terse aside, the rough verbal ore of real-guy wisdom.
But beneath the play of those new appearances and absent the native nicknames that overtly signified his character, this new version of the American hero, the now iconic “lonesome cowboy,” retains the same cluster of virtues that defined Cooper’s scout. Like Leatherstocking, he is at one with the wilderness he loves; like Straight-Tongue, he never lies; like Hawkeye, he proves to be the master of his era’s most deadly weapons; and after the fashion of Pathfinder, he reliably charts a safe way through the confusion of the day, ending the martial anarchy and solving the moral complexities that characterize frontier settlement. Like Natty, too, the cowboy hero embodies the resolute independence of the outsider; he is someone who not only thinks for himself but also emerges from the literal outside of the wilderness to rescue a threatened community: that family of homesteaders, that passing wagon train or small border town whose members are imperiled by a gang of bandits or marauding Indians.
The problem of why an outsider should prove so dedicated to saving a way of life that he himself cannot abide goes unaddressed. A counter-Hamlet in this sense, the lonesome cowboy rarely agonizes over his decision to commit; instead, he simply, reflexively, and against all odds does “the right thing,” which, as in Cooper’s saga, usually includes rescuing the current damsel in distress. And whatever that new hero’s initial motivation, one didactic intention has been preserved: that of binding the self-reliant loner—who, after all, might be indifferent or even hostile to the welfare of the group he once gladly left behind—to the cause of civilized settlement. The potential conflict between the liberated individuality preferred by Americans and the social unity required by any communal group is thus finessed, yet the integrity of their differences is also maintained by having the hero “ride out of town” at the end of the day.
Like Leatherstocking, then, the lonesome cowboy saves the settlers only to refuse the bounded bounty of settlement itself. The temporary defender of domesticity, with its corrals and farm-field fences, mustn’t ever be fenced in himself—not by a place, a permanent job or a formal body of laws, not by any socially sanctified and rule-bound relationship such as those forged in marriage or in the military. Rather than meekly obey, in Emerson’s disdainful words, “the Blue Laws of the world,” his moral commitments are always spontaneous and fully voluntary. As the moral perfection of democratic individualism, the lonesome cowboy descending from Cooper must owe nothing yet give all, on a moment’s notice and of his own free will.
I have been generalizing, of course: the Western assumes so many forms, involving so many separate artists of differing skills and sensibilities, and spans such an extensive period of social change (from the end of the Civil War to about 1970) that any satisfactory survey is not plausible here. To glance at just one example that clearly borrows from Cooper’s model, we can turn to The Lone Ranger, a highly popular radio drama targeting boys that was first aired in 1933. Surviving World War II and the arrival of television, a video version was broadcast from 1949-57, its reruns lasting into 1961, and during that long run, its narrative formula remained essentially unchanged. In each episode, the earnest and upright Lone Ranger, dressed in his unambiguously symbolic (if utterly impractical) outfit of pure white, was accompanied by his near mute but loyal native sidekick, Tonto. And each week this ever-roving pair, riding their steady steeds Silver and Paint, would arrive from outside to save the locals’ day, only to depart after that rescue, the star of the show commanding his mount: “Hi-yo, Silver… Away!” The medium had shifted from the adult novel to children’s radio and teledrama, the setting from the plush Northeast during the French and Indian Wars to the arid Southwest during that second phase of frontier settlement after the Civil War, and the social subplots had been eliminated; yet the underlying story of Hawkeye and Chingachgook had been conserved. Fundamental elements drawn from the same imaginative commons had managed survive from their first articulation as a nation-building myth in the 1820s to Kennedy’s proclamation of the New Frontier.
Cooper’s original romances were both broadly popular with the reading public and admired by the most sophisticated literary minds of his day, but by the late 1930s few believed that this later generation of frontier narratives could achieve anything like that rare marriage of the popular with the exemplary. So it was that during the same period that The Lone Ranger was at the peak of its popularity even a prominent director like John Ford had to struggle to get studio backing for a motion picture with a Western setting and adult themes. He finally succeeded and the result proved extraordinarily influential in its own right, supplying a new template for the old mythic formula, literally and figuratively setting the stage for thirty more years of sophisticated Westerns.
From Tonto to Lordsburg
Stagecoach transformed the shape and substance of the American Western in three significant ways: it established Arizona’s Monument Valley as the new archetypal stage for the mythic frontier, the area’s chiseled spires, massive mesas, and dauntingly arid and empty spaces becoming the cinematic equivalent of Cooper’s gorgeously described forests, lakes, and streams; it elevated John Wayne into a major movie star who would eventually replace Gary Cooper as the nation’s reigning model of the virile lonesome hero; and finally this breakthrough film proved that the old genre could become relevant again, drawing on our frontier myth’s standard terms to revise and, in some cases, even reverse its traditional modeling of American virtue.
The overarching plot is easily summarized: the year is 1885, and we follow a stagecoach and its nine passengers and crewmen as they travel between two towns in Arizona during the Apache uprising led by Geronimo. To be threatened in the wilderness by hostile natives is, of course, the standard peril posed by our frontier myth, and following its well-established formula, John Wayne’s character, the Ringo Kid, does arrive from outside. The last of the nine to board, he hails the stagecoach on foot, from well beyond the boundaries of the first town, and with Monument Valley’s silhouetted mesas framed in the background so that he appears to be emerging from the wilderness itself: the natural man reentering the claustrophobic spaces of the social sphere. And having borrowed the myth’s narrative alpha, the script also mimics its standard omega; at story’s end, Ringo does retreat from civilization again, riding out of town as the convention decrees: “Hi-yo, Silver… Away!”—always away… But the hero doesn’t depart alone this time; nor is he accompanied by the latest reincarnation of the noble savage; nor are his heroics the sole focus of the story. In one of the many serious ironies that animate Stagecoach, Ford uses the generic Western’s pat endorsement of the heroic individualist—that “lone ranger” descending from Leatherstocking—in order to study the possibilities for a democratic community. In doing so, he reinfuses the myth’s imaginative domain with the social complexity that had once characterized Cooper’s frontier saga but that, over the years, had been stripped from the story by a highly commercialized entertainment industry.
There are three communities in Stagecoach: two established towns that prove to be moral mirrors of each other, and the improvisational society that evolves on the stagecoach itself when the Apache uprising isolates the group on their journey from Tonto to Lordsburg. The members of this makeshift community have been carefully selected to represent a diversity of classes and moral types. Buck, the driver (who is played primarily for comic effect) and the stalwart Curly (a marshal literally “riding shotgun” to protect the coach) constitute the working class, the crew whose job it is to serve the public. The passenger list includes Lucy Mallory, the pregnant daughter of a former Confederate officer who is traveling westward to join her husband, now a captain in the post-Civil War cavalry. Her presence in Tonto reawakens a Southern sense of honor in Hatfield, a “notorious gambler” who had once served under her father, and who now, in act of spontaneous gallantry, decides to join the party as Lucy’s protector. Together, Lucy and Hatfield represent the old aristocratic class, consisting of the landed gentry and a military elite, who (like Duncan Heyward and Alice Munro in The Last of the Mohicans) had been the co-heroes of Cooper’s saga, the very group whose social prerogatives Hawkeye saves but whose ascendancy is now passing, and whose code of conduct can no longer prevail in a nation acutely transformed by the Civil War and the rapid industrialization that followed it.
Two members of the commercial class which, boosted by the North’s victory, has been rapidly replacing the old landed elite are also onboard: the ironically named Samuel Peacock, a traveling whiskey salesman whose most obvious trait is his meekness; and the upscale banker, Henry Gatewood who, despite his social standing and air of pompous rectitude, is a covert criminal—an embezzler skipping town just ahead of the bank inspector. Of the coach’s nine characters, Gatewood is the one unredeemable villain, as purely bad as the Ringo Kid is purely good. Not unlike today, the symbolic association of villainy with banking was an easy equation to make at the end of the 1930s, a decade that had seen so many farms, homes, and small businesses repossessed. But inside the allegorical domain of the story itself, the contrast between Gatewood’s high social standing and his actual moral character is just one element of a much broader critique of the established social order.
That order is indicted for its intolerance as well as its corruption. On the Noah’s ark of Ford’s stagecoach, those three representative pairs, the twinned members of the working class, the old aristocracy, and the ascendant commercial bourgeoisie are joined by two outcasts, the social “dregs” of Tonto: Doc Boone, a drunken physician, who has been evicted by his landlady for failure to pay his rent; and Dallas, a prostitute, who has been booted out of town by the Law and Order League, a women’s society led by Gatewood’s wife—in the disdainful words of the landlady, Dallas and Doc are “two of a kind.” Ford deliberately stages these banishments in ways that evoke an unexpected sympathy. Although occasionally portrayed with either a comic affection or a condescending sympathy, deadbeat drunks and whores were not granted anything like a true heroic status in the popular narratives descending from Cooper. Yet Dallas is portrayed here as blonde-beautiful and pitiable, not “dark and fiery” which had been the standard characterization for the type; further, despite her sexual history, she is framed and lit throughout the film (including a few beatifically glowing close-ups) in the ways that traditionally signify feminine virtue. Both the visual coding and the verbal script of Stagecoach treat Dallas as if she were in fact the standard heroine of the American mythos: that innocent virgin who, threatened by marauding savages or bandits, must be rescued from harm by the lonesome hero. Doc, meanwhile, in a less radical deviation from type, is a cheerful and charmingly eloquent drunk, someone whose ironic temperament protects him from life’s reversals, including his eviction and the social censure that accompanies it.
Character evaluations inside narratives are always relative, and so our sympathy for these two outcasts is also enhanced by the film’s portrayal of their critics, Doc’s landlady and the Law and Order League, whose righteous hectoring is made to seem mean-spirited. That these harsh judges are women, and that the Law and Order League is led by Gatewood’s wife, are meaningful choices. Depending on manners and morals as well as formal laws, social authority has its feminine and masculine sides, and the corruption of Tonto’s social order is efficiently signaled by the fact that it has licensed both the cruelty of Mrs. Gatewood and the criminality of her husband.
Assembled in town, the first five passengers (Gatewood and Ringo have yet to board) are suddenly confronted by a crucial decision: they have just learned about the Apache uprising, and each must choose whether or not to risk the ride. As the drama requires, they all elect to go, and the stagecoach departs, the absconding Gatewood joining them on the sly when they reach the edge of town. Here the setting dramatically switches from Tonto’s streets, banks, saloons, and rooming houses to the open spaces of the untamed wilderness, the now iconic imagery of Monument Valley entering the nation’s consciousness for the first time. The tension is about rise in very familiar ways, but only after firmly establishing its interest in the moral dynamics of social standing does the film move into those contested spaces where the threat of violence will intensify the stakes. With just the coach itself and two isolated stations along the way as physical refuge, the makeshift society onboard must somehow survive this transitional passage through savage territory. Enter now the lonesome cowboy.
John Wayne’s character seals the deal on Ford’s radical revision of the generic Western, starting with his deliberate challenge to its pat equation of moral stature with social status. The Ringo Kid arrives on the scene in a manner that silently evokes the traditional frontier hero—that natural man who appears to emerge from the moral perfection of the wilderness itself—and, like Dallas, he is lit and framed throughout with a visual vocabulary that has conventionally signaled heroic status. But Ringo’s back-story confounds the usual expectations. Not only has he been given a tragic past—alone in the world now, his family has been killed by the three Plummer brothers; he also has been made a social outcast of the most severe sort. Unjustly convicted of murdering the Plummers’ foreman, Ringo has escaped from prison and is now on his way to Lordsburg to go after the Plummers themselves. An official outlaw, Ford’s lonesome hero is now determined to act outside the law again, and not to assist the needy but to exact a very private revenge. Unfortunately for Ringo, Curly is onboard, something he hadn’t anticipated. Rearrested by the marshal, he enters the coach and becomes the final member of its makeshift community. The equilibrium between its four original pairs—the working class, the old aristocracy, the new commercial bourgeoisie, and the socially disreputable—has been skewed, however: the officially scorned “two of a kind” have now become three, the deadbeat drunk and the town whore joined by a convicted murderer.
Ringo’s arrival completes Ford’s ironic inversion of the moral order. It’s not quite true here, to borrow from the Rolling Stones song, that “all the cops are criminals, and all the sinners, saints”—Curly, for example, as the cop onboard, displays a vigorous and empathetic moral intelligence throughout. But among the passengers, the officially designated sinners will prove themselves heroic by story’s end while the four purportedly respectable citizens will be shown as unworthy of their higher social standing. (As a “notorious gambler,” Hatfield can also be classified as a sinner, but given that his first act is quitting a game of cards to come Lucy’s aid, he has already reassumed the respectable role of the gallant gentleman.)
The key domestic trial for all onboard is how they treat Dallas, that fallen woman who has been recast by the film as an actual innocent. Under the standard duress the plot supplies, will she receive that chivalrous respect and allegiance, that self-sacrificial masculine protection due every damsel in distress—the same treatment, in fact, that Lucy receives? Doc, her fellow outcast and a genial social democrat, has been allied with Dallas from the opening scene. Ringo immediately addresses her as “ma’am,” and then continues to offer her the formal courtesies and social deference any lady should expect. The other passengers, however, those who are not of their “kind,” behave otherwise: the consistently obnoxious Gatewood scorns Dallas; Hatfield and Lucy, clinging to the inflexible judgments of the old social elite, deliberately snub her; and Peacock, the whiskey salesman, is too submissive at first to deviate from this consensus of the respectable classes.
Although we are directed to sympathize with Dallas and Doc from the start, the film’s combination of the traditional visual vocabulary of the heroic and an early demonstration of their democratic manners isn’t sufficient to make a convincing case that these official sinners are admirable rather than merely likeable human beings. The reasons behind their outcast status may have occurred off-stage, but they do still bear weight. Dallas has been the town whore; Doc has been a deadbeat drunk and, in fact, continues to drink from Peacock’s supplies while on the coach. These characters can only earn a respect separate from our sympathy through taking effective action under truly trying circumstances. The opportunity arises when Lucy goes into labor at the second way station, Apache Wells. There, Doc sobers up and performs like a medical professional, and despite having been snubbed by Lucy, Dallas also comes to her aid, assisting in the delivery and then ably caring for the weakened mother and her newborn baby. Both social outcasts redeem themselves during this most crucial of domestic occasions: assuring the safe arrival of the next generation.
The fact that Dallas has passed this dramatic test of character, shown to be both competent and compassionate in the womanly roles of nurse-companion and surrogate mother, then tests the other passengers in turn, giving each of them a chance to judge her anew. Ringo’s allegiance had already been secured, but it is only after seeing Dallas with Lucy’s baby that he proposes that they run away together, a fugitive couple and future parents themselves. Of those who had shunned her, Gatewood remains offensively self-centered and Hatfield obsessed with protecting Lucy alone. Lucy herself briefly acknowledges Dallas’s help, but she will never dare to associate with her once they have returned to the civilized world with its Blue Law opinions, its fixed ranks and roles. Of the socially respectable, only Peacock, the meek salesman, passes this secondary test of moral recognition and change, and even he appears to have the advantage of ignorance—that is, as a stranger to Tonto, he seems unaware of Dallas’s disreputable past. In any case, a parent himself and a man of genuine “family values,” he overtly admires Dallas’s performance under pressure: her domestic equivalent of saving the day. So it is that, although the most submissive and silent of the men, he is the one who intervenes when, back onboard, the bickering begins again. Glancing at Dallas and the baby she holds, Peacock chastises the group with an opinion that clearly aligns with the filmmaker’s own. “Let’s not forget the ladies,” he says, his use of the plural signaling his acceptance of Dallas as Lucy’s social equal, adding then: “Can’t we all show a little Christian charity one to another?”
With their overt reminder of how much the established order has deviated from its ethical heritage, those words mark the end of the first and longest movement in the film’s complex narrative. During this phase, whose climax is the birth and its aftermath, Ford and his screenwriter Dudley Nichols have exploited the suspense generated by the threat of an Apache attack to focus instead on the genteel side of heroic behavior. They have utilized a standard plot device from the old genre to test the virtues of domesticity, dramatizing the ongoing tension between actual moral stature and official social status. The stagecoach has become a trope for frontier settlement itself, its diverse group of strangers forced into an alliance by their dangerous isolation in the wilderness.
In such places, inherited status and the fixed rule of law become irrelevant. Without Law and Order Leagues and armed cavalry to enforce virtuous behavior, formal rank and fixed routines must give way to meritorious improvisation. After the birth, all the passengers are challenged anew to prove their domestic moral stature—that is, their true gentility—and with the exception of Peacock, the formally respectable passengers prove either inadequate or offensive, while the erstwhile social “dregs” (Dallas, Doc, and Ringo) rise to the occasion. The test of Ringo’s true gentility, however, is not yet complete. In a clever touch, Ford and Nichols utilize the traditionally chaste characterization descending from Cooper, the lonesome hero as sexual innocent, to extend the suspense. Like Peacock but not Doc, Hatfield, Lucy and Gatewood, Ringo is unaware of Dallas’s sexual history, and so his chivalrous devotion to her has yet be tried in the full light of the truth. Enter now the hostile natives.
Once Ford finally commits to unleashing the violence he has so long delayed, he embraces and outdoes every cliché associated with this action genre. Reentering the open wilderness from the second outpost, the stagecoach is attacked by an Apache war party on horseback, and the film then depicts, with a visual flair unmatched in its day, the now standard chase scene. Once again red savages pursue white settlers who fire at them from inside and atop the coach with amazing accuracy. Once again the anarchy of frontier war has been carefully staged to both thrill and reassure, the scene jump-cutting between clouds of hoof-pounded dust, whistling arrows, bursts of gunfire, and astounding stunts as slain Apaches are hurled from their galloping horses. Just as the domestic dimension of heroic virtue was tried by the birth and its aftermath, its virile side is now severely tested by the attack. Dallas holds and protects the baby while Lucy either leans helplessly against the door or silently prays. Ringo and Doc defend their group by aggressively and accurately shooting their attackers, as does Hatfield until he is slain. Although it is impossible to imagine Peacock as an effective fighter even if healthy, he is wounded at the very start of the battle, and for all his bullying bluster, Gatewood panics and has to be knocked out by Doc.
The various performances of the male passengers during this martial crisis are clearly differentiated, then, along the same class lines that were established in the opening scenes. The apparent sinners, Doc and Ringo, prove to be virile saints. Hatfield also fights like a warrior, but as the representative of a passing aristocracy, he and his now antiquated code of honor must die. Meanwhile, the commercial class, the new postwar elite, utterly fails this second and traditional heroic test, that of virile effectiveness. Neither of its two representatives, the sweet but unmanly salesman or the corrupt, cowardly banker, can defend his endangered community.
The day is saved for white civilization as our foundational myth requires, but Ford makes sure that the rescue follows the double track he has so carefully prepared, linking the heroism of the exceptional individual to the cooperative heroics of the group. In the most thrilling single act (and the benchmark for film stunt-work for years to come), Ringo jumps on the backs of the coach’s horses to redirect the runaway team after the wounded Buck has dropped their reins. But the group’s survival has depended as well on Curly’s shooting and leadership, Buck’s driving, and Doc and Hatfield’s effective fighting. And, as it turns out, this small improvisational community must also depend on the established one they have left behind. Despite their individual and collective heroics, the group runs out of ammunition and is about to be captured or killed when the U.S. cavalry arrives, just as the formula prescribes, “in the nick of time.” The stagecoach, with its two damsels in distress, has been rescued not only by the lonesome hero, but also by the cooperative actions of this makeshift community and by society’s most advanced form of organized virility, a national army. In the script’s complex rendering of frontier conflict, all three have been required to save the day.
Nor are we finished once the Apaches have been defeated. The film immediately cuts to Lordsburg where both the genteel and virile dimensions of heroic virtue will be tested anew. Ever the invalid, still incapable, it seems, of even holding her baby, a stretcher-borne Lucy weakly thanks Dallas but with the clear implication that she will not have the courage to continue their relationship now that they are back in society with its uncharitable biases against her “kind.” By contrast, the wounded Peacock invites Dallas to visit his family in Kansas City at some future date. No virile hero, he remains something of a genteel one, yet it is doubtful even now that he knows the details of Dallas’s past so that his acceptance of her, while admirable, hasn’t been fully tested. Appreciative of Ringo’s bravery in battle and no admirer of the Plummer brothers, Curly now weighs duty against justice and decides to honor the spirit of the law over its letter. Pledged to turn Ringo in, the marshal nevertheless allows the Kid to seek his just revenge first, even lending Ringo his own rifle.
These rapidly executed decisions and the moral evaluations they imply set the stage for the film’s final and double climax. A script which, up until this point, has treated the traditional lonesome hero in a remarkably egalitarian fashion now focuses on the Ringo Kid alone, forcing him to face two tests of heroic virtue on his own. Will Ringo be able to exact his revenge on the Plummer brothers (the trial of virile prowess on behalf of blood loyalty and social justice)? And will he remain true to his damsel in distress even after learning about her sexual past (the test of chivalrous fidelity as it has been completely reimagined by Ford and Nichols)?
The makers of Stagecoach may have radically amended the ethical compass descending from Cooper on specific social subjects, but as the film’s last act demonstrates, they were also committed to conserving the moral perfection of his lonesome hero. Natty Bumppo’s infallible martial and moral accuracy is transcribed unchanged from eighteenth-century upstate New York to the Arizona Territory of 1885. Although the battle is three on one and Ringo only has just that many bullets to get the job done, he successfully kills all the Plummer brothers. (Hawkeye, indeed!) Likewise, he doesn’t flinch when Dallas’s past becomes clear, repeating his marriage proposal instead. And just as Ringo keeps his word to Dallas, he then honors his previous promise to the marshal by turning himself in after his revenge is complete. (Straight-Tongue, indeed!) His exemplary behavior is then rewarded when, still favoring the spirit of justice over the letter of the law, Curly chooses to set him free.
Once again, America’s lonesome hero rides out of town at the end of the day—but this time he’s on a buckboard, not a silver steed; accompanied by his wife to be rather than a noble native sidekick; and by a wife to be who, far from the aristocratic and virginal Alice Munro, has been a social outcast and a sexual pro. Once again, too, America’s hero returns to the wilderness. They are heading for Ringo’s isolated ranch “across the Border,” a destination capitalized in Nichols’ script to emphasize its allegorical resonance. They are fleeing to that edenic place, beyond the reach of inept laws and unChristian social snobs, where mere rank can’t trump actual merit—where, in Doc’s wry words, they will be “saved from the blessings of civilization.”
Marrying Innovation to Conservation
Although a remarkable aesthetic achievement in its own right, Stagecoach has merited an extended analysis here because of the adept ways in which it both revives and reforms our foundational story. Not only had the old narrative formula for frontier heroics become rote and unreflective by 1939; America itself had dramatically changed in the nearly ninety years since Cooper’s death. The end of slavery, the long decline of the landed aristocracy and the associated rise of capitalism’s moneyed classes, the emergence of consumerism with its antipuritanical ethos of appetitive pleasure and sexual license, the adoption of women’s suffrage and allied changes in gender roles and expectations, the reinterpretation of human origins and motives posed by Darwinian evolution and Freudian psychology: facing such a radical transformation in the pace, shape, and commonsense understanding of everyday life, the nation’s traditional self-conception also had to change, and in ways that were mythically imagined as well as rationally legislated. Like its judicial interpretations, America’s foundational story had to somehow marry these emergent features of modern experience with the “original intentions” of a cultural identity that was first coalescing in the 1820s. This is precisely what Stagecoach achieves, “saving the appearances” of contemporary values within the old mythic frame first fashioned by Cooper
In the most obvious change, Stagecoach frees feminine virtue from the traditional demands of sexual innocence. That inflexible standard was enforced by Cooper at the end of The Deerslayer when Leatherstocking rejects the beautiful Judith Hutter because she has been too flirtatious with the officers of a nearby garrison—because she has “a reputation.” Judith promises to change and has, in fact, proved valiant in resisting those attacks by hostile Hurons that constitute the book’s central drama: although not without flaws, she has behaved admirably under duress. But in Cooper’s moral field, with its Romantic belief in the primacy of inner gifts and its categorical divisions of right and wrong, individuals must express their own given moral nature: character is fate. Rather than dramatize the potential for redemptive change, the Leatherstocking books enact the necessary fulfillment of individual and tribal destinies, an interpretation of human nature that is then strictly applied to women’s sexual behavior. Cooper is so intent on justifying his hero’s rejection of Judith Hutter that the novel ends by projecting a distant future in which, her fall now complete, she is rumored to have become an officer’s “kept woman.” As she once was, the old myth insists, so shall she ever be.
By endorsing its chaste hero’s marriage to a woman with a sexually active past, Stagecoach boldly reverses that ending, and although that change is obviously minding significant shifts in the sexual mores of the new American place of 1939, it also reflects a more inclusive insistence on the possibilities for redemption. Dallas, after all, has been defined as a “kind”; she belongs to a class of social outcasts that includes Doc, whose sins against the established order are of a different sort. Where Cooper’s frontier had been a sphere in which separate moral destinies, as driven by inner gifts, must play themselves out, the American wilderness in Stagecoach has been reconceived as a natural arena for the second chance, a new land of opportunity for remaking oneself rather than merely striking it rich. In a democratic reading of human nature, the self’s Romantic destiny has been replaced by the self’s moral freedom. The road between Tonto and Lordsburg is a place of self-determined transformation where the notorious gambler can become a gallant gentleman again, the whore a heroine, the deadbeat drunk a life-saving physician.
The collective result of these individual transformations inevitably challenges the class biases implicit throughout the Leatherstocking tales. Cooper was born into a pro-revolutionary but nevertheless upper-class family, his father a founder and leader of Cooperstown, New York. After the Revolution, elite families like the Coopers faced the ironic threat that the same democratic principles which had justified the overthrow of the British monarchy might be reapplied against their own authority. As one of the key anxieties of the post revolutionary period, this class conflict naturally infiltrates the Leatherstocking tales—which, like all historical romances, imagine a fictive past to address current social tensions—and unsurprisingly given their author’s background, they are intent on legitimizing the reigning social hierarchy. So it is that just as the strictly segregated good and bad Indians on Cooper’s fictive frontier are defined according to their tribal affiliation (Chingachgook’s Mohicans versus Magua’s Hurons), the moral stature of his white characters is determined by their attitude toward the established order. One way or another, Cooper’s white villains—the demagogic Sheriff in The Pioneers, the anarchic Bush clan in The Prairie—all defy the legitimacy of the social hierarchy while his white heroes are either upper-class themselves or men of lower standing who, nevertheless, gladly serve the cause of their social betters.
Even as it borrows heavily from the Leatherstocking saga’s pattern of class conflicts, then, Stagecoach reverses the poles of Cooper’s allegiances by highlighting the corruption of the established order. As an officer of the law, Curly would seem to be the notable exception, yet to side with justice, as heroes must, forces him to break the law by setting Ringo free. After he does, and just after Doc wryly observes that Ringo and Dallas have been “saved from the blessings of civilization,” the marshal chooses to remove his badge: he is apparently resigning from office, as he indeed he must, for in Ford’s revision of our frontier myth, one cannot behave honorably and still retain one’s formal social status.
This deeply pessimistic reading of the social order coexists ironically with an optimistic vision of individual redemption, as powerfully exemplified by Doc and Dallas’s self-transformation from Tonto’s social dregs to heroes in the wilderness. As such, Stagecoach recalls Emerson’s views on the heroic, where an overt contempt for social mediation and conformity is used to frame by contrast an enthusiastic belief in the possibility for individual greatness. But John Ford is not a Romantic transcendentalist writing secular sermons intended to inspire the educated class to spiritual self-improvement; he is a populist storyteller, thinking through imagery and narrative, drawing on a mythic legacy descending from Cooper. And in Cooper’s mythic world “the blessings of civilization” are blessings, even if Hawkeye has to flee them at story’s end. Neither Duncan Heyward nor his grandson Capt. Middleton in The Prairie must resign his high rank to do the right thing; in Cooper’s fictive world, the apparently contradictory values of his co-protagonists, the hunter-scout and the gentleman officer, are idealized and endorsed alike. The two cooperate effectively during the crisis, after which, their contradictions tacitly acknowledged, they are permitted to retire to their very separate but equally admirable spheres.
A century later, the separation still occurs but the moral equality has disappeared, respectable society reconceived as morally debased. Such a critique was a risky enterprise in a Hollywood studio system whose industrial specifications demanded upbeat endings and effusive patriotism. But even as it appears to meet those rigid specifications—the white settlers triumphing over the red savages with the assistance of the U.S. cavalry; the white villains either punished or killed; the plucky American woman winning the affections of the West’s white knight—Stagecoach deftly subverts their robotic optimism. It does so by simultaneously depicting an American civilization whose blessings include social snobbery, puritanical intolerance, white-collar corruption, and rank injustice; whose best women are too weak to care for their children, best men too meek to defend their community.
The new “appearances” that this artful movie “saves” within the old mythic frame are as darkly shadowed, then, as the photography of Lordsburg in its final scenes. The good cannot survive inside a social order whose honest officers are forced to resign if they want to act justly. Meritocratic egalitarianism and Christian charity, the traditional sources of American virtue, can only thrive on the outside, during that dangerous journey between settled towns; they are most at home on the stagecoach itself, that fictive embodiment of the frontier spirit. But the year is 1885, Geronimo’s uprising is among the last of the native revolts, railroads have already replaced stagecoaches in many locales, and the Western frontier is about to close. If the moral challenges of isolation and endangerment are necessary to sustain American virtue, how can it survive the ironic success of the frontier’s conquest? And if the mythic bargain between radical individualism and communal loyalty, so key to the nation’s moral identity, requires that our self-reliant hero return to the wilderness after saving the day, where can he go now?
In the film, he has to retreat “across the Border”—which, given its setting in the Arizona Territory, suggests an actual place as well as an allegorical one. Ringo’s ranch is likely in Mexico. In a film energized by many ironies, this might be the fiercest one of all: in John Ford’s revival of our frontier myth, America’s foundational hero not only must ride out of town at the end of the day; he is forced to flee America itself.
As complex a work as Stagecoach is, saving all of the new appearances of modern experience within the complete mythic frame descending from Cooper was beyond the plausible reach of any single film. Of those central tensions that animate the Leatherstocking saga and that have been so central to the dynamics of our national character—the stressful interplay between the virile and genteel dimensions of heroic virtue, between radical self-reliance and communal loyalty, and between an attraction to and a fear of the racial or ethnic other—the last receives the least attention and no real transformation in Ford’s renewed Western. In a script intensely focused on the communal drama of moral stature versus social status in the purely white spheres of town and stagecoach, none of the major characters is Native American. Although his path is a hard one indeed, Ford’s Hawkeye doesn’t also have to negotiate that tricky moral and emotional boundary between admiring and abhorring “savage ways.” Ringo has no Chingachgook to befriend and assist, no individualized Magua to loathe and kill. Geronimo hasn’t a word in the script: he is less a character than an abstract sign for Savage Menace, his Apache war party but the external threat necessary to test the virtues of the whites. And the explosive issue of miscegenation, so earnestly condemned in The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans, has been pushed to the margins here instead, relegated to minor characters and comic subplots. There are, in fact, two mixed marriages in Stagecoach, but both are treated with a light mockery that trivializes Cooper’s racialist biases even as it endorses them.
Another key feature of the old myth that the film conserves is its highly idealized portrait of the lonesome hero. In Cooper’s romances, all the characters reflect allegorical types. Those inner conflicts that so often complicate moral choices have been segregated and externalized, so that to find the full range of human emotions and motives one has to survey the entire cast rather than plumb the depths of any single complex character. Unlike some other myths, then, Cooper’s doesn’t focus on the inner transformation of the questing self into the higher plane of heroic status—no Hamlet here. Natty Bumppo doesn’t become the exemplary American man; he simply is that man, expressing and enacting his innate virtues again and again. So, too, with the Ringo Kid— which is why his character is only nominally of the same kind as his allies in the film. Although all three have been labeled as Tonto’s dregs and are victims of social prejudice, Doc and Dallas at least have been judged by their community for what they have actually done. They possess flaws that we sympathetically understand and then forgive, a forgiveness well-earned by their heroic performances in the wilderness, whereas Ringo has nothing to be forgiven for. Because his conviction for murder was based on perjury, the flaw to be corrected in his case resides in a corrupt judicial system—yet another blessing of civilization.
And although Ford’s hero has been doubly victimized—his family murdered, himself imprisoned—Ringo’s moral perfection is matched by and wed to his psychological tranquility. Unlike Doc, whose good nature is shielded by a world-weary irony, and Dallas, who is visibly hurt and defensive at the start, Ringo dons no emotional armor and exhibits no woundedness. Not only are his actions always right and good, so too are his unconflicted moods: respectful of Curly’s authority even though the law has “done him wrong,” cheerful and polite to his fellow passengers even after being rearrested, determined to exact his just revenge but without Achilles’ rage or Ahab’s bitterness. Like the Lone Ranger, Ringo has been given a tragic past absent the inner torments of a tragic temperament. His psyche has been spared the pernicious effects of unjust violence, a danger captured by Simone Weil’s arresting imagery: But except for souls which are fairly close to saintliness, the victims are defiled by force, just as their tormentors are. The evil which is in the handle of the sword is transmitted to its point.
Ringo has not been defiled by the force of his tormentors’ swords because, more than “fairly close,” he fully replicates the role of masculine saintliness that Cooper had codified in the figure of Leatherstocking. Although they are his co-protagonists and heroic in their own way, Ringo is not really of Doc and Dallas’s psychological kind because he is not of their aesthetic type. His costume may have changed, but Ford’s hero remains that “straight-tongue” who never lies, that “hawkeye” who never misses an enemy target, that “pathfinder” who unerringly discovers the right way. As someone who already and naturally is rather than becomes heroically virtuous, Ringo is a fictive figure fashioned according to the standards of early nineteenth-century Romantic idealism inhabiting a new narrative environment increasingly attuned to the social criticism and psychological realism of a modernizing world.
Within the film, then, Ringo is at once a traditional and an anomalous figure. At the time of its release in 1939, he served as a kind of moral place-holder whose familiarity reassured the era’s audience by embodying a specific set of heroic qualities they knew by heart, and this conservative continuity was then exploited by Ford to introduce selected elements of significant change—those new appearances, ethical and aesthetic, that he wished to save. In the film, Ringo remains as morally perfect as Natty Bumppo, but perfection itself has been redefined in crucial ways, reversing both Cooper’s endorsement of the social hierarchy and his condemnation of Judith Hutter. That America’s white knight now accepts as his bride a woman who can’t wear white, a woman with “a reputation,” represents a significant shift in the moral compass of our foundational myth, and because the action is allegorical as well as literal, this change has implications beyond the sexual sphere. Through marrying Dallas, Ringo is not just accepting her sexual past but also embracing a different conception of the heroic character. He is freely choosing to wed the heroism of the wounded, the damaged, the socially rejected; his story of moral perfection and psychological immunity is joining her story of self-transformation through the democratic drama of the second chance.
Many children would be born from this cinematic marriage of Romantic idealism to social and psychological realism. John Ford repeatedly returned to America’s lonesome hero in a Western setting, finding new angles for exploration and saving other new appearances from contemporary life within the old mythic frame: most remarkably in The Searchers (1956) where the very features that he conserved in Stagecoach—Cooper’s contempt for miscegenation and the moral infallibility of his lonesome hero—were the ones now targeted for reformation. And the success of Stagecoach inspired other talented directors, including Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, and John Huston, to work within the genre, creating an impressive body of Western films and leading as well to a twenty year domination of primetime television.
But by 1975 when CBS’s Gunsmoke went off the air, the adult Western had been exhausted as a meaningful form, and was being be replaced in popularity by police and law procedurals, modern medical dramas, and—after the first of The Godfather films—by the surprising revival of the gangster story in the new guise of the mafia mythos. Even in their most updated versions, the carefully crafted character types and repetitive plots of Cooper’s myth were ceasing to work as credible metaphors for the primary tensions of everyday life. Not only had the frontier been closed for nearly a century; our fully industrialized economy had made the challenges of a liberated individualism increasingly irrelevant. In a nation of wage employees subsumed by corporate and governmental bureaucracies, the lonesome hero was becoming, at best, a figure of nostalgic denial. The once crucial mythic mission of civilizing the rugged outsider had been reduced to a moot issue when the outside itself was disappearing.
In a narrative equivalent to the shift from an earth- to a sun-centered universe, “saving the appearances” of contemporary experience now required a categorical revision of the mythic template. So it was that in the new novels, films and TV shows, both the good cop and the bad mafioso found themselves entangled within social hierarchies. After saving the day, the crime-solving detective still had to type up his bureaucratic reports, the daring surgeon defend his actions before a review board; even the American spy now worked for the so-called Company while the brutal hit man had to submissively kiss the cheek of his don, who was himself weighed down by multiple “family” obligations. The relationship of Hawkeye and Chingachgook did faintly survive in the form of the buddy film, but its white and black co-protagonists were also forced to operate within the System, and as if tacitly confessing their decline into anachronism, these works often assumed a tone of light self-mockery that was incompatible with the old hero’s story. In the day’s most popular narratives, as in postmodern life itself, there was no liberating Border to flee across, no riding out of town at the end of the day. Now that the open spaces between the new Tonto and Lordsburg had been paved over with strip malls and apartment complexes, the “blessings of civilization” were everywhere.
In retrospect, then, Kennedy’s proclamation of the New Frontier was only accurate in the crudest sense. Insomuch as the phrase was predicting the imminent challenges of substantial change, it did hold true for an era that would be characterized by a dramatic revision in our collective understanding of the good and the true. But the very nature of that transformation was also one that would render the specific terms and tropes of our frontier myth obsolete. Where Cooper had preached sexual innocence and, even while praising the noble savage’s alliance with the frontier scout, had insisted on the ultimate separation of the races, the sixties would bring an end to legally sanctioned segregation and (completing Ford’s revision) destigmatize sexual license for women as well as men. While alienation was a common experience in the postwar years, the serene isolation that Natty Bumppo cherished was becoming less and less possible in an age of pervasive cameras, and invasive news: a shift in the nature of everyday life that first became evident in the events surrounding Kennedy’s own death, when the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald was broadcast live and so witnessed in real time by millions of Americans. And these actual features of the ironically named New Frontier only intensified in the ensuing years, so that today—when the image of the nation’s current president supplies a daily endorsement of miscegenation; when the wilderness itself, in order to be saved, has to be fenced in; and when the old celebration of lonesomeness has been superseded by the new imperative of social networking—the specific images and actions of Cooper’s once powerful narrative have ceased to resonate in any meaningful way.
The exploration of outer space might seem to be the one exception, yet even the moon program launched by JFK proved detrimental in the end to the commonsense conceptions enfolded within our foundational myth. For our entry into this latest untamed wilderness, so alien to all races and nations, didn’t really provide a new land of opportunity for plausible settlement, and the most meaningful product gained so far has not been NASA’s collection of lunar rocks but the iconic image of the Earth itself—that lovely yet all too lonely pearl surrounded by airless and icy space. Through projecting ourselves outward, we had unexpectedly acquired a new perspective on our point of origin. For the first time then, we could see our planetary home as a discrete unit, an indivisible whole, its perpetual spinning an acute reminder that what goes around does come around, and so, too, a tacit refutation of the linear logic of endless expansion that had characterized our original romance with frontier settlement.
And the patriotic pride that accompanied winning the race to the moon was oddly undermined by an image which, so self-contained and isolated, seemed to render commonsensical the necessity of viewing all nations, and indeed all living creatures, as belonging to, and dependent on, the same circumscribing biosphere. On the verge of its apparent realization, the escapist dream of colonizing space had spurred a counter recognition: that we were all passengers alike on a planetary stagecoach, one whose fragile enclosure was our only refuge in a truly hostile wild. To save this unexpected appearance would require of us, then, a categorical reconception of the meaning of community. From family to clan to linguistic tribe to formal kingdoms and modern nation-states, here was the next necessary phase in the transformation of our self-understanding: the admission of our kinship on a fully global scale.
For all our international treaties and trade, we have yet to complete that difficult mission. As the postmodern equivalent of the printing press, our digitized media do supply the means for a transnational participation in events. But to be made collectively memorable—which is to say, meaningful—the news of the day must be mythologized, and we still await the next generation of foundational stories: a new mythos which, e pluribus unum, can artfully rescript the space-age contentions of a polyglot humanity into the campfire consensus of the old fraternal tribe.
(Originally published in “The Georgia Review”)