Ghosts in the wild
The cult of the American cowboy amid echoes of emptiness
ALMOST as soon as the [American] west was broached, there were calls for tranches and ranges of its pristine horizon to be protected; reminders of that great, Godgiven otherness; that for every hectare that was built and tilled, a hectare of wilderness was buried and lost.
And there is something else that is a whispered leitmotif that sighs through American life. It is the keening of loneliness, the ghosts in the wild. The first stories of Europeans moving west are of the emptiness of the land. Whenever I read the memoirs of the trappers, who worked from Louisiana to the Hudson Bay and sometimes spent years exploring the tributaries and streams of the unmapped high country, I can never overcome the terror of being alone in that vastness.
Then there are desperate letters and diaries from the first families who farmed the Great Plains of Nebraska and the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin, particularly from the women. The creaking wind, the whispering emptiness, the unending toil, punctured by setbacks and occasional small triumphs. Many of them were German or Scandinavian, people who had come from tight, supportive little communities; the sadness of missing, the warm pity of homesickness, the truth of being tiny and alone, was actually often maddening.
Suicides were not rare, and to answer the emptiness America created a vernacular to celebrate it, a lonely character and a form that was the embodiment of the triumph of the solitary — the cowboy.
Cowboy films are built out of loneliness. The overcoming of it, the acceptance, the single, defining riff of a man of few words. One of the most despairing images in all cinema must be the final shot of Shane, when a small boy, whose father is dead, shouts after the only man who is left in his life, the only man he loves: ‘‘Shane! Shane! Come back!’’
The man is condemned to be a wandering hero. His attempt to graft on to a family, to be part of it, is thwarted by his inability to overcome his own nature and calling. He rides away into the infinite, disinterested land.
The jaunty, whistled sadness of riding into the sunset, the lonely, ever-after ending of classic westerns, haunted my childhood. Not only were cowboy films solitary, they also extolled the virtue of people who are bad company; who can’t or won’t make conversation. Cowboy films are always authentically, explicitly moral, and rigorous in the accounting of actions and consequences. French intellectuals may take the solitary cowboy as an existential parable, but there’s nothing philosophical about them at home in America. Here, the cowboy is a practical role model, a man who copes with the vast alone.
The New World constantly refers back to and touches its loneliness. It’s the back beat of country music, in Edward Hopper’s pictures, Ansel Adams’s photographs, the constant silence and reflections of American fiction, all in a way that is quite alien to European — and in particular, English — writing, which always seems so crowded, replete with character. To drive from coast to coast, to traverse the great heartland is not something you should undertake if you’re feeling insecure or unloved. The small towns rise out of the road, a single street of convenience stores, unskilled restaurants, a couple of motels, a church, a school, the final gas station, and you’re through them and away.
Sometimes you see someone on the street — an old man and woman jogging, a face in the window of a shop, a dog barking behind a link fence — and you’re made suddenly to consider what a life must be like here, the hollow needle of empathy, the insight too intense, like a bone in the throat.
These places are still within hailing distance of their hard birth. They still crave comfort and convenience above aesthetics. It’s what I like about them — they are created from an ambition that life should be softer and easier for your kids than it was for your parents, not as confections of civic vanity or the toytown fantasies of patrician landlords. You catch the flash of a red barn in a stand of trees, cast like a meteorite into the land, and you try to imagine the life that sprouted here, the first person to break the sod, who, exhausted or satisfied with the journey, set down their belongings in this place that was to be the end of a long trek.The great interior of America still feels like it’s on probation. It has not conquered the wilderness but rather come to an uneasy truce. Dotted in the great midland are the occasional, sprawling herds of trailer homes with their sagging pick-ups that mock and mimic the old covered wagon trains, surrounded by wonky barbecues, plastic garden furniture, kids’ bikes and bits of picket fence and fairy lights (there’s always a string of fairy lights implying some desperate festivity).
Communities are auditioning for the land that they gingerly squat on.
It may not work out — it’s not unusual to come across the wreckage of these failed trysts: ghost towns, the remnants of communities that gave up, separated from