The Cowboy Figure Essay

1511 words - 6 pages

The Cowboy Figure

The figure of the cowboy is prominent, not only in America’s history, but also in contemporary society. The cowboy has always been regarded as the epitome of freedom, machismo and individuality, and his character maintains a certain romantic quality about it. Riding the range with his trusty horse, forging the frontier, and exposing himself to the mercy of the wilderness, the cowboy lives for himself alone and yet he lives the life about which the rest of society can only fantasize. The cowboy, fearless hero of the West, has become a cultural icon. One literary critic, Sara Spurgeon, sums up the cowboy fantasy by saying that:

the figure of the cowboy personifies America’s most cherished myths--combining ideas of American exceptionalism, Manifest Destiny, rugged individualism, frontier democracy, and communion with and conquest of the natural world…The icon of the sacred cowboy is one of our potent national fantasies, viable in everything from blue jeans to car commercials to popular films. (79)

The question that remains, then, is why the cowboy figure is so appealing. How has he survived in the age of industrialization and technology? Perhaps the cowboy represents what is pure and untamed, and is a model on which to base a longing for a purer time in history and a more authentic, animalistic, and natural existence in the world.

As Spurgeon points out, the cowboy figure is most often associated with freedom, self-reliance, and individualism. These virtues are the main components of the American dream; they are the things that every American supposedly aspires toward. The space of the cowboy is not defined by borders or fences, but in fact it is defined by the absence of them; he is lord of the open and untamed land. As Neal Lambert explains in his essay “Freedom and the American Cowboy,” “anything that might restrict his freedom of movement was distasteful to the cowboy. Civilization itself, as it pushed westward, caused the cowboy to move further out on the frontier where he could find things a little less restricted, a little more free” (63). This transient lifestyle and need for freedom and space is vital to the cowboy’s subsistence. Such a lifestyle, however, is unrealistic for the majority of people in today’s society, which is why they look to the cowboy to fulfill their fantasies, and by following his adventures they are able to live vicariously through him. Not only is the cowboy unrestrained by physical barriers, but he is also free from societal barriers and laws. On the frontier, the cowboy is beyond the law, and as Lambert argues, he is “beyond any law except for that of his own making” (63). Lambert goes on to describe the ‘Cowboy Code’ and the restrictions placed on the individual cowboy by himself and his peers. This code includes guidelines concerning the use of another cowboy’s horse, the settlement of debts and bills before a move, the responsibility to feed and shelter even an...

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