Thursday, January 21, 2010

Shakespeare in the Wild West

California Joe reflecting on the Native Americans he has just duped: "It's a pity they don't know English so that they can cuss, for I know they is that mad to make me sorry for 'am."

Caliban in William Shakespeare's The Tempest (I, ii)
"You taught me language; and my profit on't
Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!"

We talked in class yesterday about how Western film picks up on many of the conventions first established in dime novels. This quotation in California Joe about learning to curse instantly recalled Shakespeare's quotation in The Tempest about learning to curse, and it got me thinking about how much these dime novel authors were influenced by their great literary forebears. (Most people who were educated enough to write novels would have been well-versed in their William Shakespeare, though their characters and their readership might not be.) Caliban, of course, is a prototypical "savage," so perhaps it's not surprising that, of all Shakespeare's characters, he is the one who would be invoked here--but if it isn't surprising, it is nonetheless interesting. The inter-textuality of these fun little books is striking, and I suspect scholars could (or have?) produced dozens of papers on the application of Caliban to the image of Native Americans and all that it implies.

On a different note, I'm also noticing how, like the longer, popular novels of the time, the dime novels tend towards sentimentality. Joe is always whooping for Joe, crying in anguish, and so forth. Unlike the great stoic heroes of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, the dime novel heroes wear their emotions on their sleeves. Showing emotion is an expectation of these novels that has since gone out of fashion. Again, the culture creating the myth of the West seems to reflect as much or more about itself than it does the West whose "history" it tries to capture. What is it about 1970-present that demands a silent, seemingly unfeeling hero? What was it about the Victorians that demanded a feeling, reacting one?

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