The American Monomyth

In my so far disappointing effort to make sense of Tumblr, I have at least found several intriguing posts, including this one from called “The American Monomyth.”

The Monomyth is a world-wide mythic pattern that Joseph Campbell described in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, 1949:  “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

The Tumblr post references a lesser known book by Robert Jewett, The American Monomyth, 1977, that describes an interesting variant:

“In the American monomyth, the hero is an outsider who comes into a once-perfect community in peril (the “violated Eden”) to confront the evils that have caused trouble. The hero eschews such things as joining the community, standing apart from them in order to better keep them safe, in a manner that could best be described as vigilantism. Once the evil has been vanquished, the hero either allows himself to absorb into the community (through such means as moving in, marrying, etc.), or he moves on to the next violated Eden.”

The post lists several movies as examples, but doesn’t mention several key genres that raised the “Heroic Outsider” to the mythic status of true American Hero.  What of superheroes like Batman and Superman or crime fighters like The Untouchables?  What of the genre I grew up on, the western?

Clint Eastwood and Sidney Penny in Pale Rider, 1985, my favorite "Heroic Outsider" western

Clint Eastwood and Sidney Penny in Pale Rider, 1985, my favorite “Heroic Outsider” western

While Googling for westerns with the classic, “clean up the town” theme, I came upon an interesting syllabus for a course at Dominican University, The Western:  America’s Mythology – books it would be fun to add to my geometrically expanding list of things I would like to read!

Meanwhile, I suspect that everyone has personal favorite books and movies in this “swoops in and saves the day” genre.  What are some of yours?



Thanks to a tip from our niece, Theresa, we’ve discovered a promising mystery show on A&E.  Longmire, based on a series of award winning novels by Chris Johnson, premiered in June, 2012.  Now in its second season, the first years’ shows are available on Netflix.

In the pilot, we find Walt Longmire (played by Australian actor, Robert Taylor), sherif of the fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming, returning to work a year after his wife’s death.  He gets a call from his deputy, Vic (aka Victoria, played by Katee Sackhoff), formerly a Philadelphia homicide detective.  Joining her on a remote ridge, they discover a dead sheep and a dead man, both killed by bullets from an antique Sharps rifle.

The victim is a teacher whose wife thought he was in Laramie.  With more digging and the help of his Cheyenne Indian friend, Henry Standing Bear (Lou Diamond Phillips), Longmire discovers the dead man was the father of a 16 year old girl whose Cheyenne mother reported her missing three months earlier.  That could present new problems; Longmire isn’t popular on “the Res,” having jailed the tribe’s chief for extortion.  A gun expert warns Longmire that the Sharps rifle can kill a horse at 500 yards.  Such an antique sniper’s weapon would only be used “by a coward or a professional, and both can be very dangerous.”

Longmire echoes the square-jawed defenders of justice from earlier era westerns – he reminds me of the McLoud mysteries that starred Dennis Weaver from 1970-77. This show, like our times, is darker and more full of angst than the earlier series. Look for the show on Monday’s on A&E, or on Netflix.  I plan to.

Notes on spies, cowboys, and heroes.

I’ve done some car travel recently, and that is my favorite time to listen to audio books.  This time I picked a spy novel by a popular author I hadn’t read before.  I’ll discuss the specifics when I finish the story, but it sparked some new thoughts on a subject that I’ve written about before:  heroes, antiheroes, and how they change with the times.

As a teenager, I loved reading James Bond novels and probably finished all 11 books that Ian Fleming wrote between 1952 and his death in 1964.  In the novels and early movies, 007 was confident and competent in every area of life, including protecting a world in which good and evil were clearly defined.  That wasn’t just the fantasy of an adolescent male; Fleming’s huge popularity suggests that Bond embodied much of the cultural dream of the early cold war era.

Sean Connery and Ursula Andress in "Dr. No," the first Bond movie, 1962

Sean Connery and Ursula Andress in “Dr. No,” the first Bond movie, 1962

Fleming’s first novel, Casino Royale, was published in 1952, just seven years after the end of World War II, a conflict in which the author served as a naval intelligence officer.  There was little moral ambiguity in Fleming’s world or in his novels.  How different that is from the latest Bond movie, Skyfall, 2012, where moral clarity is scarce, and the adversary of British Intelligence is one of their own, gone rogue.


Daniel Craig makes a good Bond but has little time to exhibit all of Sean Connery’s gentlemanly skills.  This 21st century Bond is too busy killing people to worry about whether his drinks are stirred or shaken.

I’ve watched more westerns than spy movies, so that’s where I’ve seen the changing dynamic of heroes with greatest clarity.  Yet I begin to sense a parallel progression in both genres.   Using westerns as examples, I think we can identify three types of protagonists:

The Hero:  He (it’s always “he” in this kind of western) fights for a righteous cause, greater than himself.  In John Ford’s classic Fort Apache, John Wayne may feel for the Apaches, and thrash the corrupt trader who sold them whisky, but they still have to go back to the reservation.  It’s manifest destiny – the American way.

Fort Apache, 1948

Fort Apache, 1948

The Anti-hero:  Though the term dates from the 18th century, Clint Eastwood’ westerns pushed it into the popular lexicon.  There are no grand causes in these movies, just the gritty play of good and evil, but there is still room for the stranger – or in one of my favorites, Pale Rider, 1985, “the Preacher” –  to lend his aid, and especially his skill as a gunfighter, to those he finds deserving.

Clint Eastwood as Preacher in "Pale Rider."

Clint Eastwood as Preacher in “Pale Rider.”

The Non-hero:  This protagonist may be sympathetic, but should not bear the title of “hero,” with its implication of honor.  He’s the winner who gets to write the history, and that may be his only claim to moral high ground.  In Unforgiven, 1992, Clint Eastwood plays William Munny, a widower who has tried to give up killing and drinking.

"Deserving's got nothing to do with it," says  Munny in "Unforgiven

“Deserving’s got nothing to do with it,” says Munny in “Unforgiven”

Unfortunately, he’s failing in his new trade as a pig farmer, so to raise money to support his kids, he takes one more job as a hired killer: to take revenge on two cowboys who disfigured a prostitute.  The body count is a higher than two when the movie ends with an epilogue saying Munny is rumored to be in San Francisco and prospering in the dry goods trade.


So why does this matter?  I’ll have more to say on this in my next post, but for now, a couple of ideas that come to mind are:

– In the movies I’ve highlighted, we see the concern of characters shrinking from the common good to narrow self-interest.  This is a trend we see echoed in headlines every day.

– What do we mean when we call someone a “hero?”  Do we actually bestow the name, or is it most often done for us by various outside agencies, usually of the government or the entertainment industry?

– When is the last time we heard the great story that Joseph Campbell identified as the “monomyth?”   “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

I’ll have other reflections to add to this in the next post.

Cowboys and Aliens: A Movie Review

Can you guess what this movie is about? I couldn’t, not with precision.  I was expecting something whimsical and set in contemporary times.  Instead, we are transported to 19th century New Mexico, with bad-ass cowboys, really bad-ass aliens (think, Sigourney Weaver aliens), noble Apaches, and a beautiful pistol packing mama who is – lets just say, not from around these parts.

We open with Daniel Craig as a western  badman, who brings the same cold-eyed killer vibe to this role as he does to his other life as James Bond.  True, his circumstances are a little bit odd – his memory is gone, he wears a strange bracelet, and his wound looks suspiciously like he’s been probed.  But after a lot of opening violence, and with Keith Carradine as marshal, Harrison Ford as the cattle baron, and several appealing secondary characters – the preacher, the kid, and the barkeep – I found my belief pretty well suspended by the time the saucers flew into town to harvest the good citizens.

Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig facing long odds

We get romance, redemption, coming of age, and finding one’s courage, but more than anything else, this is a good old fashioned shoot-em-up, with some nail-biting moments, and bad guys you can hate with abandon; they are despicable, disgusting, and slimy.

Like a phoenix, Olivia Wilde is reborn in flames

If you want to be stodgy and boring, you could ask why these creatures with intergalactic technology want gold so badly, but when you get right down to it, although they are big and tough, they are not the sharpest tools in the cosmic shed.  This is a job for good old American know-how and grit, and a wee bit of help from “beyond the stars.”

Leave the stodgy questions at home, and you’ll have a very good time.

The Ballad of Jesse James

It’s easy to see why I was drawn to the Ballad of Jesse James as a kid; the song paints Jesse as an American Robin Hood:

Jesse James was a lad, he killed many a man,
He robbed the Glendale train.
He stole from the rich and he gave to the poor,
He’d a hand, and a heart, and a brain.

Jesse James

Not surprisingly, singers who have covered this ballad include Woodie Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Bruce Springsteen.  The song also has those elements of mystery I believe are central to stories that take up permanent residence in imagination:

Oh, Jesse had a wife who mourned for his life,
Three children they were brave,
But that dirty little coward, that shot Mr. Howard,
Has laid Jesse James in his grave.

The notes in the book of ballads I found as a kid explained that “Howard” was the alias Jesse James used when he married, settled down, and tried to leave his life of crime behind.  The dirty little coward was Robert Ford a friend of Jesse, who shot him as he straightened a picture on the wall of his home.  Something in us recoils at that and wants to know how Ford could do it.  We know in our bones why Dante assigned traitors to the lowest circle of Hell.  I am not the only one who wonders, for the story has been dramatized several times, most recently in 2007, when Brad Pitt played Jesse in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

With Jesse James we get to witness a legend in formation, for unlike the Child ballads, this story is just over a hundred years old.  We can see how imagination shapes facts the way the ocean smooths pebbles, and something in us prefers the legend – we want to know who the heroes and villains are and we want them larger than life.  If you are like me, you’ll be disappointed to learn that no historical record shows the James gang ever using its loot to benefit anyone but themselves.

Jesse James, (1847-1882), and his older brother Frank, came of age during an especially bloody phase of the Civil War – the guerilla conflicts that raged across the border state of Missouri.  The James brothers rode with William Quantrill, one of the most notorious guerillas; we would call him a terrorist now.  Sixteen year old Jesse joined Quantrill in 1864, and supposedly took part in the Centralia massacre, where the band killed 22 unarmed Union troops then scalped and dismembered them.

After the war, Missouri freed its slaves, but forbade ex-Confederate soldiers from voting, serving on juries or even preaching from pulpits; it was a fertile ground for outlaws.  The James brothers joined with Cole, John, Jim, and Bob Younger, and went on decade long spree of robberies that spread from Iowa to Texas, and from Kansas to West Virginia.  John Newman Edwards, an editor of the Kansas City Times, published Jesse’s letters and presented him as a symbol of Confederate resistance to Reconstruction.  The James-Younger gang was adept at publicity, often hamming it up before crowds during escapes from stagecoach and bank robberies.  Because they took safes and strongboxes and did not rob passengers, Edwards’s editorials painted Jesse as Robin Hood.

Jesse James dime novel cover

The Pinkerton Detective Agency was hired in 1874 to stop the James-Younger gang, and after numerous setbacks, Allan Pinkerton took on the case as a personal vendetta.  In 1875 he staged a raid on the James homestead and threw an incendiary device into the home.  It exploded, killing Jesse’s half-brother, and blowing off one of his mother’s arms.  This, more than any editorial, won public sympathy for Jesse James.  A bill granting the James and Younger brothers complete amnesty was narrowly defeated in the Missouri legislature.

Jesse married his cousin Zee in 1874, and two of their children survived to adulthood.  The downfall of the gang came in 1876, when they raided the First National Bank in Northfield, Minnesota.  All of the Younger brothers were killed or captured.  Only Frank and Jesse escaped.

Jesse tried to live quietly with his wife after that, in a home near St. Joseph, but he invited Charley Ford, a former gang member, to move in with the family for protection, and Charley brought in his younger brother Bob.  Both Ford brothers had been in contact with the governor of Missouri about his reward for Jesse, dead or alive.    One day, in 1882, as the three men were getting ready to leave for a robbery, as Jesse stopped to clean dust from a picture on the wall, Bob Ford shot him twice in the back of the head.


Memory, both individual and collective, is always mixed with imagination, increasingly so with the passage of time.  And if ours is not an era that treats the reputation of heroes well, at least we grasp human complexity.  Could Jesse James have been a loving father and a cold blooded killer and sympathetic to the poor?  Of course.  What was he really like?  We are never going to know, and besides, if there was a simple answer, I would not still be researching the legend and listening to the song.  Here is Pete Seeger’s version:

Camelot and the Wild West

Last Sunday, after the Bears lost, I was working on one of my western movie posts. Mary switched channels and I looked up to catch the conclusion of First Knight, starring Sean Connery as King Arthur and Richard Gere as Lancelot. Several thousand light bulbs went on as I watched and realized the old west and Arthur’s Britain are territories of legend with much in common.

Duel to the Death by N.C. Wyeth

Both the old west and the Arthurian forests are places where legend fills in all we do not know.  Where there be dragons, there also is imagination.  We populate these realms with our angels and demons, and yet the settings are of this world, as opposed to outer space or Middle Earth.  You can visit Tombstone or Glastonbury.  Most historians agree there really was an Arthur of Britain who held off the Saxon invaders after the Roman legions left.  We know that Wyatt Earp, George Custer, and Calamity Jane were as real in their time as we are now.

Gunfight by N.C. Wyeth

I suspect that most of the tales we love of both knights and cowboys are hero journeys, in the classic sense outlined by Joseph Campbell. In his PBS series, The Power of Myth, Campbell said that when they left to search for the Holy Grail, each knight picked his own place to enter the forest – to follow the path of another would have been shameful.

That same ethic frames a number of westerns, and is historical fact in the case of the the mountain men.  Several kept articulate journals describing the yearning that moved them leave “civilization” behind to see what lay beyond the next ridge.

I do not want to belabor the point, but Pothos, the yearning for the unobtainable, was actively cultivated as a virtue in the courtly love ethic celebrated by the troubadors and in the stories of Cretien de Troyes.  Just like modern film directors, Cretien was writing about an era that was gone in his time, but inspired dreams we still share today.  Be it John Ford or Peckinpah, I’m a sucker for a good western, just as I love stories of the knights of old, from Mallory to Monty Python.


There is one huge difference between the world of Arthurian legend, and the world of the western – and by extension, the 21st century world we all inhabit.  When the knights entered the forest on their solitary quest, they knew what they were trying to save – Camelot – and they knew what they were trying to find – The Holy Grail.  These legends grew from a world that in reality was probably more brutal than the west of any of Sam Peckinpah’s westerns, and yet from all accounts I have read, this was a world where ultimate certainties were not in doubt.

For us the entrance into the forest or desert is a little darker, for we don’t even start with the same certainty that what we are after exists.  Still, in one account Joseph Campbell quoted, the Holy Grail, was never the same for any two people.  It changed to give each what their heart desired.  A very contemporary Grail!  If we don’t start out with a clear idea of what we are looking for, well I don’t think the knights of legend really did, or the people who climbed onto a covered wagon.


And finally, though lists always leave something to be desired, here is a pretty decent NPR list of classic and important westerns, from Stagecoach to Brokeback Mountain, to the new True Grit.  Happy Trails!

McCabe and Mrs. Miller

I had planned to discuss Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), in the same vein as my earlier discussion of True Grit and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, but after wrestling with the post for two days, I realized this film does not fit both of the characteristics I was trying to understand in the others, characteristics I said made them memorable beyond the confines of genre.

Awareness of the nearness of death is there all right – in fact there are few movies in any genre where life is cheaper, as shown in the scene where a hired killer shoots a naive cowboy for target practice.

What is missing is that yearning-for-what-we-cannot-name, an unrequited longing that I called by its Greek name, Pothos.  The characters in McCabe never get that far.  They can’t even satisfy their basic yearnings for livelihood, dignity, love, and survival.

Warren Beatty and Julie Christie in McCabe and Mrs. Miller

Some of the modern directors who brought us the western anti-hero and a new and darker vision – people like Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, and Clint Eastwood – nonetheless loved the genre and set about transforming it rather than trashing it.

Altman sought to use the western genre to make a point.  The year before, 1970, he had used the setting of the Korean war in MASH to reveal the damage modern warfare does to the human soul.  In McCabe and Mrs. Miller, he uses the western genre to make a similar statement about large corporations and unbridled capitalism.  He called the movie an anti-western and set out to dismantle the myths.

John McCabe (Warren Beatty) is a gambler and would-be entrepreneur with an undeserved reputation as a gunfighter.  Constance Miller (Julie Christie) is an opium addicted madam.  They form a business and later a romantic partnership to open a high class brothel in Presbyterian Church, a mining camp named for its largest and least used building.

The brothel is so successful that representatives of the Harrison Shaughnessy mining company arrive to buy the pair out.  Not understanding that this is “an offer he can’t refuse,” McCabe holds out for more.  The company sends three hired killers to get rid of him.

Terrified, McCabe is able to shoot two of the men in the back from hiding (remember, this was 1971, the Bonanza era, the middle-of-the-street, “Draw, padnah,” era of fairplay in gunfights).  He kills the third man but is mortally wounded.  In the final scene, McCabe lies dying in the snow while Christie lies in a haze of smoke in an opium den.

That’s it.

I tried for two days to find something moving and uplifting in the film, and there is really nothing except the lyrics of three Leonard Cohen songs on the soundtrack.  In the opening scene, as McCabe rides into town, Cohen sings, “He was just some Joseph looking for a manger.” If true, that would have lifted McCabe’s story to the level of tragedy, offering some form of  catharsis, some purging of our emotions by terror and pity, but I don’t think it happens here.  Nothing is purged.  Our negative emotions stay with us as they do after a bad episode of the six o’clock news.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller is an important western in the history of the genre.  It is an unforgettable western and a haunting western, but not for the same reasons as the others I have been considering.

NEXT:  A Meditation on the Wild West and Camelot

Pothos in Westerns 2: Pat Garret and Billy the Kid

Sam Peckinpah was 48 when he directed Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. His health was failing after too many years of drug and alcohol abuse; a documentary I saw showed the crew carrying him from one scene to another on a stretcher. He was also battling the studio for artistic control of  the project, a fight that he lost.  Critics panned the production release of the movie, though 10 years later, when the director’s cut was available, they praised it as one of his finest.

Peckinpah poured his heart and soul into this tale of a rebel who died too young.  It isn’t hard to see the connection. Maximilian Le Cain, a filmmaker living in Ireland, says:

[Peckinpah’s] finest works are permeated with an intensely haunting atmosphere of melancholy, loss, and displacement. His heroes are exiles, men out of step with their dehumanised times, alienated from love or domesticity, yearning for a redemption that they seem able to find only in self-destruction. It is a dark but intensely romantic vision. If for nothing else, Peckinpah admires his heroes for their staunch individualism in the face of a world that is changing for the worse, eroding under the blindly ruthless power of money.

One summer saturday afternoon in 1973, I went to see Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. I walked out of the theater stunned, went home and got my sister, and saw the movie again.  In the months and years that followed, I read everything I could about Billy the Kid.  I made a series of prints called, “Homage to Billy the Kid”  (the one that survives is shown below).  Two years later, my wife and I explored Lincoln County, New Mexico, where the key events of William Bonney’s life played out.

Homage to Billy the Kid, color etching by Morgan Mussell, 1973

It isn’t hard to understand why I resonated with Billy the Kid’s story.  “Billy, they don’t want you to be so free,” sings Bob Dylan in the title song.  I was an art student, stuck that summer in a western New York factory town, longing for the southwestern deserts where the skies and vistas are so open they don’t seem real.  Times were hard; the sixties were over; just as in the late 19th century, the price of being “out of step” had gone up.

Some biographies paint William Bonney as an engaging rebel, and others as a psychopathic killer.  I doubt that there is any chance of extracting the “real” William Bonney from legend, but one thing appears to be historical fact:  Billy the kid would not have been declared an outlaw if he had fought on the winning side of “the Lincoln County War,” a bloody open-range type conflict that culminated in a pitched battle on the streets of Lincoln.  There were no angels in that fight; no one deserved a white hat.

Not only is Pothos, the unrequited longing for “something more,” beautifully evoked by Kris Kristofferson’s portrayal of Billy, it permeates the New Mexico landscape and sky, which is like another character in the movie:  it mirrors the Kid’s doomed quest to “live free” with an extraordinary beauty that we glimpse but can never grasp and hold.

Perhaps the best known artifact of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is Bob Dylan’s elegy, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” which sets the tone for the whole movie in its most haunting scene:

Knocking on Heaven's Door in Peckenpah's "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid"

Knocking on Heaven’s Door in Peckenpah’s “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid”

In an effort to find the Kid, Garrett seeks out another town’s sherif, Colin Baker (Slim Pickens), a man so disillusioned he has to ask his wife where he left his badge.  He is building a boat in his yard – a pathetic dingy – so he can “drift out of this damn territory.”  Baker, his wife, and Garrett raid the hideout of a former member of Billy’s gang, and Baker is mortally wounded.  He stumbles over to die by the little creek he hoped to sail away on, and we see it is too shallow to float anything larger than a paper boat.

Sam Peckinpah grew up outside Fresno and used to cut school to cowboy on a relative’s ranch.  According to Maximilian Le Cain (citation above), he did his best to live the myth of the hard living, hard drinking, womanizing, knife-throwing free spirits whose stories he tells.  Cain believes that when Peckinpah started Pat Garrett, he understood and set out to reveal the emptiness of this way of life – its inability to satisfy the hunger within.  He says:

Pat Garrett presents us with a country full of men without a future…If the Western is fundamentally about a struggle for survival in the face of a hostile wilderness, Pat Garrett is about people just waiting around to die. If the West is a wide-open country, Peckinpah’s sees it as a prison from which almost every decent person is trying to escape.

Quite a few movies came out debunking the myth of the west in the decade after that optimistic western epic, How the West Was Won (1962).  Many of these films were politically motivated in an era when, if the body count from Viet Nam was too depressing, you could flip to the ironclad righteousness of the Cartwright boys on Bonanza.

Superficially, Pat Garrett, appears to fit into this group of largely forgotten movies, but it is more.  What lifts it above the myth-busting movies, according to Maximilian le Cain, is Peckinpah’s love of the genre:

Unlike the revisionists, [Peckinpah’s] best films were at least partially self-portraits as opposed to ‘issue’ movies. He exposed the emptiness at the heart of the myth from the inside with the same anguish that he might feel in disclosing a fatal disease from which he was suffering. It is this depth of feeling that really sets this film apart from its contemporaries and has ensured its survival in the face of time.