November 8, 2013
Author: Chilton Williamson
Excerpt from The Hundredth Meridian
Richard Weaver, in his discussion of forms and the concept of the formal in Ideas Have Consequences, has this to say about the custom and culture of the American frontier:
The American frontiersman was a type who emancipated himself from culture by abandoning the settled institutions of the seaboard and the European motherland. Reveling in the new absence of restraint, he associated all kinds of forms with the machinery of oppression which he had fled and was now preparing to oppose politically. His emancipation left him impatient of symbolism, of indirect methods, and even of those enclosures of privacy which all civilized communities respect..The frontiersman was seeking a solvent of forms, and he found his spokesman in such writers as Mark Twain, a large part of whose work is simply [!!] a satire upon the more formal European way of doing things.
I do not know whether Weaver, who spent nearly all his adult life shut up in a tiny cluttered apartment in the shadow of the University of Chicago, ever experienced the West, or not. Even if he did, the American West of the 1940s and 50s was not the frontier as Twain experienced it in the 1860s, when he traveled by stagecoach from Missouri to Nevada Territory, a journey described (with some stretchers, as he would have said) in Roughing It. Hannibal, Missouri, was not exactly the frontier in Twain’s time either; nor did Twain himself, dressed in his white suit in his big house back in Hartford, Connecticut, have much more than an imaginative experience as a frontiersman. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, finally, though the background of these novels is socially realistic enough, are anti-romantic romances, inversions of Sir Walter Scott’s which, inside out as they are, contain to a considerable extent the same outside and inside. (Huck is not without his own, simpler version of Tom’s chivalric code, as demonstrated by his actions on behalf of females in distress: Peter Wilks’s daughters, for example.) Greater, because more intentional, insight into the ontological nature of the frontier is provided by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s fictionalized memoirs; the novels of Willa Cather; Mari Sandoz’s biography of her father, Jules, who transplanted and cultivated many Europe-derived forms from his native Switzerland; and Owen Wister’s The Virginian which, romance that it is, served to encode more elaborate frontier forms by acknowledging the simpler existing ones and institutionalizing them in the Western imagination.
The great divide in American literature-indeed, in American culture-identified by Bernard De Voto in the 30s as “Paleface versus Redskin,” though not exclusively regional in nature, is in fact largely so, reflecting the opposition between East and West. It may be that Weaver had De Voto’s distinction in mind when he made his observations regarding the Westerner’s impatience with symbolism and his eagerness to dissolve forms. If so, it seems he wasn’t looking far beyond Twain and De Voto in making them. Redskin forms may be as formal in their context as Paleface forms, while “primitive” cultures are often more formal than “civilized” ones-Weaver’s point exactly in contrasting less “developed” thirteenth-century European thought and custom with the twentieth-century American sort. It seems odd that Richard Weaver, of all people, looking back upon post-Civil War America, could see the Western frontiersmen, and not the Eastern and Midwestern robber barons, Wall Street financiers, oil and railroad tycoons, and press magnates, as the pioneers of the modern mass society, the destroyer of traditional forms and ideals, whose influence worked from West to East. Frontier culture–excluding the gunmen, buffalo hunters, Indian fighters, and other rootless, rapacious daredevils and adventurers-was strongly marked by a formality borrowed from the various Indian cultures it came in contact with, as well as, in the Southwest, by the highly formalized Spanish civilization. (Harvey Fergusson’s novel, The Conquest of Don Pedro, about a Jewish pedlar from New York City who marries into a wealthy Spanish family living in a small New Mexican town on the Rio Grande, is an illustration of such influence.) What is more, settling Western civilization looked to the East-nearly always an older, honester, more civilized East than the one being formed by the Gilded Age-and to the European home countries for its standards of culture, learning, fashion, and etiquette. There is no more touching symbol of civilized determination in Mrs. Wilder’s “Little House” books than Ma’s china shepardess, brought by her from New England to the big woods of Wisconsin, and from Wisconsin to a succession of ever more remote and less civilized locations, from Kansas to Dakota Territory, in each of which the statuette is the first item to be unpacked by Caroline Ingalls and placed ceremonially upon the mantlepiece: a petticoated figure softly glistening in the gloomy wilderness. The modernizing East, not the settling-up West, was the growing enemy of Western civilization, the civilized past: The revolutionary current ran from East to West, not West to East. It has been doing so ever since; until every region of the country, the West included, has largely succumbed, by a process of homogenization and intimidation, to the national mold-without-form that is the modern world.
As Richard Weaver uses the word, “form” consists of a “veil which is half adornment, half concealment.” Those who recognize and appreciate forms, being capable of reflection, understand that “the reality which excites us is an idea, of which the indirection, the veiling, the withholding, is part.” The barbarian, philistine, frontiersman, on the other hand, cannot see that that knowledge of material reality is a knowledge of death.The desire to get ever closer to the source of physical sensation-this is the downward pull which puts an end to ideational life. No education is worthy of the name which fails to make the point that the world is best understood from a certain distance or that the most elementary understanding requires a degree of abstraction.
There is a difference between form and custom, all form being at least in part customary, while not every custom is formal, a rung on “the ladder of ascent.” Apprehenders of form are always both conscious and selfconscious-of the reality veiled by the form in the first instance, of themselves in relationship to both form and reality in the second. Monster truck rallies have nothing to do with form, they are “formless;” rodeos have everything to do with it. So do hunting camps, cattle roundups, brandings, and butcherings, county fairs, barn dances, and ranch barbecues. The gradual replacement of these rituals and the ritualistic gatherings accompanying them by rock concerts, motorcycle rallies, stock car races, and the International Olympics are part of the breakdown of the formative West under pressure from the mob industrial society that leaches all forms and erodes them away from each other.
The American West, like every other region of the country, has been nationalized to the degree that it no longer presents a distinctively Western public face to the nation. The face it does show is bland, blended, managerial, rationalistic-a construct of the new urban and suburbanized West. It retains another, inward turned face, however: rough, still fierce at times, unkempt and uncombed, independent, uncompromising, and contemptuous; the face of the rural West in which the frontier legacy lives on. The first is the face of Dick Cheney; the second, of Edward Abbey. The Cheney face is the face familiar to Washington, D.C., and the national media; the Abbey face the one Old Westerners recognize themselves in. ABBEY LIVES! as the bumper sticker says, even though Cactus Ed is fourteen years in his grave. Cheney doesn’t, though he is alive and powerful and represents, probably, the future of the Rocky Mountain West. Unless something can be-and is-done about it, and soon.
As maybe it can. Things, although pretty bad, still are better out here than elsewhere. And the process of erosion might yet be arrested, even reversed, if an awareness of the nationalizing threat could be heightened, and the West’s sense of cultural separatism renewed. In most situations of this kind, the solution is cultural, rather than political; in this instance, political action is more likely the answer, at least short-term. The nature of that action is suggested by the huge agglomeration of red political entities (called “counties,” but who remembers?) covering the Rocky Mountain West-the old American Desert-as indicated in that electoral map published in USA Today following the 2000 presidential election.
Some years ago, I printed in this space an essay called “Twelve Westerners,” arguing that the West as a geographic and cultural region has been historically disadvantaged by its lack of an intellectual tradition-a political intellectual tradition especially. Where, I asked, are its Jeffersons, its Randolphs, its Fitzsimmons-its John C. Calhoun? I emphasize Calhoun, for the reason that his carefully developed doctrine of concurrent majorities is what the American West today is in desperate need of, Calhoun’s solution seeming to have been designed precisely to address its current crisis.
The famous map in red-and-blue was our fire siren in the night. In a nation comprised of two opposing and unreconcilable cultures, urban and rural, the urban one has, under the present Constitutional system, the numbers and therefore the votes to swamp electorally what it perceives as the rural enemy, and reconstruct it in its own image. It is only a matter of time and numbers before the thing happens. The rural culture, though in possession of by far the larger portion of U.S. territory, sees its minority status enhanced by one election, and one census, after another. It is the permanent shrinking minority, with whom the majority can and will never concur. The minority interest, therefore, must ensure that its right to concurrence with the will of the majority be recognized, and assured. For the custom and culture of the red counties to survive-and thrive-a political means must be found adequate to protect the social and political culture (the forms) of that minority.
What is the reasonable and likely means toward that end? John Remington Graham, in his book The Consent of the Governed Revisited (cf. Chronicles, April 2003), gives the answer: changing the national “form of government”-revolution, in plainspeak. But not subversion, in the sense Richard Weaver understood the term, “the taking away of degree;” a reversion, rather, to the origins of government, as accomplished by the drawing of the Magna Carta, the Glorious Revolution in England, and the American “Revolution,” which dissolved the sovereign people’s allegiance to the British crown. Graham writes:
The right [to the withdrawl of consent] is universal, rooted in natural law and legal tradition-a right of peaceable and lawful revolution..it is a right necessary in extraordinary circumstances for every free and civilized people.whenever they have entered into federal relations with neighboring peoples for mutual advantage. Without it, federal relations are too dangerous to consider.
Today is the time, once again, for revolution-the demand for the return to the origins of American government. What could this mean, other than the summoning of a Second Constitutional Convention charged with the task of redrawing the Constitution of 1789 to fit the national reality of 2003-not by “reinterpreting” that document in its existing form, as proponents of a “living Constitution” have been doing since Lincoln’s presidency, but by altering it in ways that guarantee explicitly both the rights of numerical minorities and the interests of less populous, wealthy, and politically powerful regions, and return the United States of America to its federal principles.
Well before the Florida vote was certified in the 2000 election, Senator Hillary Clinton announced her intention to introduce a legislative bill that would scrap the Electoral College and provide for the election of President and Vice President by popular nation-wide vote. Whether the Senator from New York ever followed up on her promise or not, hers was the triumphalist voice speaking, the voice of the tyrannical majority baying for the sound of shredding paper. (Other majoritarians, including politicians and journalists, insisted that the day of equal Senate representation for each of the fifty states was past.) And so the majoritarian Left, in its usual shy and self-effacing way, is already demanding fundamental constitutional change of a kind that would consolidate its present advantage, and ensure its eventual hegemony. The South, softened up by Yankee money, Yankee influence, and Yankee bodies, is probably too corrupted already to answer the challenge; it is up to Western politicians-governors, Congressmen, state legislators, county commissioners–to assert the revolutionary agenda by convoking a regional convention for the purpose of demanding a national constitutional one, and pressing the matter.
The West (we are cheerfully reminded, almost on a daily basis, by its enemies) is growing: It is home to tens of millions now, no longer a region of one-horse towns and single-representative states. The flip side of the growth coin is enhanced political clout, making the West politically unignorable-at last. If it chooses to wield that clout now, before it is too late, it might have an outside chance at least of winning back itself–along with, perhaps, something of what remains of the rest of the country.
Here is something to think about. The West doesn’t need its own Calhoun; just enough brave, independent, and determined men to take their stand on ideas that seemed defeated forever in 1865.