Tag Archives: The West

How The American West Was Really Stolen

When I was knee-high to a grasshopper, my Dad took me to see a movie called “How The West Was Won.” It was full of bogus stories about mountain men and pioneers, cowboys and Indians, gold rush “49ers”, and all kinds of prospectors. It was in living Technicolor, had more than my usual allowed quotient of “bad words” and violence and though I didn’t realize it then, it was complete bull. Unfiltered and unadulterated lies and manipulations.

Lately, I’ve been watching old episodes of the short-lived HBO series “Deadwood,” which ran for just three seasons, from 2004 to 2006, and which for some unknown reason I completely missed when it first aired. I decided to go back and watch “Deadwood” after I watched an excellent documentary series produced in part by Ken Burns and titled simply “The West,” which originally also aired in 2006 and features eight episodes.

I’m partial to documentaries, so I give the edge to “The West” but both series, dramatic and documentary, are outstanding and enlightening. While “Deadwood” takes some minor liberties with the truth, many of its characters are based on real people like Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane who lived for a short time in the town of Deadwood, South Dakota. While “The West” is more arid in its presentation of the facts, “Deadwood,” created by NYPD brainchild David Milch is more colorful and may hold the record for most profanities and vulgarities per minute of any television series in history.

I’m not done watching the series, so I can’t comment completely on either one, but because the American West has been on my mind a great deal lately, I thought I’d share some thoughts. I’m struck by how treacherous and difficult it was for any person to journey into the West, and at the same time I’m shocked by how that experience seems to have impacted the way these people treated the West’s true inhabitants, not to mention their attitudes toward life and death. It seems you had to be more than just a little lucky to complete the journey from New England or Pennsylvania or any place east of the Mississippi to outposts in the West. There was always the risk of attack by the Native Americans, who were considered savages and heathens in the propaganda of the day. And you weren’t killed by the bow and arrow, or later the rifle, chances are you’d find your body being laid to rest the victim of cholera, or dysentery of smallpox or any number of diseases that came and went.

It also occurs to me that the earliest prospectors and adventurers into the West were much more apt to try and make friends with the indigenous people, the many tribes that existed alongside their brother, the buffalo. But once gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in California in 1849, the rush was on and all bets were off as to the chance for peace among the white men and the Native Americans. In short, what ensued was a greed rush; a lust for riches and a money grab that turned many good men bad. And in the aftermath came the obliteration of whole people and cultures, violence between once-friendly prospectors fighting for their share of gold and, ultimately a kind of American nightmare that either wiped out or forced onto reservations a majority of the Native Americans and killed nearly all of the buffalo, which was their chief source of furs and food, not to mention their connections to the spiritual world.

Sure there were heroes, men who had good intentions and sought to bring law and order and peace to
the West, but they were few and far between. What history now shows us that the development and occupation of the West, and its inclusion in the United States is a sad sorry story reeking with blood and outright murder.

Sting once wrote, “History reeks with the wrongs we have done,” and this has never been more evident than in the American West.

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Cormac McCarthy – Our Greatest Living Writer

Many may disagree, but I believe Cormac McCarthy is not only a genius, but also our greatest living writer. Period. (Which, by the way, is about the only punctuation mark that McCarthy seems comfortable with.)

Cormac McCarthy’s prose reads like nothing you’ve ever seen before. It’s been called both Biblical and Shakespearean. His vocabulary is so extensive and obscure that you often need to read his novels with a dictionary nearby. His sentences can be two words long or go on for pages. And his descriptions of the world he’s writing about, whether it’s the Tex-Mex border in “The Border Trilogy” or the post-apocalyptic, ashen wasteland of “The Road,” are always spot-on acurate and deliciously detailed.

Here’s a description of an Indian attack, from what many consider to be his greatest work, “Blood Meridian; Or The Evening Redness In The West”:

“A legion of horribles, hundreds in numbers, half naked and clad in costumes attic and biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, froggged and braided calvary jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained weddingveil and some in headgear or cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in the armor of a spanish conquistedor, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground…”

And on and on for another full page so that you are overwhelmed both viscerally and psychologically. He paints on a broad canvas with colors so intense that they are like a dream, or in this case, a nightmare. His style has been likened to Faulkner, along with Flannery O’Connor and even Leo Tolstoy. In America, and probably internationally as well, Cormac McCarthy is head and shoulders above other writers of every age.

He’s also unique in so many other ways, tending to hang around with scientists and engineers rather than other writers and disliking most of all the preasure to talk about his craft, his gift and his passion. Strangely, his following has been for most of his life that of a “cult writer,” although now that he’s won a couple of big prizes, including a Pulitzer for “The Road,” his audience has become considerably more mainstream. But when asked by the ubiquitous Oprah, in his only television interview of his life, if he cares whether or not people read his books, he shyly and uncomfortably admitted, “not really.”

Charles McCarthy was born almost exactly 77 years ago on July 22, 1933 in Providence, Rhode Island. When he was four his father got a job for the Tennessee Valley Authority and so the family moved to the South. Sometime in his early years, Charles changed his name to Cormac (the Gaelic equivalent of “son of Charles.”) He was raised Roman Catholic and attended the University of Tennessee before joining the Air Force in 1953. He was stationed in Alaska where he had his own radio show. Sometime soon after he seems to have lost the Blarney or gift of gab and began the life of what many would call a recluse.

McCarthy went back to school, but never fully matriculated, instead concentrating on writing. He wrote a couple of not very good short stories and married his first wife, while living in Tennessee and working as an auto mechanic. He started work on his first novel which would become the tepidly received, “The Orchard Keeper,” and followed that debut with a two of what are now called “southern Gothic” works, “Outer Dark” and “Child of God” and then the much longer, “Suttree,” which many believe to be semi-autobiographical. He and his wife lived a hard core, hand-to-mouth existence, with McCarthy turning down all manner and form of deals that would have brought in some badly needed cash.

Finally, just in time when he barely had enough money to eat, in 1981 the still obscure author received a MacArthur Grant (also known as a “genius grant”) and used this money to live on while he researched and wrote the magnificent “Blood Meridian,” a historical novel closely-based on true events. “Blood Meridian” is about a kid who through a series of unfortunate events finds himself in the company of the infamous Glanton Gang, a group of outlaws and scalpers who were contracted by various interests to clear Indians from the Texas-Mexico border in the late 1840’s. It’s a book that is as violent and grisly as they come, perhaps made even more horrifying by the fact that most of it is true. Many critics, including Harold Bloom, as well as surveys of other writers, place “Blood Meridian” at the top of the list of novels written during the 20th Century, some going so far to compare it to Melville’s “Moby Dick.”

After the publication of “Blood Meridian,” McCarthy moved both from Random House to Knopf and from the Southeastern part of the country to the West. Living and occasionally riding horseback on the old trails into Mexico for “research,” McCarthy began work on what would become “The Border Trilogy,” with the first installment, “All The Pretty Horses” published in in 1992. McCarthy finally began to garner positive reviews and the novel sold almost 200 thousand copies in it’s first six months. It eventually won McCarthy a National Book Award, along with quite a bit of hard to come by popular acclaim. Next would come the second and third installments, “The Crossing” and “Cities of the Plain” (which had actually been written first as a possible film screenplay.)

Since then, McCarthy has remarried, and churned out novels more often and just a good, if not better, first with “No Country For Old Men,” (which was made into a film by the Coen Brothers and won the Academy Award for Best Picture), and finally with his last book, “The Road” a post-apocalyptic love story between a father and son, a second straight novel to be made into a film.

Since the release of “The Road,” McCarthy has been fairly quiet. Rumors have it that he has three or four novels already completed and ready for publication and that his next novel will be titled, “The Passenger,” a longer work and somewhat fictional memoir of McCarthy’s time spent in New Orleans.

But what convinces me of Cormac McCarthy’s greatness is how satisfying it is to go back to his novels and re-read them. After being introduced to “All The Pretty Horses” by a friend in Boston, it’s become my absolute favorite work of fiction and I can probably recite whole paragraphs. In his golden years, McCarthy’s writing has become more sparse, almost Hemingwayesque:

“With the first gray light he rose and left the boy sleeping and walked out the road and squatted and studied the country to the south. Barren, soundless, godless. He thought the month was October but he wasn’t sure. He hadn’t kept a calendar for years. They were moving south. There’d be no surviving another winter here.”

It’s been said by some devotee of Tolstoy’s, that he’d like to be reincarnated as that author’s pen. Along the same lines, I suppose it wouldn’t be bad to be reincarnated as Cormac McCarthy’s typewriter.

It sure has been put to good use.

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