Myth & The American West

Storytellers, both of the written and oral tradition, have always focused their tales around heroes, and the hero has undoubtedly evolved over the centuries. You can sit and read about the brave and intelligent Odysseus in Homer’s The Odyssey, the valiant trials and death faced by the arguably flawless Beowulf, but you can also read about the less than perfect heroes that embody the imperfections of average people. Modernist literature revolves around such characters. Some of the most notable being Jay Gatsby and Nick Carraway–some of the not so well-known being The Big Rock Candy Mountain’s Bo Mason, and Jim Nolan in Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle. Neither of which measure up to Beowulf or Odysseus, yet they’re still literary “heroes.”

Certain critics and theorists, such as Northrop Frye in his Anatomy of Criticism, argue that some of the “heroes” we see in literature today–particularly the novel–are “inferior in power or intelligence to ourselves”– even more flawed than the average human being. Readers view these characters as heroes, nonetheless. But exactly what about these seemingly average (even below-average) characters is heroic?

The iconic mythologist Joseph Campbell, in his revered work The Hero With A Thousand Faces, defines a hero as one “who has been able to battle his personal and local historical limitations,” and is “eloquent not of the present, disintegrating society and psyche, but of the unquenched source through which society is reborn. The hero has died as a modern man; but as eternal man-perfected, unspecific, universal man, he has been reborn.” Focusing specifically on the literature of the American West and the closing of the frontier, it becomes evident that the heroes of modern American literature may not be perfect like the heroes of myth, but they embark on a mythical journeys toward self-actualization. Joseph Campbell outlines the process of this journey, and the heroes of Western literature embody the heroic characteristics that Campbell establishes in his definition. Western heroes encounter many of the same guides, mentors, and obstacles seen in ancient myths, and through becoming mythical heroes, they are able to replace the closing of the Western frontier with the opening of an internal frontier: “man’s eternal and bitter warfare with himself,” as it is so eloquently put in “John Steinbeck and Farm Labor Unionization: The Background of ‘In Dubious Battle’” by Jackson J. Benson and Anne Loftis. Through his mythical journey, the Western hero is immortalized, even as the physical frontier of the American west fades and comes to a close.

It may be initially unclear how the mythical hero and his journey to attain heroism is consistent with the journeys of the heroes in the literature of the American West, but the answer can be found in many works. John Steinbeck is famous for his incorporation of myth into his writings — specifically in To a God Unknown (1932) and In Dubious Battle (1936). Steinbeck’s fascination with myth was a product of his friendship with the mythologist and author Joseph Campbell. Campbell and Steinbeck had an intellectually fruitful relationship, as Campbell shared his knowledge of myth while Steinbeck took this knowledge and contextualized it within the modern world. Joseph Campbell defined a hero as one “who has been able to battle his personal and local historical limitations…is eloquent not of the present, disintegrating society and psyche, but of the unquenched source through which society is reborn. The hero has died as a modern man; but as eternal man-perfected, unspecific, universal man, he has been reborn”.  This definition of a mythical hero is planted into Steinbeck’s modern setting through the development of Jim Nolan in In Dubious Battle. Continuing with Campbell’s philosophy, Nolan overcomes many obstacles and pushes his own limits, endures all stages of initiation into the role of a hero, and ultimately reintegrates into society. Campbell’s initiation process features many specific steps, which Oana Melnic outlines in her article: “Following the Steps of the Hero: An Approach to Jim Nolan’s Initiation Journey in John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle.” First, the hero must mature to a point where he no longer fits in with his original home and life. This step is characterized by the hero’s realization that “old concepts, ideals, and emotional patters no longer fit,” and there is a “threshold” that must be passed (Melnic 94). The hero must pass into his own subconscious, which, in In Dubious Battle is signified by Jim Nolan’s long and disorienting walk to the office of Henry Nilson, who is the first of Nolan’s mentors and guides. Nilson serves as what Campbell called the “herald or the announcer of the adventure” to come — a witness to Nolan’s new desire to embark on a heroic journey. This “herald” is also usually a social pariah who has been “judged evil by the world” (Campbell 53), which is fitting, as Nilson is a member of the Communist party.

After the hero meets the “herald,” he finds his mentor, a provider of “guardianship and direction” (Melnic 94), who, within the context of In Dubious Battle, Nolan finds in Mac. A morally ambiguous figure, the guardian is always hard to read. Mac is a perfect embodiment of this role, as he protects and teaches Jim, but is also ruthless and capable of terrible things. This guide is helpful to the developing hero, but is not a factor for long, as the journey of a mythical hero is one that can only be completed alone. The guide becomes irrelevant once the hero reaches “the first threshold,” which is “a zone of magnified power,” where the hero feels at ease and in control before he enters a world of “the unknown, and danger” (Campbell 77).

In this new zone, the hero faces what Campbell described as “clashing rocks…the pairs of opposites (being and not being, life and death, beauty and ugliness, good and evil, and all the other polarities that bind the faculties of hope and fear, and link the organs of action to deeds of defense and acquisition” (Campbell 89). This exists in In Dubious Battle when Jim first enters the cottage and meets all the different proponents of the party; the beauty of Dick is contrasted with the ugliness of Joy, for example. After Jim faces these “clashing rocks” for the first time, he is prepared for the next step of Campbell’s hero’s journey: rebirth. Campbell uses the image of the “belly of the whale” to symbolize this, as it is a universally understood representation of the womb. The belly of the whale that Jim Nolan enters is the train that he rides with Mac in order to get to Torgas Valley. It takes him away from a past he has grown apart from, and the train “becomes the equivalent of the archetypal whale which ‘swallows’ Jim” (Melnic 98).

Once Jim and Mac get to Torgas Valley, Jim begins his journey down “the road of trials” (Campbell 101) and tests, where he meets his third mentor, Lisa, who serves as the “Magna Mater” (Melnic 100). Her role is to help Jim continue down the road of trials; when he lacks strength, she will be there to give him more. Once the Magna Mater has been introduced and the road of trials has been conquered, the next step for Campbell’s hero is “the atonement with the father,” where he overcomes his domination by his paternal figure and is able to convince his father “of his own value and his own competence” (Campbell 137). Jim Nolan’s father was a fighter and a very relentless one, but Jim overcomes his “ogre” (Melnic 102) of a father as well as his substitute father figure, Mac. Melnic identifies this moment in the novel when Jim says, “I’m stronger than you, Mac. I’m stronger than anything in the world” (IDB 280). Jim Nolan’s heroic journey comes to a close when he must, inevitably, reintegrate into society in order to share his knowledge with the people. The hero’s journey ends with death, the “last act in the biography of the hero” (Campbell 356), as Campbell puts it.

Steinbeck clearly incorporates the same sequence of events in his novel To a God Unknown. Joseph Wayne’s journey, from his decision to move west to his ultimate suicide can be  overlaid on the same template as Jim Nolan’s story. Firstly, there is the moment where the hero, in this case Joseph Wayne, must understand that the things he finds familiar and comfortable, the morals and life he once planned on living, no longer fits. This can be found in Joseph’s decision to move to the west, rather than staying in Vermont and taking the place of his father once his father dies. After he is given his father’s blessing, Joseph Wayne must take the next step on Campbell’s journey to becoming a mythological hero and journey into his own subconscious. This inward journey occurs after Joseph’s episode where he attempts to make love to the earth; Joseph sits up and wonders “What was it?…What came over me then?” (TGU 8), he doesn’t understand what’s happening to him as he begins to become more and more obsessed with his land. His journey into his subconscious continues when he, Thomas, and Juanito journey to the glade. The hero’s delving into his own subconscious is often characterized by a maze-like journey, much like the one that Joseph embarks on through the wilderness with Juanito. In the glade, Joseph recognizes that “somewhere, perhaps in an old dream, [he had] seen [the glade], or perhaps felt the feeling of [the] place” (TGU 32). Juanito’s presence and influence upon this moment establishes him as the “herald” figure in Joseph Wayne’s heroic journey. He meets Joseph and recognizes his connection with the land, knowing that Joseph is able to feel it and could potentially consume him. Furthermore, Juanito is somewhat of a pariah, a Native American claiming to be Castillian who seeks Joseph’s friendship. As herald, he announces the journey and bond that Joseph and the land are going to share; he teaches Joseph about the land and of the spirit it possesses.

Since Juanito fulfills the role of “the herald,” Joseph also needs a provider of “guardianship and direction” (Melnic 94), which he finds not in a human, but in his tree. At first the tree represents his deceased father, but deeper into the story the tree seems to just be a representation of the land and Joseph’s main means of communication with it. Like Mac in In Dubious Battle, the tree is an ambiguous figure —  loved by Joseph and questioned by everybody else. Through the lens of  Joseph’s perspective, the tree as all that is good; it is a physical testament to the fertility and greatness of his land. From the perspective of Burton, Father Angelo, and essentially everybody else, the tree as an evil object; it is a manifestation of Joseph’s pagan obsession. They recognize how he is consumed by it, devoted to appeasing it, and how he sneaks off at night to be alone with it and practice “the hanging of sacrifices, the pouring of blood, the offering of every good thing to the tree” (TGU 116). The tree doesn’t speak to Joseph and give him guidance in a literal sense, but it acts as his guardian in the sense that he speaks to it when he needs advice, and is able to determine his course of action after his conversations “with” the tree. In reality, Joseph is thinking out loud, speaking to the tree, hashing things out in his own head while under the impression that he is receiving guidance from what all other characters see as an inanimate object.

Burton is the character who most actively criticizes Joseph’s relationship with the tree, and after he decides to move off the homestead, he digs into the earth and cuts the tree’s roots. Once Burton kills the tree, Joseph is forced into the next step in Campbell’s journey of a mythical hero: “the atonement with the father” (Campbell 137). Unlike Jim Nolan in In Dubious Battle, Joseph’s realization that he is more powerful than the tree does not happen willingly. He is at first filled with sorrow and loss of hope when he realizes that his tree stands dead, but as the dry years approach and Joseph’s land seems doomed, he begins to believe that he can play a role in saving the land, that his connection with it is strong enough that he can save it. Obsessed with this notion, he goes to the glade in order to make sure that it remains alive and trickling with water. He explains his feeling of empowerment to Juanito, exclaiming, “Listen, Juanito, first there was the land and then I came to watch over the land; and now the land is nearly dead. Only this rock and I remain. I am the land” (TGU 168). Juanito responds to Joseph’s feeling of hope and significance with his deeper knowledge of the land, that regardless of Joseph’s efforts, he will not be able to save it. Joseph believes the spring is growing, but Juanito, acting as “herald,” yet again, announces that the end of Joseph’s journey is near; he explains that “‘Before a spring goes dry it grows a little.’ Joseph looked quickly at the stream. ‘This is a sign of the end, then?’ ‘Yes, señor. Unless God interferes, the spring will stop’” (TGU174). After Juanito makes this statement, Joseph decides to step back into society and see Father Angelo. In his meeting with Father Angelo, the two men simply do not see eye to eye. Father Angelo is set in his ways, believing that Joseph is consumed by his paganism and that his soul must be prayed for, rather than the land. Joseph then shares his opinion with the Father, shouting “My soul? To Hell with my soul! I tell you the land is dying. Pray for the land!” (TGU 176). This is Joseph’s way of sharing his belief that he and the land are one, and that the land requires more direct attention than his soul — that it arguably is his soul. Finally, Joseph’s “last act” (Campbell 136) must come: his death. With his new sense of seemingly divine empowerment and his deeply rooted connection to the land, Joseph believes that the only way to save the land is to sacrifice himself. “He watched the blood cascading over the moss, and he heard the shouting of the wind around the grove. The sky was growing grey. And time passed and Joseph grew grey too. He lay on his side with his wrist outstretched and looked down the long black mountain range of his body. Then his body grew huge and light. It arose into the sky, and out of it came the streaking rain. ‘I should have known,’ he whispered. ‘I am the rain . . . I am the land . . . and I am the rain. The grass will grow out of me in a little while’” (TGU 183-84). Joseph’s death also signifies his final recognition “of his own value and his own competence” (Campbell 137), and his conquering of his devotion to the tree — he realizes that he is capable of saving the land without the tree and that he has the ultimate power to cause the rain by sacrificing himself. Joseph Wayne goes through the process of becoming a mythical hero as it is laid out by Joseph Campbell, from his realization that he must move west, to his self-sacrifice for his land. Joseph also embodies many traits of the archetypal Western hero, and his story raises the point that there is some intersection between the heroes of myth, and the heroes of the frontier.

While Steinbeck is known for incorporating myth in his work, these same processes of maturation and emphasis on role-model figures can be seen in numerous literary works of the American West. There are also undeniable congruences between the character of a Western hero and that of a mythical hero. One of the ways it is fitting that Campbell’s hero can be found in the Western hero is the fact that Campbell’s hero is “eloquent not of the present, disintegrating society and psyche, but of the unquenched source through which society is reborn” (Campbell 20). This resonates with the west, because the frontier expanded westward towards the Pacific Ocean as a result of a cycle of the natural world being turned into bustling frontier towns, these frontier towns dying off and becoming ghost towns, and then new frontier towns being established even farther west. This constant destruction and rebirth that was so common on the frontier is what forged the American mentality, as Frederick Jackson Turner explains in “The Significance of the Frontier in American History“: “first, the frontier was the Atlantic coast. It was the frontier of Europe in a very real sense. Moving westward, the frontier became more and more American” (Turner 39), as settlements failed and were rebuilt, the failures of previous towns helped to improve the new towns until the frontier closed and America was settled from coast to coast. America, particularly the West, was founded on this restlessness where pioneers were constantly moving and had to be ready to re-settle at a moment’s notice. This impermanence is something that the Western Hero must be comfortable with, and throughout the literature of the West, there is often a lot of moving around and forming of new settlements rather than staying put in one.

One work that features this theme of geographical impermanence and restlessness is Wallace Stegner’s The Big Rock Candy Mountain. Bo Mason drags his family all over North America in order to pursue his goal of striking it rich — one way or another. While he never becomes a true mythical hero, per say, Bo’s incapability to stay in one place despite the desire for a stable home by his wife, Elsa, reflects the “pairs of opposites” that the mythical hero must grapple with. Bo starts out in North Dakota with Elsa, then moves to Saskatchewan, and also to Salt Lake City, among other places. In each different location, Bo finds a new occupation — sometimes legitimate, sometimes not — by which he can feed his family. Bo embodies the American restlessness that existed on the frontier, but he is a few years too late; the frontier has already closed. He is seeking the next frontier and brining his family along with him, two things which simply do not go together. Bo embodies the traits of Campbell’s mythical hero in the sense that he is in tune with the “source through which society is reborn,” as he is continually able to allow one life, say his “blind pig” in North Dakota, to fall apart, and let another life, perhaps a homestead in Saskatchewan, come together. However, there is no physical frontier for Bo to explore and conquer anymore; there is no uncharted land for him to go to in order to strike it rich and start a newer, better life. As a result, he is unable to utilize his mythical and Western heroism in a physical sense, which forces him to engage in the “eternal and bitter warfare with himself” that many of Steinbeck’s characters also face. Without a frontier to face in the outside world, Bo’s restless spirit faces the interior frontier of his own mind. This is where Campbell’s process of becoming a hero comes into play: Bo’s internal struggle is based around the pairing of opposites, the “clashing rocks,”  particularly his desire to be with Elsa and his sons against his desire to be a restless, nomadic frontiersman like Judd. He must choose between two lives: the safety and security that Elsa wants, and the unrestricted life of adventure he enjoyed before he had a family. On top of this, there is the clash between Bo’s obsession with how others perceive him, and the reality of how he perceives himself. Bo never truly overcomes this clashing, and this unsettled internal conflict results in his numerous character flaws; he beats his son, abandons his family, returns to them and attempts to be a good father, then ultimately has an extramarital affair and kills himself in a murder suicide. His life was an unsatisfactory compromise between being a family man and an adventurous seeker of fortune, as well as a constant struggle to live up to the high standard he was always striving to attain in order to impress those around him.

Bo Mason exemplifies what becomes of the Western hero in modern American literature as he runs out of frontier to explore. The frontier closes, and he is forced to look inward rather than westward. In this observation and exploration of oneself, he embarks on the mythical journey outlined by Joseph Campbell, faces many of the same trials and “clashing rocks,” and engages in what Steinbeck described as “man’s eternal and bitter warfare with himself.” With no wilderness to conquer and colonize, no Native Americans left to plot against, all the Western hero has left is himself, and oftentimes, as is the case with Bo Mason and also with Joseph Wayne, their stories end with suicide.

Beyond the stories of death and suicide that we see as Western heroes follow a mythical path, there are also many female figures in the modern literature of the frontier that are analogous to the figures in ancient myths. Returning to  In Dubious Battle, one can see that Lisa serves as a goddess figure. Abby Werlock, in John Steinbeck: The Years of Greatness 1936-1939, describes Lisa as a “link with life and vital forces” (Werlock 54). She has a presence of “goodness and warmth” (Werlock 57), whereas the other characters, such as Mac, are cold and calculating, or scientific and factual, like Doc. Always nurturing, Lisa is, as Melnic states, the “Magna Mater” for Jim Nolan. She is his source of strength when he must face the difficult trials on the journey to mythical heroism. Werlock describes her as “a composite figure of mythical mothers, whether Mary or the earlier Greek ones” (Werlock 62). Lisa is not alone in this category, as when one observes much more of the literature of the American west, figures like Lisa seem to be plentiful. Comparing In Dubious Battle again to To a God Unknown, one cannot help but see that Rama fits into the category of Melnic’s “Magna Mater,” or Werlock’s “composite figure of mythical mothers.” Rama truly shines as a mythical mother first when she explains her knowledge to Joseph to Elizabeth after the death of Benjy, and then she acts as mother to Joseph Wayne after the death of Elizabeth. First with Elizabeth, Rama’s strength is made very clear. Elizabeth “felt the strength of Rama and knew she should resent it, but it was a safe pleasant thing to have this sure woman by her side” (TGU 65). Rama’s strong energy is eerie and intimidating, there is a natural air about her, and Elizabeth doesn’t know if it should frighten or comfort her at first; this establishes Rama’s mythical power. Rama then goes on to explain Joseph’s character, saying that Elizabeth can “worship him without fear of being sacrificed” (TGU 67), and that “Joseph has strength beyond vision of shattering, he has the calm of mountains, and his emotion is as wild and fierce and sharp as the lightning and just as reasonless. . . He is eternal. . .This man is not a man, unless he is all men” (TGU 68). The reason that Rama is able to so deeply understand Joseph’s life force is because she, like Lisa, is very in tune with vitality and the mythical powers of nature. After Elizabeth dies, she takes her power, her Lisa-like “goodness and warmth” (Werlock 57) to Joseph. Rama sleeps with Joseph, recognizing that it was a “hunger” for her, but “a need” for him. Joseph is obsessed with fecundity, reproduction, and his land. Rama recognizes this, she knows that the dry years approach, Joseph’s wife is dead, and his tree is dead, so she provides him with an outlet to fulfill his need. Furthermore, she serves as the mother to Joseph’s son when Joseph stays behind to be with his land. Like Lisa, Rama is a mythical mother: powerful and aware, warm and kind, and very in tune with the forces of life and nature.

Another figure, not necessarily within the genre of literature, that fulfills this Magna Mater role is Dallas in John Ford’s 1939 film, Stagecoach. Dallas, a prostitute, embodies the same traits as Rama and Lisa: goodness, warmth, and an understanding of life forces. Being a prostitute, Dallas is shunned and scoffed at by much of society, including the upper-class Mrs. Mallory, who rides in the stagecoach with Dallas only because she is desperate to go and see her husband. Dallas continually tries to befriend Mrs. Mallory, offering her shoulder for Mrs. Mallory to rest her head on, but she is continually denied. Hatfield, an old soldier of the confederacy, refuses to even look at her or offer her water, while he takes every measure to ensure that Mrs. Mallory has a pleasurable journey through the West. Dallas is mistreated by all characters except for Ringo Kid and Doc Boone. Through her ability to continue to be kind to those who mistreat her, she displays the same goodness that can be seen in the characters of Rama and Lisa. She also displays a similar warmth, particularly toward John Wayne’s character, Ringo Kid. Much like Rama’s emotional attraction to Joseph Wayne, Dallas is drawn to Ringo Kid by his refusal to adhere to the typical codes that all of the other characters are confined by. Hatfield is blind outside of his narrow Southern gentleman’s viewpoint, Buck, while he does recognize the heroic qualities Ringo possesses, is still very controlled by his adherence to the law, but Ringo Kid does not fit within any of these conventions; he is a criminal, a murderer, and unconventional, but this is what causes Dallas to like him and be so warm to him. There are clear echoes in the Dallas and Ringo Kid relationship of the Rama and Joseph Wayne relationship. Both women are motherly figures, and both men are unconventional and powerful, with a certain mystical individualism. This is what causes Rama to sleep with Joseph in order to fulfill his “need,” and what causes Dallas to help Ringo plan his escape so he can fulfill his “need” for revenge and escape from the law —  even though their scheme does not work out. Finally, Dallas also acts as a mother figure with an understanding of vitality when she cares for Mrs. Mallory’s baby, as well as Mrs. Mallory. Ironically, as a prostitute, she looks like an image of purity as she holds the baby and acts as a temporary guardian. Throughout the whole storyline she is a mother: making coffee, taking care of all the men, and then finally assuming the position of caretaker for the baby. Dallas, Rama, and Lisa are all one in the same, embodying the Magna Mater that exists in Campbell’s hero’s journey; they are ancient goddesses in the context of the American west.

When one looks deeply into the stories and characters that exist in the literature of the frontier, manifest destiny, and the American west, it becomes clear that the mythological tales of ancient times resonate in the tales of farmers, restlessness, and homesteading. Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces lays a clear template by which one can see just how mythical the journey of the Western hero is. The more one is able to apply this journey to the stories of western heroes, the more he uncovers that figures such as Campbell’s “herald,” and the “Magna Mater” pointed out by Oana Melnic, are also frequently present in the literature of the frontier. Steinbeck’s novels provide a gateway through which we are able to test the waters and make these connections, and once it becomes obvious how much latent mythology there is in Steinbeck’s novels, particularly in In Dubious Battle and  To a God Unknown, one can see how Campbell’s mythology is applicable to essentially all literature of the west, and even to film. This inner journey that the mythical hero undergoes allows the Western hero to live past the closing of the frontier, and face “man’s eternal and bitter warfare with himself,” rather than the physical adversary that was the frontier.

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