Feelings of Ambivalence: Pulp Westerns and Popular Culture

By Thompson, Craig | Journal of the Southwest, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Feelings of Ambivalence: Pulp Westerns and Popular Culture


Thompson, Craig, Journal of the Southwest


I am going to attempt a pairing in this essay which may seem somewhat incongruous--Freud and two works by a pulp Western writer. Later, I will expand upon my motivations for using Freud (along with a bit of Jacques Lacan and Harold Bloom), but let me state at the outset that his discussion of ambivalence, especially as he employs it in Totem and Taboo (1913), is the aspect of Freud's theories which first led me to think about his relevance to portrayals of Native Americans on the frontier, and it remains for me the most intriguing aspect of his writings. On a broader scale, part of what I will be arguing, or at least suggesting, is that Freud's ideas may still provide a fresh and salutary framework for interpreting popular culture's depictions of American Indians.

The specific author whose work I will be evaluating, and whose writing exemplifies this ambivalence, is Zane Grey. While his prose could be cringe worthy and his plots perfunctory, Grey was also a popular, prolific, and influential writer who produced over ninety books and whose work inspired movies and a television series. His depictions of Native Americans ranged from numbingly racist (especially in the early publications) to ostensibly sympathetic. For me, the subtle and unexpected similarities between these omnifarious works can be more interesting and illuminating than the differences, and perhaps Freud can point us toward some of these similarities. His first book, Betty Zane, appeared in 1903, and he continued to publish until his death in 1939 and even beyond, with a number of books appearing posthumously. In one of his later works, The Vanishing American, his "progressive" attitude toward Indians contributed toward controversy over the book and was at least part of the reason for changes that he was pressured to make.

The Vanishing American was originally serialized in Ladies' Home Journal, beginning in November 1922. Loren Grey, Zane's son and himself a Ph.D. in educational psychology and a longtime academic, wrote a foreword for the 1982 Simon & Schuster edition in which he claims that edition is the "complete, unexpurgated version with the portions that were even left out of the 1922 serialization in the Ladies' Home Journal" (vii). For the sake of distinction only, I will refer to this as the first or original version even though this "Simon" edition was not published until 1982. Many of the revisions to this original version were focused on Zane Grey's portrayal of the role of the church and missionaries on the reservation. Usually these changes involved relatively minor alterations in wording--minor, at least, to the present-day, secular-minded reader; for example, the original states, "and the ruin of Indian girls by white men employed on the reservation, especially by missionaries who used their office to take advantage, was the basest and blackest crime of the many crimes the white race had perpetrated upon the red" (Simon, 136). The same passage is in the 1953 version, published by Walter J. Black (which I will refer to as the revised or altered edition even though it was published in 1953, earlier than the Simon edition), except "especially by missionaries who used their office to take advantage" has been removed (Black, 133). For the screenplay, Grey took the safest route and eliminated all references to the "missionary element" (Simon, vi).

Of greater importance to me, however, is the issue of miscegenation and the radical change to the book's ending. Originally, Nophaie, a full-blooded Navajo (Grey identifies him as a member of the "Nopah" band) who was taken from his tribe by rustlers and well-meaning tourists/travelers and educated in an eastern boarding school, is left at the end of the book standing with his betrothed, Marian, and they watch the other Indians symbolically riding into the sunset. In the revised version, Nophaie dies in the end, and Marian is left watching the disappearing tribe and proclaims, "Oh! …

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