The American West: The Invention of a Myth

The American West: The Invention of a Myth

The American West: The Invention of a Myth

The American West: The Invention of a Myth

Excerpt

No other nation has taken a time and place from its past and produced a construct of the imagination equal to America's creation of the West. And having created it, America promptly and successfully exported it, so that it became the property of much of the world, which is my excuse as an outsider for having the temerity to write about it. Like most people of my generation, I came to the West through the movies. In Britain of the late 1940s and 1950s we knew there was a world better than the one we were obliged to inhabit, and Hollywood kept giving us glimpses of it. I enjoyed just about every kind of American film; but the Western captivated me. Indeed, I found that its images and stereotypes, its carefully observed rituals and its implicit world-view were mesmeric. It was very much later that I began to ask why. Meanwhile, it is comforting to note that I was in good company, for Westerns have been Hollywood's most popular single genre; outdistancing thrillers, comedies, dramas and musicals, they account for a quarter of total output.

I came to the West again and from a new direction when trying to understand how Americans think about themselves. This of course was serious academic enquiry and not meant to involve my passion for Westerns, which I had managed to keep a secret vice. Following a well-trodden path in trying to perceive relationships between politics, culture and ideas, I was obliged to contend with the obvious: for most of this century, Americans have assigned the West a remarkable role. As an episode in the history of the United States, the conquest of the West is deemed to have special — indeed, crucial — significance. For long it has been seen as a national epic and it was held to have enshrined an experience whose effects, they have chosen to believe, made Americans different from other peoples. Specifically, that experience seemed to be regarded as defining uniquely American characteristics and values - traditionally, individualism, self-reliance and an instinctive commitment to democracy.

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