The American West: The Invention of a Myth

By David H. Murdoch | Go to book overview

Chapter Two

Myths And Heroes

The story of the West is our Trojan War, our Volsunga Saga, our Arthurian cycle, our Song of Roland.

Thomas K. Whipple, 1943

In the end, myths become part of the language, as a deeply encoded set of metaphors that may contain all the "lessons" we have learned from our history, and all the crucial elements of our world view.

Richard Slotkin, 1975

Sooner or later, virtually everyone who has written about the West refers to 'the myth.' Forty-five years ago Henry Nash Smith subtitled Virgin Land, his seminal study on nineteenth-century popular ideas about the West, The American West in Symbol and Myth. Robert G. Athearn chose to call his summation of sixty years' thinking about the West's history The Mythic West. Bernard de Voto identified collective popular attitudes to the West as not only the most enduring but the finest of America's myths. Russell Martin has entitled his uncritically affectionate review of the evolution of the cowboy The Enduring Myth of the Wild West. Joe B. Frantz and Julien E. Choate in The American Cowboy: the Myth and the Reality aver 'the range rider is a myth, but he is a myth possessing a living and present reality in the American folk mind.' Western fiction, writes James K. Folsom, reiterates a 'myth or fable.' Will Wright has analysed the Western film as a vehicle for a modem functional myth. Linking movies and history, Jenni Calder begins by saying: 'The West is loaded with myth.' This list could be extended indefinitely. The difficulty is, few of those who use the term (with the exception of Wright) give much idea of precisely what they mean by 'myth.'

None of these writers is implying that the received wisdom on the West is some sort of popular fallacy, or a general falsification of the

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The American West: The Invention of a Myth
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • The American West - The Invention of a Myth *
  • The American West - The Invention of a Myth *
  • Contents *
  • Acknowledgements *
  • Preface *
  • Chapter One - History through the Looking Glass *
  • Chapter Two - Myths and Heroes *
  • Chapter Three - Manufacturing Images *
  • Chapter Four - The Knights of the Range *
  • Chapter Five - The Myth-Makers *
  • Chapter Six - The West's Response *
  • Chapter Seven - The West of the Politicians *
  • Epilogue *
  • Bibliography *
  • Index *
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