Saturday, February 12, 2011

1950s Cowboy Stories

I have been writing an essay on the rise of the Marlboro Man in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Marlboro man first appeared in 1955. The argument I make is that Marlboro borrowed from an existing network of meaning surrounding the cowboy to invest meaning in its cigarettes. Sounds reasonable? To that end I have been doing a bit of work on cowboy stories- a great subject. There are, obviously, lots of different ways of slicing this cake. Many of the virtues of the cowboy, his emphasis on freedom and autonomy, emerged in the "pleasant conditions" of life in America in the eighteenth century, before the Revolution. ("Pleasant conditions" is a reference to Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, 1963, p. 24). The relationship with the landscape, which is such an important site for the cowboy to express his virtues, is made possible, so the argument goes, by virtues of ideas about the sublime (Kant and Burke) and the noble savage (Rousseau). The vision of the frontier played a role in the nineteenth century when settlers flooded west, particularly following the gold rushes in California, 1859-1852. The notion of the Western, as we know it, emerged in the 1890s after the conquest of frontier had been finalised. The cowboy myth, in a way, is a nostalgic, kitsch rendition of an earlier history. The first Buffalo Bill Wild West shows first appeared at this time, as did Turner's famous paper on the affects of frontier life on American man. Teddy Roosevelt was a great advocate of western imagery. It is the 1950s that could be considered as the golden age of the west. Hollywood produced more western films at this time than before or since. Westerns like "Gunsmoke" dominated television ratings. Radio and dime novels also told western stories. The principle setting for the western is Texas in the 1870s.

I have been working my way through the western collection of my local video/DVD library- watching mainly the classics. High Noon (1952), Directed by Fred Zinnemann, starring Gary Cooper and a 23 year old Grace Kelly: Shane (1953), directed by George Stevens, starring Alan Ladd: The Man From Laramie (1955) directed by Anthony Mann and starring James Stewart (they made five westerns together): The Searchers (1956), Directed by John Ford, staring John Wayne: Rio Bravo (1959), directed by Howard Hawks starring John Wayne and Angie Dickinson.

The genre talks about many features of American life. The battle between ranchers (“we don’t need fence wire”) and homesteaders is fascinating. Men and masculinity is an important theme. The representations of Indians in films like The Searchers is a bit hard to intellectualise. I’m sure you could say something about the connections with American foreign policies during the era. The gender relationships are also fascinating. The tough guy who is quite unmanned in the presence of a woman seems to talk to ideas that we want women who are beautiful and vulnerable, but (secretly) tough as well.  It’s a hard act to follow.

There are blaxploitation westerns too. A flick through Darius James’s That’s Blaxploitation: Roots of the Baddasssss ‘Tude (1995) highlights Bucktown (1975), directed by Arthur Marks, starring Fred Williamson and Pam Grier. Then there is The Harder They Come (1972), directed by Perry Henzell and starring Jimmy Cliff, would count as one. Nelson George gives The Harder They Come mad props in his Buppies, B-Boys, Baps and Bohos: “The Harder They Come starring reggae star Jimmy Cliff, turns into a midnight hit that helps popularise Jamaican dance music in the U.S. while showing the effects of American western movies in the Third World... With its blend of advocacy, rebellion, and music, this film will stand as both the best rock movie and he best blaxploitation movie of the decade.” Western imagery featured in Jamaican dancehall into the 1980s, with Lone Ranger’s series of classic early 1980s hits, like Hi Yo Silver Away (Greensleeves, 1982), and, M16 (Hitbound/Channel One, 1982).


I'm in Vancouver at the moment, doing a postdoc at UBC. The city is divided east-west. The east end of town is where the action is. I'm living on campus on the far west end of town. Last weekend I travelled east on the 99. I dropped into Pulp Fiction Books on Main Street; to pick up a book I had seen a couple of weeks previously, a collection of essays by Gerald Early, The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature and Modern American Culture, Echo Press New Jersey, 1994. The book is in part, about boxing- hence the "bruising of the title", and not to be confused with Eliot Gorn's The Manly Art of Prize-Fighting. Boxing, Early says in his introduction, is "a metaphor for the philosophical and social condition of men (and sometimes women) in modern mass society... It is a kind of dumb play of the human crises of identity in the modern society. This was a bit heavy going for me. Working in gender, the “men (and sometimes women)” sounded a bit to Norman Mailer-esque. And I think the term “crises needs to be qualified.

While I was at Pulp Fiction I couldn't resist Horace Campbell's Rasta and Resistance: From Marcus Garvey to Walter Rodney, Africa Press New Jersey 1987 and Nelson George’s Buppies, B-Boys, Baps and Bohos: Notes on post-soul black culture, Harper Collins, 1992. To round it out I indulged my current 1950s-America theme, with Mickey Spillane's Vengeance is Mine (1950).

Nelson George has kept my attention all week. The book- as far as I have read it, which is the first half, is a collection of essays about hip hop published, primarily, in the Village Voice, in the 1980s. It is a bit like having Wax Poetics on tap. The book starts with "Chronicle of post-soul black culture", from Melvin Van Peeble's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song in 1971 and ends with Shabba Ranks having the #1 black album in America in 1991.

Highlights/miscellany from the “Chronicle”/timeline include, from 1971, citations of Black Enterprise, the 'bible of the burgeoning class of white-collar blacks', and Essence, 'which targets collegiate black women'. Both document 'more subtle issues than the soul-era periodicals Ebony and Jet'. I noticed this partly because I had been listening to Left of Black #19, a televised series of interviews hosted by Marc Anthony Neal from This edition (#19) featured an artist, Hank Willis Thomas, talking, amongst other things, about his engagements with consumer culture and advertising. He describes himself as a "visual culture archaeologist". In the interview Thomas talks about a number of his works. One of these is "Fair Warning" (2010), a collage of images of black women taken from Virginia Slims cigarette commercials from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. The cigarette is part of the "quality of life" represented by these women, their haute couture clothes, and "zest for life". The advertisements themselves are an acknowledgement of a "separate and distinct black buying middle-class”. Marketers started to advertise to niche black audiences (rather than a homogenous whole). So you get a hip hop audience, a middle-class audience, and so on. Iman, a black model, was seminal in representing this new black femininity. Willis also did a piece called "Black is Beautiful"  (2009), another collage, of black women taken from the Jet magazine "beauty of the week" 1953-2008- over 2500 weekly images. Neal and Willis describe Jet as a "black social media before social media, in the sense of its capacity to speak to a wide audience. The work (“Black is Beautiful”) is influenced by a recent book by his mother, Deborah Willis, Posing Beauty: African women from the 1890s when it was political to talk about black beauty", to the present. The ideals of beauty presented in the photographs change over time becoming blacker. The hair styles change as well.