Welcome to The Valve

Valve Links

The Front Page
Statement of Purpose

John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Advanced Search

RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom


Powered by Expression Engine
Logo by John Holbo

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.



About Last Night
Academic Splat
Amardeep Singh
Bemsha Swing
Bitch. Ph.D.
Blogging the Renaissance
Butterflies & Wheels
Cahiers de Corey
Category D
Charlotte Street
Cheeky Prof
Chekhov’s Mistress
Chrononautic Log
Cogito, ergo Zoom
Collected Miscellany
Completely Futile
Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind
Conversational Reading
Critical Mass
Crooked Timber
Culture Cat
Culture Industry
Early Modern Notes
Easily Distracted
fait accompi
Ferule & Fescue
Ghost in the Wire
Giornale Nuovo
God of the Machine
Golden Rule Jones
Grumpy Old Bookman
Ideas of Imperfection
In Favor of Thinking
In Medias Res
Inside Higher Ed
jane dark’s sugarhigh!
John & Belle Have A Blog
John Crowley
Jonathan Goodwin
Kathryn Cramer
Languor Management
Light Reading
Like Anna Karina’s Sweater
Lime Tree
Limited Inc.
Long Pauses
Long Story, Short Pier
Long Sunday
Making Light
Maud Newton
Michael Berube
Motime Like the Present
Narrow Shore
Neil Gaiman
Old Hag
Open University
Pas au-delà
Planned Obsolescence
Quick Study
Rake’s Progress
Reader of depressing books
Reading Room
Reassigned Time
Reeling and Writhing
Return of the Reluctant
Say Something Wonderful
Shaken & Stirred
Silliman’s Blog
Slaves of Academe
Sorrow at Sills Bend
Sounds & Fury
Stochastic Bookmark
Tenured Radical
the Diaries of Franz Kafka
The Elegant Variation
The Home and the World
The Intersection
The Litblog Co-Op
The Literary Saloon
The Literary Thug
The Little Professor
The Midnight Bell
The Mumpsimus
The Pinocchio Theory
The Reading Experience
The Salt-Box
The Weblog
This Public Address
This Space: The Fire’s Blog
Thoughts, Arguments & Rants
Tingle Alley
University Diaries
Unqualified Offerings
What Now?
William Gibson

Monday, March 31, 2008

Cowboy Realism and Cowboy Presidents

Posted by Aaron Bady on 03/31/08 at 11:37 AM

I’m very happy to have been invited to contribute to the Valve! So let me just say thanks to Scott and the rest of the regulars, and get on with it.

I think it’s safe to say that HBO’s Deadwood first got a lot of attention for its foul language. I still haven’t seen the dad-blamed show, consarn it. But the “cowboys who swear a lot” meme is interesting, independent of whatever other virtues the show may have. After all, it’s not like the idea of cowpunchers swearing is unexpected; HBO’s own narrative stressed that colorful language is just one more of the harsh truths from which our tender sensibilities have hitherto been shielded by protectors of public decency. “Old” Bonanza style cowboy shows were idealized and stylized, airbrushed, brushed down, and cleaned up, but Deadwood, they tell us, is a step forward for gritty realism, a cowboy show unafraid to show us how it really was.

Whether or not cowboys actually cursed, I haven’t the faintest interest or idea. But I do know this: the good folks at HBO who made Deadwood weren’t the first to make cowboy cursing into a literary trope, by a long shot. Owen Wister was both the most important early popularizer of the “cowboy” genre and he made the “unprintable” into a generic convention of the Western. Early on in The Virginian (1904), for example, one of the first things that Wister’s narrator notices about the novel’s eponymous hero is the way his friends curse him to his face while his enemies do so at their peril. For example, and famously, when the amiable Steve calls the Virginian a “son-of-a----” (with the unprintable represented by the hyphens), Wister’s narrator, an Easterner naïve to the ways of the West, is astonished by the lack of reaction, writing: 

“I had expected that the man would be struck down. He had used to the Virginian a term of heaviest insult, I thought. I had marveled to hear it come so unheralded from Steve’s friendly lips. And now I marveled still more. Evidently he had meant no harm by it, and evidently no offense had been taken. Used thus, this language was plainly complementary. I had stepped into a world new to me indeed, and novelties were occurring with scarce any time to get breath between them…”

To complete the narrator’s education, a few pages later, the Virginian draws his pistol on the miscreant Trampas, for daring to use exactly the same (again, unprinted) term, and utters the much imitated line “When you call me that, smile.” Musing on the marvels of this new world opening up before him (as he perpetually does throughout the novel), the narrator remarks: “So I perceived a new example of the old truth that the letter means nothing until the spirit gives it life.”

It’s a short passage, a grace note in a cowboy opera not known for its grace. But here, in microcosm, is the more basic problem that pervades the novel, the relationship between the Eastern tenderfoot and the Virginian himself: while the former is mockingly called “The Prince of Wales” (a thinly veiled stand-in for the Harvard educated Wister himself) and, as such, clearly does not fit in, the Virginian is completely at home in Wyoming, out on the farthest expanse of the American empire. How is a writer like Wister to make sense of an unprintable character like the Virginian?

Part of it is that the Virginian is not just any old cowboy: he’s a Virginian, an unreconstructed southerner, perhaps the first in a tradition of lost cause holdouts that stretches from John Wayne in The Searchers to Clint Eastwood in The Outlaw Josie Wales to, more recently, Mal Reynolds in Firefly. These characters are “unprintable” in the sense that they refuse to be absorbed into the reigning order, romantic figures for their stubborn refusal to be cleaned up. But this “unprintable” quality also becomes a figure for the West as a whole, for the thing about cowboys that fascinates the narrator, and for the thing about the West that makes it more American than America itself.

On the one hand, therefore, the novel takes as its task the classic evangelical quest to civilize the West: not only is the Virginian naturally drawn to romance with a schoolteacher, but his implausible friendship with the ultra literate narrator results in much implausible reading of books. An unprintable character, in this sense, becomes printed. Yet, on the other hand, the novel cannot let go of the character as holdout either. As in the movie version (where Gary Cooper stars), the problem is how to reconcile the “natural” violence of the lynch-law West (by a confederate, not insignificantly) with civilization’s distaste for such gritty realism. While the Virginian’s schoolmarm abhors the necessity of killing the villainous Trampas (not insignificantly, a name which is emphasized as foreign), the novel teaches that this is simply how things must be done “out there.” What is unprintable and unmentionable in the East is simply the way of things out in this world new to our narrator. The narrator is therefore given to reflections like “What world am I in? Does this same planet hold Fifth Avenue?” But it is also quite clear that (just as the schoolmarm also requires him to kill Trampas to prove his manhood) so too does the narrator come to see the West, embodied by the un-printable and un-reconcilable Virginian, as the real America, his real native land.

There is, in other words, something about a very paradoxical printing of the unprintable that sits at the very root of the Western genre, long before HBO got excited by the idea. Or, perhaps, to put it another way, so many of the most classic Western themes--domesticating the wild, civilizing the savage, and the retreat of the frontier--find a powerful allegory in the very drama of printing the unprintable: while the swear word’s unacceptability makes it unavailable for consumption by cultivated Easterners, it is the voyeuristic fascination with the thing that can’t be recuperated that draws in that very same audience. Natty Bumppo is always one step ahead of civilization, like John Wayne in Stagecoach, and, like all those unreconstructed confederates, it is the very forbiddenness of the thing, its refusal to be brought into the Union, that made it such a potent symbol for the eternal out-law, since paradoxically become a classically “American” symbol.

For Wister, the figure of Theodore Roosevelt--to whom he dedicated the book--looms large over The Virginian. And just as Wister places the implausible friendship between the Virginian and his Eastern narrator at the center of the novel (formed over an ailing hen, of all things), part of Roosevelt’s particular genius was his ability to perform this kind of unification drama through his own political personae. A Harvard educated blue-blood, welcome in the highest of societies, T.R. quite successfully re-invented himself as a Dakota cowboy (back when it was still a territory). He also addressed lingering divisiveness from the civil war by weaving reunion into this work of self fashioning: not only did his Southern mother marry a Northern man, but The Rough Riders, his mythology of the war of 1898, uses the figure of racial solidarity in the face of brown enemies to paper over divisions between south and north (in terms that should have been in David Blight’s wonderful Race and Reunion). As Amy Kaplan has also noted, the only important distinctions on San Juan Hill are white and black.

T.R. also made big-game hunting into something equivalent to the brush clearing fetish of our current president, but (unlike Arbusto) T.R. understood it as a kind of printing of the unprintable. When he shot animals in Africa, for example, he shot them for science and put their skins in the Smithsonian. When he went West, he did it so he could write books like the monumental The Winning of the West, which not only preceded and made possible Turner’s much more famous essay on the closing of the frontier, but also set the tone more generally for how the United States’ modernization would be culturally represented, as an event both inaugurated and culminated in writing. Yet the thing that people always seem to forget about Turner’s essay (and about the Western genre as a whole) is that it is already always about its own demise. The frontier takes on the meaning it does for people like Turner, Wister, and Roosevelt only after it’s been printed, which is to say only after its “unprintable” nature has been cast into sharp relief in the pages of The Atlantic Monthly, where The Virginian was first published.

Yet for all the continuities between our two blue-blood cowboy-presidents, there’s something very different about the ways they parade in chaps for the cameras, and to me it feels related to the difference between Deadwood and The Virginian. When T.R. fought a war, he turned it into a book, but the literature W will be remembered for is My Pet Goat. While Roosevelt was actually nearly tee-total, he never emphasized it, preferring to put forward an image of earthy, everyman lustiness, however controlled. W’s fundamentalism, on the other hand, puts the renunciation of fleshly desires at the very center of his personal narrative. And while “America” is, for T.R., a vexed and complex term (an identity still defined by the frontier that has already come to an end), W’s America is as simple as us and them. In other words, what was dialectical and complicated for Roosevelt has become Manichaean and simple. For T.R., the final closing of the frontier was something to be put off into as far into the future as possible (even to the extent of finding new frontiers in the Caribbean), but W’s narrative places renunciation at the beginning, the pre-condition for salvation and political agency. 

Perhaps the analogy is stretched; to what extent our current cowboy president bears any responsibility for how the cowboy genre has changed, I’m not willing or able to speculate. But I do wonder what it means when an obscenity becomes housebroken enough for television, when a flat “realism” displaces the unsettled paradox of myth. Not to valorize either, of course--who would look to Theodore Roosevelt for solutions to today’s problems?--but HBO is in some sense much more the Atlantic Monthly of our time than is even the Atlantic Monthly, as the obsession of we literati with shows like The Wire illustrates. And as Joseph Kugelmass’ post on The Wire pointed out, we are curiously incurious about the conventions of surveillance state realism that underpin that show. A text like The Virginian uses the knotty problematic of realism and representation as its metaphor for theorizing the West (and noir obsesses over the breakdown of faith in the possibility of detection in order to talk about “modernity”), but what does it mean if shows like The Wire and Deadwood take those simplified conventions of realism for granted, cleaving so close to the mimetic function of non-fiction? 


I’ve avoided the ongoing discussions of The Wire, Deadwood, and so on—figuring that they are probably examples of that evergreen species, the pop culture that academics like and that therefore must acquire importance in telling us something about contemporary society.

But your example here is specific enough so that I’d like to call attention to a potential counterexample.  How about John Carter of Mars, who first appears in 1911 or so?  He’s a Virginian, a former captain in the Southern cavalry, who strikes it rich in the West.  So he fits into this archetype.  There’s even a form of “unprintability” in that the characters with which he interacts are all supposed to go around nearly nude, leading to a lot of pulp cover art.  But all of this is merely the prelude to his adventures on Mars, which can’t comfortably fit into any specifically American narrative. 

It seems to me that we sometimes want these American stories to be about the specifically American context, when they really are about more or less archetypal adventure tropes.  The choice of genre functions as a limiting factor that helps to enable this.

By on 03/31/08 at 01:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, thank *you* for bringing that book to my attention! I didn’t know that character was a Virginian too, but I’m very glad to find it out (I’m writing on Burroughs’ Tarzan elsewhere)

But I don’t see it as a counterexample, really, just a very interesting addition to an archive of similar texts; after all, why is it that when Burroughs is writing about Mars it can’t be specifically American too? Tarzan of the Apes seems to me to be very concerned with post-reconstruction race politics in the United States, just displaced onto Africa. If that’s true then, why is the fact that John Carter is in space (instead of “Darkest Africa") necessarily take him out of that context either? Especially since the idea of space as a specifically *American* frontier becomes very common later in the twentieth century; what if it began earlier than that? There’s an awful lot I don’t know about sci-fi, but it seems to me to be a genre that has always been dominated by Americans, and there’s probably a reason for that.

By on 03/31/08 at 01:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

T.R. understood it as a kind of printing of the unprintable. When he shot animals in Africa, for example, he shot them for science and put their skins in the Smithsonian.

He also wrote at least one article for National Geographic, complete with photos of the carcasses of dead animals.

But I do wonder what it means when an obscenity becomes housebroken enough for television, when a flat “realism” displaces the unsettled paradox of myth.

Was it meant and taken as “unsettled paradox” at the time, or was it taken as real? As for Deadwood, the Wikipedia entries note how the show differs from historical reality (e.g. in the show, Charlie Utter was unkempt, but in reality he seems to have been a well-groomed swell). Beyond that, it seems to me that the baroque excess of its language and the explicitness of the violence strive to give the show a mythic quality that’s been drained from the traditional Western. You need to see the show; the descriptions do not convey its character.

By Bill Benzon on 03/31/08 at 01:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think it’s hard to tell what T.R. really meant by anything; as a politician, he used paradox and contradiction like a painter uses paint. He could get away with it because people perceived him as being much less complicated and strategic about it than he was (maybe the same way thinking Bush is dumb makes it easier for the brains behind “Bush” to make the persona work).

And I agree that I should see the show; I’m a little embarrassed to write about it not having seen it. But I’m much less interested here in the show itself than in the discourse *about* the show, which celebrates the show’s gritty realism as a departure from the a past that never really was (the point being that the Western has its origin in complex contradictory myth, not whitewashed fairy tales). Tab Gallagher has a wonderful essay on the Western genre, for example, where he illustrates how this game keeps getting played, how each generation imagines that its Westerns are realistic and anti-romantic, but can do so only by misunderstanding the complexities of the past Westerns.

By on 03/31/08 at 01:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Don’t know if cowboys cursed, but Mark Twain certainly did.  One of the major revisions he undertook on *Innocents Abroad* was to remove “coarse” language, under the guidance of one of the fine, middle-class ladies he met on board, whom he otherwise tended to satirize.  It doesn’t seem unreasonable to me that largely male communities in the West, removed from the “civilizing” influence of church and womanhood, would feature plenty of colorful language.

But as Bill points out, the dialogue of *Deadwood* is not some naturalist attempt to render some true American vernacular.  If anything, the language tends toward the Shakespearean or Jacobean.

By on 03/31/08 at 02:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"If that’s true then, why is the fact that John Carter is in space (instead of “Darkest Africa") necessarily take him out of that context either?”

Well, I agree with the analysis of Tarzan as being about post-reconstruction race politics in the United States (or, more precisely, I could imagine myself agreeing with such an argument, I could envision its first steps, etc.) But it’s more difficult to see what’s specifically American about Burrough’s Mars.  You could make it fit into a noble-savage framework if you had to—there’s certainly a good deal of that—but the noble savages co-exist with advanced but more or less decadent civilizations.  I think that it fits more naturally into a sort of American-goes-to-Europe tale than anything else; he’s more primitive than the civilized nations and less primitive than the outlying barbarians, so he can lead the civilized nations by virtue of his half-barbaric vigor, etc.

But I do think that widening the range of genres damages the thesis in some way, or at least changes it.  If writers at that time had a general fondness for Virginians in the West—if, for all I know, the bodice-rippers or the equivalent of the time were featuring similar characters—that makes this more of a stock character and less of a specifically “cowboy shows present an idealized narrative of America” figure.

By on 03/31/08 at 03:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Suck eggs” in Huckleberry Finn, etc. has to be a euphemism.

I’ve never read anything about frontier and rural secularism / iconoclasm / unchurched, but in the old days there was a lot of it.

By on 03/31/08 at 03:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment


By Ray Davis on 03/31/08 at 04:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ray’s link is apposite. And the cursing in Deadwood’s got noting to do with “gritty realism,” but with a kind of prayer, or song, or at least some Shakespearian surrealist impulse meant to decenter the real or the “natural” into the realm of art.

By on 03/31/08 at 05:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think Rich and Aaron are misunderstanding the way historicism works.  The question isn’t whether or Burroughs is somehow “commenting” on specifically American concerns through a Martian allegory.  Instead, via Foucault, we want to ask what were the discourses available to an American of Burroughs’s time for figuring foreign people, migration, travel, interracial contact, interracial marriage, etc.  And then we’d want to see how Burroughs’s tale of Martian travel relates to these discourses.  Finally, we’d want to ask how this field of discourse—how it defines what was sayable or unsayable at the define—relates to the ideological spectrum of Burroughs’s time.

The line from Cooper or Childs to Burroughs isn’t that far.  But this isn’t a matter of American exceptionalism.  Americans don’t automatically write about America.  But they share the worldviews of the people of their time and place.

By on 03/31/08 at 05:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph Duemer is on point about cursing in Deadwood - prayer indeed, enchantment, cantare, etc. Which, in turn, suggests the need for a parallel argument about other aspects of the show, such as the violence. It’s not simply about how much blood we’re shown, how many acts of violence we see, but how it’s stylized. And that’s likely a subtle and detailed argument to make.

FWIW, two incidents have occurred to me. One where Al Swearengen is (compulsively) attempting to wash a bloodstain from the floor of his office - after, I believe, the crippled errand-lady was unable to eradicate it. And then there’s all the yelling and screaming and holding down associated with the passing of Swearengen’s gallstone.

By Bill Benzon on 03/31/08 at 05:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Could it be that a goofy romance is sometimes just a goofy romance? I recall a scene in which John Carter and his Barzoomian wife gaze lovingly on the egg she’s just laid. Now that’s an interracial marriage!

By on 03/31/08 at 08:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not saying that Burroughs is automatically “commenting” on American concerns.  I’m saying that viewing cowboy stories as emblematic of America can sometimes be overinterpretation—that elements that occur in the cowboy genre sometimes seem to appear in many other genres of the time.

By on 03/31/08 at 10:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Obviously, not yet having seen Deadwood, I can’t comment on the show itself. But I’m still struck by how much of the talk *around* the show (if not here on the Valve) was about its realism, the way it showed the West as it really was. That may have been wrong (I’ll take your words that it was) but it’s still significant as a way of seeing how cowboy stories get marketed and perceived in the culture now. 

I like the “American-goes-to-Europe” reading of John Carter in Mars that you’re suggesting, or at least I want to see if it works. And I think that what you describe is very similar to how Burroughs thinks about America and Europe in Tarzan of the Apes: Tarzan himself is Lord Greystoke, of Anglo stock, but like Anglo-Americans more generally, his experience in the frontier (for him, in Africa) has given him the right kind of vitality to replace the enervated and dying British colonial empire.

Why can’t Burroughs be “commenting on specifically American concerns through a Martian allegory”? The kind of very anthropological approach you’re describing (where people like Burroughs are strictly limited to their worldviews, but we enlightened few survey and record them) and it doesn’t seem like the Foucault I know (or at least not a Foucault I like). Not to mention that there is more than one kind of historicism.

By on 03/31/08 at 10:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

True. But using the genericness of the cowboy story as a means for viewing larger cultural shifts (using genre as a control variable, as it were) is a way of making otherwise unwieldy critical distances more manageable. Maybe. And I think there is a certain level of continuty between TR and W’s use of the cowboy as trope for their presidencies, a continuity which makes the variations all the more striking. Or something.

By on 03/31/08 at 11:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Welcome Aaron!

To bring up a random swearing-related memory, I was struck when reading Jack London (I think Call of the Wild, but maybe White Fang) about the patterns of swearing vs. sad looks matching the travels between civilized and wilderness landscapes. But I haven’t read any of it in sooo long.

More topically, I would point out how this notion of the “unprintible” then “always already printed over and lost” West transforms the frontier into a blank page available for the scribbling on ---- and the trope of the New World as an uninhabited blank enabled Americans to continually drive out or kill the native inhabitants and assert themselves as the rightful owners.

By Sisyphus on 04/01/08 at 02:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, I’m not arguing that Burroughs isn’t commenting on specifically American issues.  I’m simply suggesting that even a writer like Poe, who seems consciously to resist American referents, can be historicized in such a way that we can see how his representational framework relates to that of other American (or non-American) writers of his time. 

And I don’t think people are “strictly limited” to some single worldview of their time.  I’m saying that at any time, there are several dominant and residual discourses.  News ideas emerge out of these discourses.  But a good historicist can connect new ideas back to the bits available for stitching together.

My point was that Burroughs intention (*that* again) doesn’t matter.  He may have been consciously not writing about America, but the way he constructs his worlds will be related to the ways that other Americans (and Europeans) thought about similar issues.

As far as cowboy lit being distinctly American, I agree with Rich.  Instead, we might say that cowboy lit is how a certain set of concerns across the West at this time takes shape in America.  Walter Benjamin writes about all sorts of Indian-tracking-style narratives that took hold of European fiction in the late 19th century.  They were reading Cooper, who read Scott.

By on 04/01/08 at 06:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry to complicate a think piece with specifics, but it’s hard for me to approach Deadwood‘s “grittiness” except as a genre question. Boobs, cussing, and spectacular violence are generic markers of the “HBO series,” straightforwardly derived from the “American R-rated movies” which were both a mainstay of HBO and Showtime and a mainstay of the professional education of the series-makers. In that earlier genre, blocked by ratings boards from showing anything like real sex, blocked by commercial considerations from showing anything like quotidian life, and blocked by ego from declasse influences like “women’s pictures”, those markers became oppressively ubiquitous from Roger Corman’s drive-in productions on up to socially-aware Oscar winners.

What’s uniquely interesting about the three most talked about HBO series aren’t their genre markers but how they deal with them. The Sopranos, being the most childish and derivative of the trio, clung to them most desparately: it’s a boy’s dream of a boy’s world. The Wire, being the most ambitious and self-consciously mature, struggled most against them. The pilot episode put me off: Did anyone really need another glorified account of a maverick cop who bucks the system? But that familiarity was just bait for HBO approval. Over time, Jimmy McNulty became just one character among many, the violence became less theatrical and less of a dramatic crutch, and the egregious titty bar disappeared. The cussing remains, more blatantly deployed by cops and politicians than by gangsters, but remains in a way that feels only a bit exaggerated: it’s used as a sign of group-inclusion, a cheap way to mark “us” vs. “them”. Deadwood works directly off the smaller subgenre of “American R-rated Westerns,” and some of its most interesting aspects are based on research, cussing included: miners were celebrated for their bad language, and perhaps the most firmly attested fact we have about Calamity Jane is her foul mouth. As with Twain’s swearing, details are scarce, and I suspect the dialog could use more archaisms and fewer “motherfuckers”, but it basically feels right to me. And like The Wire (and unlike The Virginian), Deadwood‘s a community story rather than a story about a lone cowboy.

While Teddy and W. make an interesting parallel, that’s no longer exactly a genre question: their compulsive need for blatant expressions of masculinity make them conspicuous among American presidents rather than nestling them comfortably against, say, Taft and Clinton. In both cases, intelligent observers (rightly) feared the long-term effects of their strutting. But, imperialism aside, their strutting took different forms, and neither form has much in common with the HBO series genre markers. Bush’s and Cheney’s cussing, for example, is generally reserved for attack mode: it’s directed at “them” (i.e., us) to let them know how little they matter. If you really want a parallel, though, Bush and Cheney probably come closer to Tony Soprano than to any major character on The Wire or Deadwood.

By Ray Davis on 04/01/08 at 08:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The Heart of Darkness is “cowboy lit” in this sense. Come to think of it, the town of Deadwood has a good deal in common with the Congo trading station described by Marlow.

By on 04/01/08 at 08:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

By the way, those interested in the “Tab Gallagher” essay (which sounds pretty sharp) should look for Tag Gallagher‘s “Shoot-out at the Genre Corral” in Film Genre Reader. Not on the web, god damn it all to hell.

By Ray Davis on 04/01/08 at 08:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

If I might offer a gloss on Ray’s most recent comment that also, I believe, is consistent with some of Aaron’s comments, we’re dealing with sets of conventions and, as such, a given set gets at least some of its force by contrast with alternative sets of conventions. The “HBO series” markers Ray points out function within alternative sets of markers typical of various venues. The presence of those markers may well be taken as indices of greater verisimilitude, but they can easily be used to other ends.

Realism is as much a matter of differential signification as it is of fidelity to the external world.

By Bill Benzon on 04/01/08 at 11:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well put, Bill.

I’ve got more blather, I’m afraid—I apologize if it seems too obvious to be worth reading....

Generically speaking, what seems most interesting about Deadwood is what seemed most interesting about Warlock. Despite sharing a filthy surface with movies like McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Dirty Little Billy, it’s not revisionist. Instead, it tries to imagine how non-revisionist Western characters might work in a realistically complex community.

Politically speaking, though, that community is the usual elegaic (because short-lived) libertarian fantasy of righteousness and villainy unencumbered by law or order. (The Wire‘s less generic version would be the Hamsterdam experiment.) Now it’s true that Roosevelt and Bush were and are expert manipulators of both law-and-order fantasies and untrammeled individualist fantasies, but that’s just to say they’re American politicians—I could say as much of Eisenhower or Clinton. And while Bush may be the most open scofflaw in presidential history, that doesn’t make him marshall. Kind of the opposite.

By Ray Davis on 04/01/08 at 12:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

On a hunch I googled “The Virginian” and discovered that, yes, it had been a TV series (1962-71) and I must have watched it in my youth, though I don’t have much recollection of it. A fellow named Paul Green has written a book about the series and made this statement in an interview about that book:

“The Virginian” has positive values. Family, friendship and community are important. Moral responsibility matters. The Shiloh family and ranch hands look out for each other. None of the cynicism of today’s so-called revisionist Westerns that claim to be truthful to the spirit of the real West. I call them revisionist because they claim to be telling the truth but are as much a fiction as the classic Western in that they merely reflect today’s society and it‘s increasing desire for graphic violence and soft core sex.

By Bill Benzon on 04/01/08 at 01:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Good catch on the Tag Gallagher citation; I was trying to dig it up but couldn’t remember it (or the name apparently). But I want to press some of the things you said, and draw different conclusions from them: for one, I think you underestimate T.R.’s influence, or at least his importance, in defining how the modern presidency works as a kind of politics. Far from T.R. being an outlier, people like Bill Clinton have frequently cited T.R. when pressed to name their influences (well, democrats, anyway) and I think the kind of masculinity T.R. embodied was quite influential. I could be wrong, of course. But it does seem to me that the brand of very specifically *modern* populism that T.R. was able to marshal to give progressivism its political legs had a great deal to do with how he used the press, and the way he used the press was by giving it a persona to play with. Which is to say that, unlike the old rickety Jackson, or whatever other model of populism you might dig up, T.R. knew how to get the media listening and then how to use it to drum up support: by embodying a mythic image of what America was supposed to be, and then convincing America to be like it (i.e. to follow his policies). However much one might see W’s administration as in the back pocket of corporate interests, his *politics* (the way he won elections) seems to me to have been very clearly that kind of populism. But the kinds of Americas they politically try to embody are different: T.R. revelled in contradiction and W embraces simplicity. For W, “we” is self-evident (in the way that “realism” signifies by imagining signification as unproblematic), whereas T.R.’s “we” is really not that simple (allowing him, for example, to bring Booker T. Washington to the White House). 

I don’t know how serious you were about Heart of Darkness as “cowboy,” but I think it’s absolutely true to say that “cowboy” is not just an allegory for “colonialism” but the reverse: the ways that colonialism was represented is often deeply influenced by the discourses of “cowboy” Americanism. Or rather, it goes both ways to the point where talking about one as the origin for the other is beside the point. For example, when TR met a bunch of Boer settlers in South Africa, later in his life, he sang them a Dutch song his grandmother had sung for him, and then mused on how the Boers’ ancestors had left Netherlands the same time his ancestors did, a narrative in which “American” and “South Africa” as expressions of frontier colonialism are pretty explicitly rendered analogous. He also is the real trend-setter of African big game hunting as a cultural practice (people like Hemingway directly reference the practice as T.R.’s thing) but it starts with his time in the Dakotas hunting big game there: his self-making as Dakota cowboy *allows* him to self-make as white-man-hunter-in-Africa. Or, you can play the reverse game: his first book was a book about David Livingstone, and he was obsessed with it as a child. Either way, the cowboy and the colonialist are not that separate (and it does give an interesting valence to the “unknowable” of Africa to place it side by side with the unprintable other in the Western, as Sisyphus mentioned). 

That’s interesting, though it doesn’t sound much like Wister’s Virginian; Wister’s makes gestures towards domesticity and community, but mainly because it’s so clearly a narrative about individual men being individual men with other individual men. There is, for example, the bit about the sick mother hen which is the occasion for the friendship between the narrator and the Virginian in the first place, but that absurd episode strikes me as extremely out of place in a book whose virtues are elsewhere (like the happy ending tacked onto a movie that’s *really* about the inevitability of death, such as Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, it’s a piece of “feminine domesticity” tacked onto a novel that is all about excluding those elements, and as such doesn’t fit).

By on 04/01/08 at 02:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Aaron, since I’ve not read the novel and don’t recall much of the TV show, I can’t compare them myself; but I wouldn’t, in principle, expect much resemblance. I did read that Trampas is one of the good guys in the TV show, The Virginian’s sidekick in fact. That rather stands the book on its head. He was played by the late Doug McClure, who provided the “McClure” portion of “Troy McClure” in The Simpson’s.

By Bill Benzon on 04/01/08 at 02:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, Aaron, TR also tromped around up here in the Adirondacks where I live. In fact, he was camping in the mountains near here in 1901 when he found out that McKinley had been shot. But that’s just local color. I was at least half-serious about my Heart of Darkness reference--the material culture of the trading station on the Congo and the mining town Deadwood have certain striking similarities. (Differences, too, naturally, the most notable being the absence of (white) women at the trading station.) Both places are lawless and based on extractive industries. From this fact flows a host of economic and cultural consequences. Both places represent the logical consequences of the dominant cultural discourses that sponsor them.

I don’t think Conrad is making any conscious comparisons, but he lived late enough in the 19th century to have known about the extermination of the American Indians and to have been aware of the “cowboy” (not really the right word, I think) as a figure of myth. I’m not Conrad scholar, but it would be interesting to go back through the correspondence to see if he makes any references to the American west—his own experience in Africa would certainly have resonated. . .

By on 04/01/08 at 06:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment


“The cussing remains [in The Wire], more blatantly deployed by cops and politicians than by gangsters, but remains in a way that feels only a bit exaggerated…”

Excepting, of course, the scene in which McNulty and his partner investigate a crime scene over the course of three-minutes, only (repeatedly) saying variations on the word “fuck.”

By tomemos on 04/02/08 at 01:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, that sequence made a noticeable ding in the fourth wall....

By Ray Davis on 04/03/08 at 09:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

But it is also exceptional, a set-piece, a tour de force.

By on 04/03/08 at 10:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

JD, you’re kidding, right?  I won’t go on at length, because I’m sure you’re kidding, but jeez, some things you don’t even joke about.  To quote Calculon, the acting robot, “That was so bad I think it gave me cancer.”

By tomemos on 04/03/08 at 11:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Regarding Heart of Darkness and the western, the good folks at Edge of the American West wrote a great piece—http://edgeofthewest.wordpress.com/2007/12/06/no-tariff-on-violence/—on Henry Morton Stanley’s journalistic writings out West, before he went to the Congo and wrote books like “In Darkest Africa,” which are the predecessors for Conrad’s writing (even down to the “finding a white man in the savage jungle” trope).

By on 04/03/08 at 01:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Kidding about what? The Wire? The scene in The Wire you mentioned can be a “set piece” or a “tour de force” rhetorically without being “good” in an evaluative sense. In the sense of the director and actors saying, I wonder if we could do this?

By on 04/03/08 at 01:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Add a comment:



Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below: