II. Understanding the Mythic Cowboy
I approach the study of the “mythic cowboy” 6 as a malleable image in American
culture, an “invisible man” from America’s past7 representing not one person, but a
cultural image. Rather than focus on an individual or a circumscribed group, I will
borrow the technique of the myth and symbol school. The myth and symbol method is an
established technique of literary criticism, American studies, and popular culture
scholarship, which focuses upon aspects of culture shared by large segments of the
population who relate to literature and popular culture in parallel ways (Walle 2000, 17).
This approach is based on the belief that an overarching entity (usually envisioned as
“national character”) exists and that it predisposes many, if not most, people in a society
to respond in roughly parallel ways to certain examples of art, literature, and popular
culture (Walle 2000, 47). According to scholar Alf H. Walle, the myth and symbol
method can be summarized in three parts (Walle 2000, 181):
It possesses a willingness to analyze various genre of literature, film, and popular culture (or deal with several genres simultaneously) as required by a research project.
It analyzes the content of literature, film, and popular culture in order to explore and interpret culture via an analysis of motifs, character developments, etc. and how they evolve or remain stable in different times and places.
c. A relatively long time frame is used in order to spot trends, inconsistencies, and to project the future.
6 I use the word “mythic” to describe the fictional cowboy, as opposed to the real-life individual. The interrelationship of the cowboy myth and cowboy history is explained in Robert V. Hine’s The American West: An Interpretive History (1973), esp. chap. 9. In this paper I tend to equate the terms “cowboy” and “mythic cowboy” and use them interchangeably. Some readers may object and point to important distinctions. I equate the terms because it represents the American notion of what cowboys are, or are supposed to be (Savage 1979, 22).
7 In The Cowboy Hero, William Savage wrote that the cowboy “remains the invisible man in our national past” (Savage 1979, 3).