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?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

More on California Joe

from California Joe:

Urging his white horse to a still greater speed, which the splendid animal seemed readily capable of, he soon drew within close pistol range of the two red-skins.

"It don't seem exactly right to shoot 'em, when they won't shoot back, thinking I'm a spook; but they'll report mighty soon that I was coming from the pale-face camp, and then they won't believe I'm an evil spirit, so I guess I'd better kill 'em.."

With this, Joe threw his hand forward quickly, and it held a revolver, a weapon at that time almost unknown upon the plains.

Instantly followed two sharp reports, and the two riders fell from their saddles without a cry, for Joe's aim was deadly.


I was thinking about Clint Eastwood this morning, as usual.

More specifically, I was thinking about a story I'd heard about him and John Wayne.  Apparently (and I need a source for this!!), as a young actor, Eastwood idolized John Wayne and had always wanted to work in a film with him, but the love was not mutual and Wayne refused.  From what I understand, he objected to the characters Eastwood tended to play.  An Eastwood character would shoot a man in the back, whereas a Wayne character would not.

This scene in California Joe seems to conjure similar questions of morality in the west.  What particularly intrigues me is Joe's recognition that he's shooting unarmed men.  I'm guessing Wayne would hold his fire here, if there stories are true.  At least this early on, Joe is more the prototype of the Eastwood style cowboy... though I have to say, for a silent and mysterious figure, he talks a good deal more than the modern icons of mysterious cowboyness.  That part of the mythology seems to be evolving.

I wonder if Joe's moral ambiguity is also what makes him so promptly enlist women and children in the fight against Bad Blood's gang of Indians--a move that obviously gives the leader of the settlers some pause.  It made me so happy to see a dime novel that put rifles in the hands of women, as they surely were in the actual west.  If so, moral ambiguity has lead to a social good--a more equal treatment of female characters--than the traditional notions of chivalry would have allowed.  It's something to think about, at any rate.

Of course, the treatment of the Native American characters isn't nearly so forward-looking.  He scalps the two he kills here then steals from their corpses, and he has already robbed the tribe of the rest of its herd of horses.  What ever are we to make of this kid?  He is a strange hero indeed.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

California Joe

"There, some hundred paces distant from where they stood, was what appeared to be a horse and rider.

The animal was snow-white, and stood as motionless as though carved from marble.

The rider was dressed in deep black from boots to hat, and sat silent and still." (California Joe)

Black hats, white hats.  I love how this texts puts the black and white all in one character--of course he's mysterious.  How could he not be?  What visual clue do we have to his morality?  Italian westerns pick right up on the icon of the mystery man--but instead of mixed signals they give us the brown hat, the ultimate muddied morality.

I have to admit, I'm curious as heck about this mysterious plainsman and all he may or may not reveal about the history of the Western in literature.