The Use and the Abuse of Mythic Violence

Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (New York, Atheneum, 1992)

The Use and the Abuse of Mythic (Aristocratic) Violence in the post-Frontier Era

“The most fundamental principle of the Declaration is its idea that the law is merely the expression of the will of ‘the people,’ and that when government becomes corrupt it is the right of the people to remake the law through revolutionary action” (180).

A central risk in the Frontier Myth lies in the limited understanding of “the people,” in which the people who are attempting to take back the power are “not the whole or even a majority of the electorate; they are but a minority of the ‘quality’ acting as if they were ‘the people’–or the only people that ought to count, politically.  This potential flaw in the argument is [however] evaded by a shift of ground in which the Judge asserts that in effect the state is still in a frontier condition in which savage-war conditions pertain” (181).

The tension between the Frontier spirit and democracy in the West as a mythic space: “the ‘civilization’ defended by the American hero was not necessarily the same thing as a universalized ‘democracy’ of the kind envisioned in the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. The ideology of managerial progressivism declared that under modern conditions ‘civilization’ and perfect ‘democracy’ were incompatible, and the extension of democratic rights to classes and races unfit for self-government might destroy civilization ‘as we know it'” (125).

Aristocracy of violence → In battles of the mythic Frontier, distinctions between social groups (e.g., White republican and Red savage) are displaced onto the one between true civilization (predicated on the aristocratic primacy of the quality over the equality) and false democracy (the equality over the quality) (181).

Shane “is an aristocrat of violence, an alien from a more glamorous world, who is better than those he helps and is finally not accountable to those for whom he sacrifices himself” (400).

Deeply embedded in the public persona of American hero-presidents from both ends of the political spectrum is “the paradoxical assertion that true aristocracy and true democracy are the the same thing” (504): John F. Kennedy whose search for a New Frontier was paradoxical in that it ailed at achieving democratic goals through structures and methods that were command-oriented, war-metaphor-dominated, and pretty much reminiscent of gunfighters from Westerns and combat films who are both the last aristocrat and the first citizen of democratic society, who belongs to both the old world of aristocratic values and the new world governed by democratic principles (500).

The key problem in the notion of true civilization is its racism: false democracy built upon an dogmatic assertion of equality is replaced by true democracy established by the people of quality (an degeneration of aristocracy to racism) (187).  

The exaggeration (abuse, despotization) of mythic violence → Entitling a license or privilege of the use of force and violence to a specific social group (e.g., a justification of racial discrimination) → An unequal allowance of the right to the use of individual force (191).

A mix of democracy and heroism (194) → a regression to the early stage of the modern nation-civilization.

Social Bandit Mythologies–Jesse James

One of the most popular dime-novel outlaws of the 1877-1883 period was social bandit whose outlawry was a response to injustices perpetrated by corrupt officials acting at the behest of powerful moneyed interests…After 1873 Jesse James was taken up by national media as the central figure in a mass-cultural myth of social banditry. It was not his true and local history that made him a modern and American social bandit but the pseudo-history that was fabricated for him in the mythic space of the dime novel. It was not the historical (and now defunct) Jesse James that the Postmaster General banned, but his fictional incarnation. When he became a subject for national media, the form and meaning of his social banditry were transformed and enlarged and at the same time were separated from the specific social and political context that had given his banditry a ‘social’ character. The case of Jesse James suggests that in modernizing or adapting the ideology of social banditry to capitalism, mass culture gradually replaces real historical deeds and political struggles with generic mythologies” (127-28).


Vigilantism has been used to describe a number of local movements occurring at various times that have in common the use of extralegal force by an organization of citizens to suppress ‘criminal threats’ to the civil peace of prosperity of a community. Although some of these movements invoked British, Scottish, or Teutonic precedents, the vigilante phenomenon seems to be peculiar to ‘settler-states’: political communities established on the periphery of a colonizing ‘metropolis’ in which the forms and powers of government are initially tenuous. The simplest and earliest type of frontier vigilantism involved the application of ‘lynch law’ (mainly banishment and corporal punishment) against criminals and ‘undesirable.’ More complex (and violent) were the various forms of ‘regulator’ movements, in which vigilante actions against individuals were part of a larger pattern of resistance to government authority…The latter type of vigilantism was, in effect, a rudimentary exercise of the ‘right of revolution’ asserted in the Declaration of Independence. But after 1865 vigilantism acquired broader significance as a means of justifying new forms of social violence directed against the ‘dangerous classes’ of the post-Frontier, urban, and industrial order. As a result, the vigilante ideology itself was transformed from an assertion of a natural and democratic right-to-violence to an assertion of class and racial privilege” (173-174).

Examples: The WSGA’s war in Johnson County and Andrew Carnegie’s private army of detectives and strike-breakers (174).

Vigilantism (Primitive, Epic, Aristocratic, Heroic) vs. Democracy: The evolution of mythic violence (neo-aristocracy) → From the wide-open land through the closing of the Frontier to the mean streets → Particularly in disqualified cultural products such as pulp fictions (dime novels) and popular films (the Western, the science fiction/fantasy, and the hard-boiled detective story).

A central question: How to adapt the traditional Frontier spirit to a post-Frontier America (194); how to combine fundamentally pre-democratic values (visions of aristocratic, heroic, and epic qualities as discomforting positions) and democratic settings (210) → Many of major pulp writers were the children of the middle-to-upper classes–men of quality–but their audiences were those of equality (194): e.g., Edgar Rice Burroughs, perhaps the most important pulp writer (195) and Zane Grey, perhaps the most popular Western writer of all time (211).

“The new mythic space of pulp fiction…became an imaginative equivalent to the old mythic space called ‘the Frontier.’ Within its boundaries, the ‘equality’ readership could imaginatively identify with the ‘quality’ without consenting to class subordination and in the most appealing stories could even identify itself as possessing in the small the same virtues of ‘manhood’ that the pulp hero displayed in the large” (195)

Solutions: Decontextualization, Displacement and Transposition (or How mythic violence was contained)

“Although these dime-novel outlaws express class resentments against the wealthy and powerful, the genre contains those resentments by distinguishing ‘outlaws’ from ‘Communists’ and by identifying the outlaw’s moral perspective with pre-industrial political culture rather than radical prescriptions for future reform. Moreover, the act of projecting labor and agrarian class conflicts into a western-outlaw setting implicitly discredits the more active forms of class struggle by displacing them to the outer margins of civil society” (152). 

“The outlaw and detective genres of the dime novel began as representations of conflicting social imperatives…projected into a mythic space disconnected from the political culture of specific, embattled communities, in which the moral and political referents points are always generic and national rather than specific and local…[The figures of outlaw and detective and the political oppositions they represent] are fictively harmonized. The outlaw becomes a hero who resists the forces of order, but in a way that affirms the basic values of American society; the detective defends the progressive social order, but does so in the style of an outlaw, always criticizing the costs of progress and often attacking the excesses of the privileged classes. For the facts of social conflict the mass-culture mythology substitutes a persuasive vision of an ultimate reconciliation between irreconcilable opposites: progress is achieved, but traditional values and life-ways are preserved unharmed; [all heterogenous and often antagonistic  forces embodied through characters in conflicts] abandon the pursuit of their interests to discover and share their common ground” (154).

“In the West, both capitalists and workers are descendants of the conquering race who ‘explored the West and reared a golden empire’ and who ‘know not the word compromise'” (162) → The class conflicts are often displaced onto racial questions, which often leads to scapegoating racial minorities.

One solution was to obscure the class backgrounds of major characters, i.e., heroic neo-aristocrats → “their identities are unspecified, or are vaguely identified with ‘the People'”; with all the pervasiveness of the evil power, its sources remain nebulous (195).

While the Western uses a mythologized past to interpret a present crisis, “the displacement of the crisis into ‘history’ clouds the allegory and avoids the danger of offending any of the movie’s potential…audience” (270).

“If the ‘B’ films conflated the symbolic issues of the past with those of the present, they also necessarily obscured the distinction between contemporary political action and the heroic, Wild West manner of resolving conflicts…If the Western represented the act of taking the law into one’s own hands (vigilantism) as heroic, it also circumscribed the allegory of vigilantism as belonging to an earlier state of society…By obscuring the distinction between then and now, the ‘B’ Western effectively dissolved the implicit limitations that historical location placed on radical or violent solutions to the problems of social injustice, economic oppression, or political privilege. The ‘B’ Western thus heightened the allegorical qualities of the genre and converted the stock villains of the Frontier Myth into symbols of present-day evils. The continual confusion of past and present in the ‘B’ Western suggests that the heroic ethic of Western vigilantism had a kind of timeless validity as a means of resolving a social or political impasse…The ‘B’ Western picked up political concerns as it picked up the idea of singing cowboys, through the continual efforts of the producers to keep their product as timely and attractive as possible. It became possible to see the mythic space of the Western genre as an appropriate field for the projection of real questions about the state of the nation and for the cultivation of fictions embodying possible answers to those questions” (276-77).

The ‘B’ Western intertwines with history differently than others do → allegory.

This entry was posted in N. American Cinema, The Western, Vigilantism, Violence and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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