Manifesting Destiny: The Reinvention and Resurgence of the Western Genre

In many ways society has moved beyond the traditional Western stories, largely because most people have a much more rounded view of history that does not allow for straight forward narratives about heroic cowboys on some empty American frontier. An understanding of the colonial process and the long term impacts of how the United States formed makes purely celebratory westerns seem somewhat naïve if not disrespectful to the experiences of indigenous peoples so these kinds of stories do not enjoy the same kind of wide spread popularity they used to enjoy. However, in recent years there have been several successful novels that return to the western genre with new goals. Books like The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt and The Devil’s Revolver by V.S. McGrath (interestingly both written by Canadians) lean heavily on exploring the flaws in the traditional western albeit in very different ways. The Sisters Brothers is dark comedy bordering on satire which plays up the archetypes of the western to make their absurdity obvious to the reader. In contrast, the heroes of McGrath’s fantasy western fit more closely to the cowboy hero but undermines traditional westerns by taking place in a world that includes the suffering and oppression that was erased in older westerns. These new westerns reflect new understandings of history and show how beloved genres can be brought into the current day.

The characters and setting of Patrick DeWitt’s 2011 novel, The Sisters Brothers are on the surface very much in line with the traditional western. The protagonists are cowboys/assassins who are on a quest to kill a man over a prospecting dispute. The world that they move through is filled with saloons, drinking, and violent bands of Indians in much the same way that the traditional western novels did. But instead of having a celebratory, jaunty tone of righteousness the situations and emotions are exaggerated to the point of absurdity. Eli becomes increasingly disillusioned with his brother’s violence and drinking as their journey goings quickly down hill. They end the novel not with money, celebration and hangers on but rather with nothing but a few new injuries. While following the adventure western mold but exaggerating beyond the point where immersion is possible DeWitt exposes the flaws in that traditional narrative. Just as the title is an exercise in technically correct absurdity, (two brothers whose last name is Sisters) the novel itself is a successfully executed satire that engages with the genre to extremes that demonstrate its problems.

While The Sisters Brothers keeps the typical world building of a western, the Devil’s Revolver Series breaks away from the traditional version of the American frontier both in the addition of magic and by including representations of oppressed characters. The fantasy setting enables some of the conventions of westerns and historical realism to be broken without over contrived explanations such as having a female protagonist who otherwise fits in closely with the image of a cowboy. However, McGrath does not completely modify her world to one that blindly accepts women as powerful, instead Hettie is faces the historically accurate expectations placed upon her to marry, be a homemaker, or at the very least be following the wishes of the men around her. Additionally, the frontier of McGrath’s creation is not filled with white settlers and the occasional first nations person who is depicted as alternately savage or mystical. Instead the world of the Devil’s Revolver has a diverse range of characters who are powerful while also reflecting the realities of life for people of colour during the period. There is an acknowledgement of the presence of groups like Chinese immigrants who were building railroads in appalling conditions but McGrath uses the fantasy setting to empower these characters to still be able to play a major role in the plot. This version of traditional western setting is focused on building realism even when fantastical elements are present.

The approaches in both The Sisters Brothers and The Devil’s Revolver series stand in contrast to most recent films that attempt to revive the western genre. Perhaps the most obvious opposition is to the strategy used in the 2013 reinvention of The Lone Ranger. This Disney made film showed that the industry recognizes the continuing interest in the western genre but the way the remake was done demonstrated a complete lack of awareness of the issues that the two books tackled. Not only did the 2013 Lone Ranger keep the same noble savage tropes in its depictions of indigenous peoples but the role was played by white actor Jonny Depp in what came across to many viewers as a racist caricature. The Lone Ranger remake flopped, even when riding on the back of nostalgia for the original radio show. This failure shows the awareness of flaws in the traditional western has moved beyond academic audiences and viewers expect the western genre to move beyond its origins.

Recent resurgence in western style novels shows that there isn’t a lack of interest in the genre. However, there is an expectation of growth and recognition of historical realities that are absent in older stories. Authors like Patrick DeWitt and V.S. McGrath show that contemporary approaches to westerns are possible and enjoyed by audiences. Whether by playing into tropes through exaggeration and satire or by creating more realistic depictions of the people who inhabited the American frontier. The recent resurgence of the western using these strategies shows the possibilities of genre even when they have seemingly fallen out of social acceptability. Although less dramatic than the development of the western, other niche genres like fantasy and science fiction have also seen growth beyond all male casts that rely heavily on depictions of medieval Europe. Beyond the cultural implications of better genre fiction, readers continue to appreciate innovative, well constructed worlds, the rebirth of the western being a case in point.

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