Sorry this letter is a little late in getting to you. Last week I had a cold; that, in and of itself, wouldn’t have made too much of a difference but I’ve set myself on a pretty stringent writing routine for a fiction project I am working on. The sniffles and the new routine left me with almost no words and even fewer thoughts about clothes.
As I so often do when feeling under the weather, I revisited a lengthy Ken Burns’ miniseries. Last week it was The West. (Burns presents this epic but did not direct it.) There are few things, Ralph, that excite me like the West does. In the American imagination, it is paramount and paradox. It is a place of romance and remorse. In my teenage years I would have relied heavily on a John Ford-inspired description, about the choices we make between legend and fact. These days the West, as it exists in my imagination owes a huge debt to David Milch and his incredible show Deadwood, in my opinion the greatest achievement of our peak-TV-era. Here is an excessively long quote from a New Yorker profile that describes the enterprise better than I ever could:
The central premise of “Deadwood” is that a populace of exiles—wily misfits, dim-witted misfits, bloody-minded opportunists, gamblers with nothing to lose, abused abusers—have gathered in a gold-mining settlement where trustworthiness and love are the rarest of commodities. Inexorably, they must curb some of their tendencies toward anarchy and savagery and embrace certain rudiments of civilized society; otherwise they will destroy themselves (or, almost as dire a prospect, be subjugated by the federal government).
The John Ford version, the one I first fell in love with as a film-obsessed teenager, the one about the sad embrace of legend over truth (it is sad or at the very least ambiguous as dramatized in Ford’s late classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) is retrospective.
The Burns’ presentation is typical of the overriding sentiment of most of the Ken Burns projects: aw shucks, it seems to say, we had a chance to do something great and didn’t but we know it now and by golly we only realize how bad it was because of our national genius. (I know this sounds like a really flip dismissal of the Burns’ enterprise. It’s not. I love it.)
Milch’s version is about how civilization pulls itself out of the muck. It’s about genesis.
One thing the West has in common in any conception is, of course, the outfits. You knew I was going to say that. And here’s the other reason why I didn’t write to you last week: I’m sick of myself and if I’m sick of myself you must be positively exhausted. It’s funny, but I’ve said so much in these letters and yet I haven’t really said anything at all.
So let me try to tell you as concisely as possible (as if such a thing is conceivable!) why I’m ambivalent about Western shirts. For a start, the Western shirts I am ambivalent aren’t like the ones pictured above, although by their mere association they fall into that camp. The Western shirts I am ambivalent about have embroidered hearts and flowers and mother-of-pearl buttons and pointed flap pockets. Sometimes they are chambray. Sometimes they are white. Despite the wide array of associations that a person can make with these shirts, I always associate them with a very specific type of urban youngster, probably a singer songwriter, definitely middle class. They might own a resonator guitar. They quite possibly think Jack White is cool.
I think you have a pretty good picture of whom I’m talking about.
It was probably seeing other people embrace certain notions about time and place so thoughtlessly that left such a lasting impression on the way I think of these shirts. I graduated high school right at the moment that alt-country reached it’s highest peaks. A certain twang was used as shorthand for the authentic. Rick Rubin resurrected Johnny Cash only to have Joaquin Phoenix peddle hillbilly stupidity as the triumph of American realness and righteousness a few years later. You know I revel in the ambiguous nature of authenticity; but the Western shirt wearing yodellers of the early 21st century were leaning on some pretty disreputable ideas for their authentic. Poverty, hardship and lack of education were the only prerequisites to the club of realness; failing that, there was a shirt you could buy at almost any thrift store that would do the trick.
Of course that has all changed. I don’t have the slightest idea who is wearing Western shirts today or why. So why can’t I shake the association? Why are my preferences so often just youthful prejudices I haven’t been able to shake? My vision of the West has changed: why not my vision of the Western shirt?
If I knew the answer I wouldn’t be writing you these letters. But when I think about the warring ideas of the West that exist in my own mind, between John Ford’s plangent investigations of embracing legend at the expense of the truth, Burns’ Edenic lament, and David Milch’s caustic assessment of the cost that civilization is bought at, Ford’s West is always first in my mind. No matter how hard we try, we always tend to believe the first version of the story that we hear.