From the late nineteenth century until the 1960s, the Western was the most popular form of mass entertainment in the United States. The genre is vast, comprising Buffalo Bill’s turn-of-the-century roadshow, cowboy poetry, good and terrible fiction for both boys and adults, widely reproduced photos & paintings & woodcuts, advertisements (especially ones for cars), political campaigning (Teddy Roosevelt and Reagan both loved bullshit about the glorious frontier), TV shows, and films. Lots of academic studies have been written about the various cultural functions of the Western–i.e. what it tells us about how different kinds of Americans conceptualize American identity—but by far the best and most accessible is Jane Tompkins’ West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns (Oxford UP, 1992). Tompkins is that excellent kind of professor: she combines a historian’s erudition with a literary essayist’s verve. In other words, Tompkins will entertain the hell out of you while also teaching you a whole lot.
Tompkins organizes the book by dividing the first half into chapters that each focus on a key Western theme or icon (Cattle, Indians, Horses, etc.) and then devoting the latter to chapter-length discussions of major Western texts (e.g. Louis L’Amour’s famous–and quite good–novels). You can probably stick to the first part of the book without missing much.
While she spends a good deal of time demonstrating how popular conceptions of the West, most of them produced and consumed by white people, tend to minimize or erase altogether the incredible complexity of American history, largely by ignoring the perspectives of Native Americans, Spanish/Mexican colonists, black settlers, and Chinese immigrants, her main argument is that the Western is all about policing gender roles. Westerns became popular at exactly the same time that the U.S. was becoming an industrialized capitalist empire, which made it difficult to maintain the longstanding image of Americans as courageous settlers who battled the wilderness and converted it to a rural, farm-based, Christian pastoral. In particular, it was especially hard for American men who now tended to work in factories or white-collar office jobs to think of themselves as powerful, tough-talkin’, pragmatic individualists. The Western responds to this panic about gender by offering a simplistic, consoling story in which men are quiet heroes and women are nurturing companions in need of male protection. Her implicit point is that many of our nation’s cultural formations are about exactly the same thing.
So if you like history or are at all interested in the byzantine origins of “American” identity, check this out.