How Mark Twain Invented the Wild West

January 31, 2017 | 10 books mentioned 1 5 min read

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1. Huck Out West
The “Wild West” is ultimately a mythological creation, one filled with recognizable motifs: cowboys, 10-gallon hats, revolvers, horses, lassos, cacti, saloons, vast landscapes, and so on. It was the American answer to the European world of medieval chivalry, providing a stage for the stories of many great novelists and filmmakers of the past 150 years. To most people, the Wild West is synonymous with action and adventure, which is why a reimagining of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) set in the Wild West offered so much potential.

Robert Coover picks up where Mark Twain left off, telling of Huck’s experience immersed in the merciless American frontier. Coover’s Huck is certainly consistent with Twain’s: an enterprising, thoughtful youth whose good nature can leave him exposed to manipulation and danger. The author also takes naturally to the dialect of Huckleberry Finn, evoking the slack-jawed voices of the Midwest.

coverUltimately, Huck Out West bores more than it entertains. There is no brilliant, overarching plotline; Coover’s narrative merely rambles along, following Huck’s aimless wanderings through America. The scenes of action, physical suffering, and gun-violence are so frequent that they quickly lose their force. In contrast, the best Western films and novels savor the drawn-out tension before an act of violence (think of the sensational five-minute showdown at the end of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly).

Coover populates his Western landscape with a rather lacklustre cast of characters. He inherits the brilliant Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but most of the surrounding individuals, save a few exceptions, feel like reflections of one another. They are stereotypical Wild West nomads, roaming the land with a penchant for violence.

Coover has moments of brilliance. His metaphors are sometimes wonderfully imaginative, like when Huck tells us that his “yallerness (yellowness) had “begun to fade like fence paint in the sun.” There is no doubt that Coover completely understands and appreciates the dusty, expansive atmosphere of the Old West, but his intense focus on the atmosphere comes at the expense of a good plot.

Furthermore, although not many people notice or acknowledge it, there is already a piece of the Wild West in Twain’s writing.

2. Mark Twain’s Modern Cowboy
Revisiting Huckleberry Finn before reading Coover’s sequel, it became clear that the modern cowboy played by John Wayne and Clint Eastwood was born in the pages of Mark Twain. He deserves recognition in the timeline of the Wild West’s genesis, which places heavy emphasis on writers such as Zane Grey and Owen Wister and not enough on Twain.

covercoverIt is commonly held that Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) was the first novel to establish the common features of popular culture’s cowboy. It offers us the gunslinging Lassiter as its hero, an expert shooter and horse rider clad in black. Lassiter’s blend of mysteriousness and masculinity, novel then but clichéd now, laid down the foundations for Hollywood’s cowboy hero. Lassiter actually helps to herd cattle, something John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, in fact, do very little of in their Western films. Riders of the Purple Sage is not a good novel, full of saccharine sentimentality and predictable heroic successes, but it is an important historical point in the Wild West’s development.

Novels about the American frontier previous to Grey’s bestseller lacked the Lassiter figure, the cowboy hero who commits violence with swagger and style. James Fenimore Cooper’s the Leatherstocking Tales series, which includes The Last of the Mohicans (1826), was certainly the first popular fiction to romanticize the frontier, but it lacked the kind of hero that Wayne and Eastwood would come to popularize. On the contrary, Cooper’s hero, Hawkeye, is a white man ultimately aspiring to be a Native American — the indigenous figure that would become the Wild West’s most popular villain.

Enter Twain. His claim to having created the first modern cowboy is borne out of only a short scene that occurs on the periphery of Finn’s story — a nugget of gold nestled in the middle of the book.

It is an altercation between a drunkard named Boggs and Colonel Sherburn. Remember it? I didn’t either. The scene reads like one from a 1950s Hollywood Western, the ones you find on television during working hours on weekdays. It is bursting with features that would become typical Wild West motifs. For instance, it begins with Boggs riding up to Sherburn’s property and demanding that he show himself:

Come out here, Sherburn! Come out and meet the man you’ve swindled

The confrontational language immediately suggests one thing: showdown. The two men meet one another before an audience of nervous townsfolk, another fixture of most Westerns. Eastwood’s proficiency with a pistol would be far less thrilling were it not for the gasps and guffaws of numerous spectators. Sherburn gives Boggs an ultimatum, demanding that he stop with his abuse before 1 p.m. or there’ll be hell to pay.

Think of that: Twain was only one hour away from predicting the “High Noon” ultimatum. The Wild West’s obsession with meetings at midday would have to come after Twain’s time. Sherburn talks to Boggs “mighty calm and slow,” preempting the steely coolness so essential to Hollywood’s cowboys.

Boggs fails to meet the terms of Sherburn’s ultimatum, and his murder is extremely histrionic. Sherburn emerges at 1 p.m. and “sings” out Boggs’s name, and the drunkard dies mid-plea: “O Lord, don’t shoot!” Twain exposes a predilection for sound effects, too, imbuing his prototype for the Wild West with a cinematic quality that is astonishingly prescient.

Bang! Goes the first shot…bang! goes the second one

coverHuckleberry Finn’s evident thrill in narrating this experience is clearly in fact Twain’s. Boggs dies “clawing at the air” and then hits the ground “with his arms spread out.” His body writhes with that melodramatic gesturing typical of most of Wayne’s anonymous victims. Twain has Sherburn conclude his gunplay with a Hollywood swagger, glamorizing the violence and fashioning the modern Wild West cowboy. When Sherburn turns around “on his heels’”and walks away, it brought to mind Steve McQueen coolly swiveling around in The Magnificent Seven.

The conclusion of the scene is Twain at his most visionary. He recognises that the Wild West is an invention; a product of stories told again and again, until almost all fact is lost and only myth remains. Huckleberry Finn witnesses the first stage in this process of repeated retellings. The townsfolk are instantly captivated by what they have seen, and one man feels compelled to reenact it. Twain sees the theatrical potential in the genre he helped to create.

The man stood up straight and stiff where Sherburn had stood…and sung out ‘Boggs!’, and then fetched his cane down slow to a level, and says ‘Bang!’, staggered backwards, says ‘Bang!’ again, and fell down flat on his back…the people that had seen the thing said he done it perfect.

covercovercoverTwain also predicts Hollywood’s penchant for retelling its own stories. The relatively recent Western films 3:10 to Yuma (2007) and True Grit (2010) were both remakes of earlier films, which were in turn adaptations of novels. Of course in September we had The Magnificent Seven, a reimagining of the 1950s blockbuster that was in fact based on the Japanese film Seven Samurai.

The Boggs-Sherburn scene is little longer than a couple of pages, but it precedes Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage by 28 years. Sherburn, in fact, is the first Lassiter. Twain’s novel sold tremendously well; his influence upon the development of the Wild West, even through this short scene, should not be understated. He not only wrote one of the “Great American Novels,” but also provided a building block for one of the great American industries.

It seems likely that Coover saw the germ of the Wild West in Twain’s original, but he allows it to grow until it looms too large over his continuation of Huck’s story. This iconoclastic experiment comes at a cost.

recently graduated from the University of Cambridge with a degree in English Literature. He has previously written for The Independent, The Weeklings, and The Good Pub Guide. Charlie lives in North Yorkshire, England. Find him on Twitter at @CharlieClissitt.

One comment:

  1. Haven’t yet seen the Coover, but what about Twain’s own unfinished Finn and Tom Sawyer Among The Indians–unfinished I think because Twain very quickly gets them into a situation that he himself just can’t deal with or write about–coming upon the scene of a massacre, the corpses and the rape victims. Like something put of a McCarthy only a century too early, and a scene Twain could imagine but whose consequences he couldn’t pursue. But suddenly lighting out for the territory no longer looks like fun.

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