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After Words


1997: Westerns Explorer

First rule of scholarship: Make no assumptions.

Which is why Lee Clark Mitchell, chairman of the English department and Holmes Professor of Belles-Lettres at Princeton, begins cautiously in discussing his new book, Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film, published by the University of Chicago Press.

"Have you read it?" he asks.

Yes, comes the answer, to his expressed relief. "I've been in a few interviews where the reporter hasn't had a chance to read the book," he explains. "Even my mother admits she's having a hard time getting through it."

This may come as a surprise to his other readers. Mitchell's latest book (he's written four) is an illuminating and entertaining study of a most intriguing subject--how, in some of America's best-loved stories, cowboys become men. Looking at books from The Last of the Mohicans to Hondo and films from The Great Train Robbery to Clint Eastwood's latest (and citing the likes of Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Conan Doyle, Dr. Spock, and Henry Kissinger in between) Mitchell explores what we tell about ourselves in the stories we tell each other. In so doing, he looks seriously at a genre that isn't supposed to be serious--which has much to do with its appeal. Westerns are "our fullest 'objectified mass dream,'" says Mitchell, and for that reason "we need to acknowledge how fluently that dream has always mutated."

He begins by asking why Westerns have such persistent popularity. In reality, he reminds us, cowboys were overworked, underfed, underpaid, and poorly educated, with monotonous and uneventful jobs. Through Westerns, this unprepossessing character has become "The Cowboy" of mythic proportions. This "figure of the principled drifter compels an insistent fascination that extends back to The Odyssey," Mitchell writes, "in part by defining the freedoms that others have sacrificed for the security of civilized life."

The Western, then, is a well-established epic form--one in which the issue of masculinity, attaining it and maintaining it, figures prominently. In subsequent chapters, he looks at how Westerns helped calm middle-class uncertainties about sexual equality, why celluloid cowboys are forever bathing and visiting the barber (scenes that "actually serve as miniature convalescence sequences," he writes), how "the Western's secret desire has always been for violence," and whether as a genre "the Western has taken its final bullet" (don't bet on it).

Along the way, we learn that The Wild Bunch has more edits than any film ever made, that Blazing Saddles is the top-grossing Western in history, and that Richard Nixon, Jorge Luis Borges, Joseph Stalin, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jean Cocteau, Sherwood Anderson, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Simone de Beauvoir, Douglas MacArthur, and Akira Kurosawa were all Western lovers. At the same time, this is a volume of solid scholarship, with a daunting 51 pages of notes. ("My publisher made me cut them back by half," Mitchell laments.)

Rigorous scholarship, yes--but on a subject rarely covered by academics. Having tenure, he jokes, made it easier for him to contemplate such rashness. "But, really, it's not that it took guts to write the book. It started when I was teaching a course with James McPherson, the Civil War scholar, and we decided to include The Virginian, which I had never read. It was the best- selling novel of 1902 and really the first Western. I had seen and read lots of other Westerns but this book just didn't strike me the same way." All this led to an essay that became the first paper on a Western text ever to be published in the PMLA journal. "It's usually devoted to high literature, as it were," Mitchell explains. Following this, universities from Paris to Berlin to Tel Aviv began inviting him to speak--and that's how he built much of the book.

There's much more territory still to cover, he says. "This excursion into cultural studies represents just one strong aspect of my interests in the West and Native Americans. At the moment, I'm involved in projects on Mark Twain and Jack London. I've got so many things that I want to work on and don't have time to do."

Which is why, when asked about his research, he answers with just a few words, cowboy-style. "I tell people that I work on the 'James Brothers'--Henry and Jesse."

1969: Collectible Papers

Howard Horsford, professor emeritus of English, gives his former student the highest tribute a teacher could possibly give: After 28 years, he still keeps a file of Lee Mitchell's senior papers tucked away neatly in his office in Morey Hall.

Riffling through the pages, he recalls first meeting Mitchell in the fall of 1967 in an honors seminar on American literature. "It seemed to me that, although his writing and thought might have needed polish, his native intelligence deserved a lot of attention."

He turns to Mitchell's honors thesis-- "Filtering Through the Gap," a paper on John Hawkes--and says with a pride that's almost paternal, "Lee graduated Phi Beta Kappa, and this essay earned him highest honors." Over the decades, the two have remained close friends, and, the admiration being mutual, Mitchell continually seeks Horsford's comments on his work.

Another professor who remembers him well is Jarold Ramsey, who was new to Rochester and new to teaching when he met Mitchell as a freshman. "It was the first time I had ever taught, and some of those kids just pinned me to the wall. It was a very good class, though, and Lee stood out in it immediately for his intellect and his concentration."

As a senior, Ramsey recalls, "Lee stood for his honors exam before a panel that included an outside examiner who happened to be very eminent and very formidable, Leslie Fiedler. I had faced him as an undergrad myself and I knew just how fearsome he could be, so I was sort of cringing for Lee." As it turned out, Ramsey needn't have worried. "He more than met the standard. I think he was just meant to end up where he did."

Denise Bolger Kovnat

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