The Cowboy’s Place in America’s Self-Image

America’s concept of its Wild West has played a large part in defining its collective psyche as a nation. The celebrity of the Westerner began with the death-defying pulp heroes from the pens of sensationalist writers such as Ned Buntline and George Ward Nichols and from the sanitized vignettes performed by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West players. Since all characters wearing broad-brimmed hats, boots, and six-guns were considered “cowboys” by the public, the American cowboy first rose to fame through the fiction of these dime novels.

In 1902 Owen Wister broke that mold and gave us The Virginian as the opening act to this iconic story of the real, itinerant cowhand as a noble protagonist. Thanks to novelist Wister, Americans now had a hero from the common ranks of the everyday worker.

            When motion pictures were born in California, the “Western” dominated the industry and drew real cowboys, who were willing to work as wranglers, stagecoach drivers, skilled riders, and stunt men. Despite the authenticity of the “hired help,” a new wave of exaggerated heroes hit the screen in flashy garb, plying impeccable morals, and topped by outrageous hats. The public ate it up. Coming out of the Great Depression, America needed heroes as never before. Hollywood provided.

           The momentum of this genre continued to build to a post-World War II frenzy. When televisions entered homes all across the nation, the “cowboy” was eagerly invited into the living rooms and dens of the young, impressionable “baby boomers” . . . and their parents. In the 1950s and ’60s more than 130 Western series debuted on television. It was this period that catapulted the “cowboy” to its highest level of respect by viewers, who accepted the hyperbole of TV scripts as lessons in history rather than the escapes into entertainment that they were.

Just as it does now, sensational news—not the good news—made the front page of a newspaper in the 1870s. This explains why we know more about cattle thieves, outlaws, and killers than we do about the honest and dependable ranch hands.

Somewhere inside all the stories and the legends lies the historical, hard-working, reliable American cowboy—a man not inclined to seek celebrity because he valued his privacy and took pride in his work ethic.

Such a man inspired the creation of my protagonist, Clayton Jane, in my latest Western novel, “Indigo Heaven.”