When I ordered Richard Slotkin's Gunfighter Nation. The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Athenium, 1992. $40.00), I thought, "what a perfect title." It should speak directly to a nation whose citizens consider the frontier experience to have been a fundamental national experience, who are debating the issue of gun control, and who love the movies which are supposed to be discussed. In addition, locally, we have the periodic shoot-outs at the OK Corral.
Well, Wyatt Earp fans can relax. Slotkin has too much on his plate to talk about real people. Wyatt Earp, like every other historical figure, is only a "type"--a symbol who is to be understood as representing Teddy Roosevelt's progressivism just as Johnny Ringo stands for the outlaw's rejection of capitalism. Slotkin plops stories one by one onto his plate, spears them with his fork, and dissects them. If there was ever any life in a movie, he's killed it by page 660. The rest of the 850 pages is footnotes.
Slotkin is a very popular writer among academics. Like most contemporary literary critics, he "de-mystifies" his subject. That is, he isn't interested in the stories, but rather in the "real" meaning, which only he can unmask. Thus, Errol Flynn in The Charge of the Light Brigade is essentially a disguised Hawkeye from The Last of the Mohicans, but the movie's real intent was to prepare the public for World War II. After a few hundred pages of this, you begin to look for the puppetmaster: who is pulling all these strings that Hollywood dances to? And what about the exceptions, those whose themes run against the interests of the entertainment culture? Well, Slotkin is a clever writer. He comes up with an explanation for every contradiction of his theme [for example, "The three big Mexico Westerns released in 1969 express (in their different ways) the cognitive dissonance that afflicted contemporary ideology and develop responses (of a kind) to the attendant demoralization of American politics", and he does it without suggesting that the main purpose of producing movies is to make money.
Slotkin makes a great noise about American racial feelings. In fact, that seems to be our distinguishing characteristic. Nineteenth-century historians, he claims, used the term "Anglo-Saxon" rather than "White" in order to keep the Irish, Germans and Mexicans in their place. Nonsense. The term distinguished the British colonists in the New World from the French and the Spanish; and it tied our history to Walter Scott's novels and Robin Hood stories--frontier stories then at the height of their popularity. But why let accuracy and fairness get in the way of ideology?
However many people buy this book, only the most determined will finish it. If Slotkin saw a couple falling in love, he would describe their relationship in terms which would drive readers to take holy orders.
The fact that many academic readers love such jargon-laden intellectual gamesmanship (meaning, "I can do anything better than you can") makes one despair of higher education--especially in the large universities where specialists read one another's esoteric productions, swoon over the latest exercise in penetrating beneath the surface of culture and literature to uncover the "secret" message, and write flattering reviews of everything that supports their insiders' view of the world.
Thank goodness for the occasional quiet corner of the world where gunfights are something people play at on summer weekends for fun.