I read The Virginian at the coast, and while it was a good read and lots of fun, it also is a very important piece of American literature. Before that book, there might have been cowboy stories, but they were cheap pulp junk with lurid pictures, absurd stories, and stilted writing. The "Western" as a genre simply didn't exist. In fact, the idea of writing a "Western" was so new, the book had a preface which explained what this book was about.
The Virginian was the first serious attempt to write a novel about the old west when the topic had essentially been crappy comic books in the past. So to explain and introduce this, the writer noted that this was a historical novel about a recent vanished time based on his experiences in the west. He compared the novel to Hawthorn's writings about colonial America, which is a theme Louis L'Amour brought up later when describing his writings. L'Amour said he didn't write westerns he wrote historical novels about the American frontier. The fact that these novels happened to be about cowboys and gunfights and trail rides, and so on was just a feature of the setting, not the topic.
And through all good westerns I've read - and I've read hundreds - the same theme keeps coming up. That's the them of why people would even go out there in the first place. Lets face it, the frontier was a terrible place to live. Cut off from all comforts and benefits of civilization, facing hostile natives, predatory whites, awful weather, wild animals, and the bare necessities of survival without a corner store was no easy life. Yet hundreds of thousands of people flooded into the frontier just the same.
They faced those hardships, built a civilization, and I'm personally living in the benefits of those efforts today in Salem, Oregon. Without those frontiersmen and pioneer women, Salem wouldn't be here. Without their difficulties, struggle, sacrifices, and pain, I wouldn't have a comfortable home here.
But why on earth do it? Why leave the comforts of home, the ease of city life, the safety of police and neighbor, the placidity of settled eastern life to face Sioux, renegades, tornados, floods, rattlesnakes, grizzly bears, starvation, and want? Why build an entirely new home out of what you can cut down yourself instead of buying a home or paying someone to erect it?
These western writers - starting with Owen Wister in The Virginian - explain over and over. They got their explanation not from invention, not from fantasy, but from letters, personal experience, and the word of the men and women who did it. They knew because they were told.
The frontier was settled by people who wanted freedom and space to grow. It was about the American Dream: to be everything you can be without anyone getting in your way. It was a place for a man to be as big as he was able to be, without any borders or structures in the way. Settling the Old West wasn't just a test of one's ability to survive, but one's ambition, one's character, and one's strength to face an entirely untamed, dangerous environment and come out on top.
The schools and churches and roads and stores and all the rest came as a result of hardy men and women facing the emptiness and solitude and conquering it. It was the supreme test of a human being and while many died, eventually, they triumphed. It was giving your children a better life than you had, so they can do the same with theirs. It was being all you can be, as free as you can be, and as good as you can be.
Now, what is the American Dream today? What do we hear described as the American Dream in movies and in popular culture? Its the house with the white picket fence, the 2 1/2 kids, the car in the driveway, and a college degree for all the youngsters.
Now there are some similarities between these dreams. Both are about doing better and both are about children having a better life. But the similarities are very superficial. What was once an essentially rural concept of taking advantage of the liberty and opportunities in America to achieve all you were capable of has turned into taking advantage of the structures and limits of civilization and the city to have what others have.
The former is an open ended dream; your limits are only what you impose yourself. The latter is about just getting certain trappings of life. The former is primarily internal and personal, the latter is external and impersonal. The modern version of the American Dream is essentially about envy, about getting what others have and equaling them. The old version was about accomplishment and personal responsibility.
Now instead of being as big as the country, you're fitting into boxes. Instead of grasping all that you can to make yourself into something greater to leave future generations, the dream is about fitting into the structure and learning how to best be part of the existing society.
Achievement, ambition, and growth are considered problematic or even bad in the modern American Dream. Getting a college education is presented as bettering yourself, but the education instead is about teaching you how to get a job, how to fit a certain political and psychological profile, and how to be a better citizen in the existing culture.
Abandoned is the idea of education being about becoming a better person, about knowing more about life so that you can serve and lead more effectively, and about learning how to think, understand life, and add to it yourself. Education is about becoming a better cog in the gigantic machine. Fit in, blend in, learn to be a part of this society.
And the American Dream as a result has become so urbanized and civilized that the rugged, wild, and expansive concepts of the old dream have been killed off. You should better yourself in the modern culture... but only to a certain point. If you go too far, well then you're greedy, you're envied, you're part of the problem. Don't be the 1%, that stands out. Don't get too tall, people will want to cut you down. Fit in, blend in, join, be one of us.
Certainly that fits the concepts of the left far better than the right. Being reliant on an existing, controlled environment of ideas and structures means people fit into the utopia better. Nobody gets too rich or big, nobody is too small or weak. Nobody relies on themselves or others, only the government. Now when a flood happens, people don't pitch in and solve the problem themselves, they turn to the government and whine. Now when there's a problem with crime, people cry for more law, more cops, more walls. Now when people are poor, they protest others should give up what they have so they won't be poor.
The American Dream has gone from being an essentially uplifting, constructive concept with no boundaries to a strictly hedged in restrictive concept all about becoming a proper part of the plan. And as a result, a dreamless America is dying.
Its not that the entire dream has changed. In many rural areas people are still pretty self sufficient. When the flooding happened in the Midwest, there weren't screams about how the government has to do more, people did the jobs that had to be done themselves, helping each other out. When crime gets bad in Texas, they pass laws allowing you to better defend yourself.
But overall, especially in more urban areas, the dream has become a sad echo of its former self, in a small, carefully controlled box overseen by commissars and government agencies. And that's just sad to behold.