The West

We tend not to think of it too much, of how much the West cost. We never think of the moral price. Vigilante lynchings and shootouts with desperados? Los Angeles had them in the 1850s and 1860s and quickly forgot them. By the last third of the 19th century, Los Angeles was actively fitting itself into an alternative romance that had nothing to do with the West in which the city was located.

Horace Bell, the wonderfully unreliable memoirist of the city's bad old days, was frankly nostalgic in 1881, writing in his Reminiscences of a Ranger. For Bell, it's as if the West had been lifetimes ago. But Jesse James was still alive; Billy the Kid was shot down that year; the OK Corral gunfight was in late October. The West of myth and history was surely out there in 1881, but for Bell, Los Angeles was no longer part of it.

That suited the city's self-invention, its tradition of misremembering where it is. The value of the Coen brothers' remake of True Grit, based on Charles Portis' satiric novel, is the way it adds up the bill for being part of the West. It's not just the violence. We assume the West was violent. It's the way all the characters actively or potentially double-cross each other. It's their general meanness, only made palatable by their extravagantly florid speech. Their purpose - the purpose of the West - has hardened them into blunt instruments, but they speak like actors in an amateur production of Shakespeare.

What sort of instrument had the West made of them? A California miner named Thomas Swain wrote in the aftermath of the Gold Rush, "The people have been to each other as strangers in a strange land . . . Their hearts have been left at home." Fifty years later, the speculators in Frank Norris' novel The Octopus hadn't changed. "They had no love for the land," Norris wrote. "They were not attached to the soil. They worked their ranches as a quarter of a century before they had worked their mines. To get all there was out of the land, to squeeze it dry, to exhaust it, seemed their policy. They did not care."

The real West was (is) unforgiving in all the ways the fictional characters in True Grit are. And they don't care, except young Mattie Ross, who tells the story. She cares only for revenge, the cost of which she has carefully calculated.

In our national mythology, the West is the last opportunity for a man (or a 14-year-old girl) to become whatever he wills himself to be. True Grit proposes an alternative myth. The West had reworked raw American material to manifest its own destiny, not ours. And it's not a pretty picture.

The image on this page was taken by flickr user Paul Meidinger. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

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