Saturday, October 01, 2016


"Paladin" -- early Leather Man?

This post begins with a re-blog from Tom Lynch.

The just published issue of Western American Literature is on Queer Wests. I'm sending this link to the Project Muse site for your own information, but I'd also be grateful if you could forward it to anyone, or to any lists, that you think might be of interest.

Western American Literature
Volume 51, Number 2, Summer 2016

Table of Contents
Special Issue: Queer Wests
Guest Edited by Geoffrey Bateman

p. vii | DOI: 10.1353/wal.2016.0038


pp. 129-141 | DOI: 10.1353/wal.2016.0041

pp. 143-173 | DOI: 10.1353/wal.2016.0029

pp. 175-197 | DOI: 10.1353/wal.2016.0031

pp. 199-229 | DOI: 10.1353/wal.2016.0033

pp. 231-258 | DOI: 10.1353/wal.2016.0035

Thanks so much,

Tom Lynch
Chair, Undergraduate Studies
Editor, Western American Literature
Department of English
202 Andrews Hall
P.O. Box 880333
University of Nebraska, Lincoln
Lincoln, NE  68588-0333


Since I’ve read more than I really wanted to about Cormac McCarthy, I was tickled to see this change of focus.  It cross-fertilizes two categories of academic thought that I follow, one being the American West and another being non-typical sexuality.  Not “Dances with Wolves” meets “Brokeback Mountain,” but more like “Longmire” meets “Fancy Dancer.”  Many a gay guy figures he might fit in on the prairie — but Mathew Shepard did not.  So far I’ve never run across a book about a Leather Man gunslinger, but I believe they existed.  Maybe “Paladin”.  He DID live in a San Francisco hotel.  

But “queer” is not the same as “gay” at all.  We’re not talking coitus.  Lots of Westerners are queer and that might mean anything.  Maybe deformed, maybe out of their normal habitat, maybe exquisitely evolved to a specific ecology, like thermophile bacteria in Yellowstone’s Morning Glory pool.  I do so love stereotype busters.  Almost by definition, “queer” is surprising.

“Gay” seems to carry a specific political point of view, one of an array of points of view from those who insist on high culture, to those who are MSM, to those who want same sex marriage, to those dedicated to the struggle against AIDS, and so on.  So far I don’t know of any “Western” book focused on cowboys that defends the right of sissies to be just that — maybe “artistic.”  Richard Boone, who played Paladin, was also a professional easel painter.  

One of the earliest books I read as a teen was my grandmother’s copy of “When a Man’s a Man,” about Patches who comes from back east a tenderfoot and turns out to be as tough as any.  Sorta like “The Virginian.”  That little trope turns up all the time, often in a moral context.

I have an idea that the storm of Westerns in the Fifties was about “standing down” from the violence of WWII.  The whole culture had PTSD and developing the resource West was one way to use the propensity for violence, the defiance of pain.  It was “Mr. Favor,” not “Rowdy Yates” who made “Rawhide” appealing.  Clint Eastwood played a young hothead who did not fulfill the peace-making bent of his supposed role model.  There were no ethnic characters I can recall unless you count Sheb Wooley’s “Purple People Eater.”  (Sheb played a foreman.  He didn’t sing on the show but neither did Eastwood.)  The cooks are always, well, atypical.

The uber-story of the West is about how people who had over millennia fitted themselves to ecologies quite unlike those in Europe — except the eastern steppes which was a source of danger in the form of horseback Mongolian hordes.  In that pattern, agriculture and urban patterns were imposed over the top of the indigenous Americans, crushing and corralling them.  Queerness is one way to survive all that, by being unrecognizably unique, such a new arrangement of identity that no one “saw” them.  I would argue this was particularly true of women, maybe more than men.  The women in period brothels -- that the men fancied were just waiting for the right man -- were likely to be lesbian.

Even today in Montana there is a category called “characters” who are sort of asexual because they are too atypical to partner.  Evelyn Cole is a good real-life example.  She was a stout mannish sculptor in Chinook, MT, who competed alongside Bob Scriver by making a portrait of Charlie Russell for a contest.  She was not particularly skillful, but she got the job done.  Wearing plaid shirts and bib overalls, she ran the family farm, dominating her kid brother, he complained later.  We bought her plastilene clay from her and I went over to collect it, so we visited a bit.  “Longmire” has just introduced an example of that particular type, a wolf defender with scarlet hair and a lot of attitude.  (Debra Christofferson)  I hope they keep her coming.

Western and queer in a Venn diagram overlap in stories about the individual versus the group, but then there is a third circle which is about the ecology and dictates what is necessary for survival as a culture.  In some places a lone person can’t exist for long without support and guidance.  Even Ishi with all his skills would have died soon if he had not been pulled into the university culture.  

Maybe the biggest ecological circle of all is that of time, imposing drought, flood, avalanche, politics, industrial development, changing the terms of the culture and snuffing individual lives unjustly.  Emergencies and uninterpretable situations give rise to a multitude of stories and reveal people beyond their wishes to be known or maybe their own understanding of themselves.  

Stories told by campfires and maps drawn with a stick in mud or dust are still essential for understanding the West because life can be, well, queer.  But the motivation for accepting queerness is survival in both landscape terms and personal relationships.  The wise way to deal with the uncanny, like Purple People Eaters and Wendigo, is usually to improvise in the moment and figure it out later.

The links to the online Western American Literature journal only give you the first page of each article.  You’ll need further connections to read the whole articles, but the bait samples are still interesting.  Some new ideas may come into focus.

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