Not many people study the Science Fiction or the Western genres academically, let alone the two together. Fewer still have an award named in their honor. John G. Cawelti is just such a pioneer in the study of Popular and American Culture. He was studying Popular Culture before it was popular. That’s why we’re honored that he consented to an interview on the subject of Space Westerns. — ed, N.E. Lilly
Interview with John G. Cawelti
by N.E. Lilly ©2008
John G. Cawelti’s numerous works established an academic respectability for the field of popular culture and formed the basis for the study of the literature and film for the masses. As a Professor of English he taught courses on popular fiction, ranging from Westerns to Science Fiction, at the University of Chicago from 1957-1980, and then, until retirement, at the University of Kentucky 1980-2000. Among his most prominent works are Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture , The Spy Story , and The Six-gun Mystique . The John G. Cawelti Book Award is annually presented in his honor by the National Popular Culture Association and American Culture Association(PCA/ACA) to the author of a Noteworthy Book on American Culture.
Why did you become a professor?
The truth is that I just fell into it. My parents were both teachers, though at the elementary and junior high-school level. I read a lot as a child and was especially interested in literature of all sorts. I remember the excitement I felt when I first discovered Sherlock Holmes. But I was also interested in poetry and drama and also tried my own hand at writing. But I soon realized that I was better writing about literature than creating it. In college, I majored in classics because I was interested in the backgrounds of Western civilization. However, I really didn’t know enough Latin and Greek to make a career in this area. When I graduated from college I didn’t know what I was going to do, but during a three-year stint in the army, I became very interested in the literature and culture of the United States. So, with the assistance of the GI bill I went to graduate school at the University of Iowa and got a PhD in American Studies. From there I was fortunate to get a job at the University of Chicago where I taught for 23 years. Then I did another 20 year stint at the University of Kentucky.
How did you become interested in expressions of popular culture?
I had always enjoyed mystery stories, Western movies and other sorts of popular culture. Early in my teaching career I began to wonder why I was teaching things about works that I read mainly for the purpose of teaching them. Instead I thought I might try teaching about things that I really loved. I soon realized that I had amassed a large fund of knowledge about popular stories from a youth spent in movie matinees and in reading mystery stories and Westerns. At the same time some of my students at the University of Chicago were excited about science-fiction and interested in having a course on the subject, so I offered one. Other students were very interested in film so I offered courses on that and went on to teach about Westerns and other areas of popular literature. The knowledge of my students in some of these areas was an invaluable resource and I exploited it mercilessly and learned a great deal from them, especially about popular movies.
Were there any barriers to teaching popular literature at the University level?
I know that many scholars encountered great resistance to teaching and research in popular culture. Some of this opposition is recounted in Ray Browne’s Against Academia: The History of the Popular Culture Association (1989). I was fortunate to be at the University of Chicago when I started getting interested in popular culture, because Chicago had always fostered educational and scholarly experimentation by granting great freedom to its faculty. I had anticipated that my distinguished senior colleagues in the English department at Chicago would look askance at my growing interest in popular culture, but I was delighted to find that they gave me all the encouragement I could have asked for. I remember when a distinguished senior colleague, renowned as an eighteenth century scholar and neo-Aristotelian critical theorist, invited me to his summer house to show me his collection of Horatio Alger, Westerns and mystery stories. He and others were very interested in the work I was doing and were generally very supportive of it.
Popular literature includes Detective, Western, and Horror stories… what is so special or unique about Westerns that they warrant their own genre?
The simple answer to this question is that the individual popular genres are based on patterns or formulas of plot, character, theme and setting that have become established over the years as distinctive and recognizable story traditions. Westerns developed as a type of adventure story characterized by a distinctive setting—the American frontier—and a particular complex of themes such as pioneering, crossing the frontier, the confrontation with Indians, bringing law and order to the frontier, the gunfighter, etc. There are also more complex answers to this question and I have tried to deal with in books like Adventure, Mystery and Romance and The Six-Gun Mystique. These discussions involve matters of literary archetypes, historical developments and matters of individual and cultural psychology.
What spurred you on to write The Six-Gun Mystique in 1970 and The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel in 1999?
In the early 1960s I read an article about Westerns by Peter Homans, a specialist in psychology and religion at the University of Chicago. Homans, who later became a good friend, argued that the popularity of Westerns in America was related to revivals of Puritanism in American religion. I thought the method of analysis which combined looking at story patterns and historical developments was very interesting, but didn’t agree with all of Homans’ conclusions. So I wrote a sort of counter-article under the somewhat pompous title of “A Prolegomena to the Western.” This generated some interest so I thought of doing an anthology of essays on various critical approaches to the Western and I began writing an introduction for that anthology expanding on my original article. The introduction grew and grew. Finally I abandoned the anthology and at the suggestion of Ray Browne published the introduction as a small book. Ray had recently established the Popular Press and was in the process of creating the Popular Culture Association around this time so he published The Six-Gun Mystique . It was all casual enough that we never put a date on the copyright page and later couldn’t remember whether the book had come out in 1970 or 71. The book remained in print for many years and was apparently one of the Popular Press’s best sellers. As the years went by, I read a lot of the burgeoning commentary on the Western and watched the genre’s continued development. Eventually, I decided to rewrite and expand the original work and the result, nearly 30 years later was The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel .
You originally began writing about popular literature by focusing on Westerns, how did you move from Westerns to other forms of popular literature?
Since my first introduction to Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Allan Poe I had actually been even fonder of mystery and detective stories than of Westerns. So, as my thoughts about the Western as a genre developed I was always comparing it in my mind to the patterns of mystery literature. So it was almost a foregone conclusion that I would expand my research and theorizing about the Western into a more general theory of popular narrative and cinematic genres. The result was Adventure, Mystery and Romance which appeared some five or six years after The Six-Gun Mystique . Its publication by the highly respectable University of Chicago Press indicated the growing acceptance of studies in popular culture.
How would you say that the themes explored in The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel extend into Science Fiction?
Science Fiction is a composite genre and, like the Western, is defined more by its futuristic setting than by particular plot patterns. Like the Western it has evolved through several different phases. There is an earlier period with writers like Jules Verne and H. G. Wells just as the Western has an earlier period with writers like James Fenimore Cooper and Owen Wister. In the twentieth century SF has gone through what could be called a classic period with writers like Asimov, Clarke, and Bradbury and has evolved from there in a number of different directions. In addition, like the Western, SF makes a varied use of the classic story formulas of mystery, adventure and romance, another theme I explored in The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel .
Why haven’t you explored Science Fiction as popular literature?
In all honesty, though I’ve occasionally taught Science Fiction and did make some general comments on the genre in Adventure, Mystery and Romance , I have never felt that I knew the literature well enough to really criticize it. I have a pretty good knowledge of earlier classics like Wells and Verne, as well as twentieth century classic SF writers like Asimov, Dick, Clarke, Herbert, Ballard, Bradbury, etc., but my reading of SF pretty well stopped with this generation of writers and I haven’t kept up enough to feel comfortable writing about more recent developments.
How would you define “Space Western”?
I suppose Space Westerns are works which take place in space in the future, but which bear some significant resemblance to Westerns. However, the basic patterns SF shares with Westerns are the archetypes of Adventure, i.e. heroic quests, clashes between races, death-defying feats, good vs. evil, etc. These elements are also shared by other kinds of adventure story. For example, there is a genre of adventure set in the middle ages. Another important adventure genre is set on the outposts of the British empire, as in the novels of H. Rider Haggard. Are these then Medieval Westerns or Imperial Westerns? Or are Westerns examples of Knightly hero tales set in nineteenth century America. It all gets rather muddled after a while. To add to the confusion, SF stories also frequently relate to the archetypes of encounters with alien creatures that we find in Gothic novels, or in the modern horror stories of writers like Stephen King and Dean Koontz, and, in a different way, in fantasies like the Lord of the Ring and the Harry Potter stories.
So, to attempt some clarification, I’d say that a Space Western is an SF adventure that significantly restates or refers to some of the central themes of the Western. These would include things like the epic of pioneering, life on the frontier, the saga of the gunfighter, the journey into hostile territory, and the clash between Indians and pioneers. With this in mind, we can see that the original Star Trek began its run in 1966 when Westerns were still enormously popular on television and in the movies. The original series made the theme of pioneering a central one as the crew of the Enterprise crossed the “frontier” of space to pave the way for the colonizing of new worlds. Just as Westerns sharply waned in popularity in the 1970s the successive versions of Star Trek increasingly departed from the main themes of the Western except for particular episodes which nostalgically recalled some of the Western’s story patterns.
On the whole, the movie series of Star Trek made less use of obvious Western themes than the original TV series, though it is significant that in their titles at least two of the Star Trek movies did make reference to such important Western themes as “the undiscovered country” and “the final frontier.”
Star Wars was perhaps less a Space Western than the original Star Trek . Nonetheless one of its central themes was that of the heroic gunfighter (in this case Han Solo) who is won over to the cause of the good pioneers (in this case the rebels against the evil empire). The order of the Jedi Knights, so central to Star Wars , certainly suggests the group of heroic gunfighters allied to protect the little people as in The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch and several other late Westerns. However, it should be noted that this idea came directly from Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai and before that from such group sagas as that of King Arthur and the knights of the round table. Indeed, one of the fascinations of Star Wars was its relationship to archetypes of the adventure story that go all the way back to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey . Star Wars is perhaps more significant as a universal myth of heroic adventure than specifically as a Space Western.
During the heyday of the Western, occasional movies like Gene Autry’s The Phantom Empire used elements of SF and as the Western itself gradually declined, movies like Westworld, Futureworld and Outland brought Western characters and episodes directly into SF. Westworld, for example, extrapolated the character Yul Brunner had played in Invitation to a Gunfighter into a futuristic amusement park, while Outland was a futuristic remake of High Noon . However, this kind of composite genre never became really popular in America. A few writers of SF, like Mike Resnick, have continued to work with Western materials in this way (he’s also drawn on the traditions of detective, vampire and African adventure stories). Ironically, Westerns remained popular in Europe after they declined in America. Thus, Europeans and Asians have probably created more Western SF than Americans have.
The heyday of the Western was probably from the late 30 to the late 1950s when something like 8 of the 10 most popular TV series were Westerns. During this time Hollywood studios produced a great many superb Westerns like those of John Ford, Howard Hawks, and other top directors as well as a steady stream of B-Westerns and serials. But in the 70s Westerns began to decline. The emergence of Space Westerns in the 60s and 70s might be seen in part as an attempt to revitalize Western formulas by transplanting them to the future. However, after flourishing in the decades of the 70s and 80s, Space Westerns have also become considerable less popular and SF has moved on to other things. I doubt that we will again see Space Westerns as popular as Star Trek and Star Wars . However, the archetype of the heroic adventure is universally popularand since the future is a landscape of mystery and of increasing concern, we will certainly continue to have a thriving literature of SF adventure. I’m not sure how much of this will take form of Space Westerns because the whole idea of the Western has receded into the nostalgic past for most Americans. Of course, just as there is still an audience for paperback Westerns and the occasional Western film, one can hope that the Space Western will continue. SpaceWesterns.com is certainly helping to inspire further explorations in the genre.
What was your first introduction to Space Westerns?
This depends on one’s definition of Space Westerns. If we mean simply futuristic stories with a strong component of adventure, then I suppose my first encounter was with the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon comic strips of the 1930s. On the other hand, if you mean SF with themes analogous to those of the Western, i.e. pioneering and the rise of new communities, then I would say it was probably Asimov’s wonderful Foundation and Empire trilogy, or possibly Frank Herbert’s classic Dune since both of these drew extensively on the formulas of the Western.
What do you think the attraction is to Space Westerns?
First of all, Space Westerns appeal to us as adventure stories, a type of story with an age-old appeal. But it is also significant that their appeal is connected to the way in which they make reference to the traditions of the Western. To understand the sort of appeal we’re talking about here we need to look back on the history of the Western itself. As it emerged in the nineteenth century the Western expressed in fiction a national myth about the conquest of nature and savagery by civilizing middle-class, Christian and, largely, white pioneers. This myth shifted significantly at the beginning of the twentieth century to revitalize the significance of certain values associated with the wilderness, i.e. manliness, vigor, and individualism. This was expressed historically in Turner’s famous frontier thesis and fictionally in Owen Wister’s seminal popular Western, The Virginian, a novel that played an importing part in shaping the Western for the first half of the twentieth century. The power of this myth persisted well into the second half of the twentieth century. One can see its influence in politics (Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan both very effectively portrayed themselves as Westerners setting out to reform the corrupt Eastern political establishment) and on the international scene, where Americans liked to view themselves as heroic Westerners saving the old world from tyranny and decadence in World Wars I and II. However the disillusionments of the Vietnam War and the impact of the Civil Rights Crusade, to say nothing of the increasing resentment of Native Americans at being portrayed as evil savages, has undercut the old myths. As a result there has been a decline in the production and significance of traditional Westerns. Today Westerns are probably less significant as expressions of an American myth than as nostalgic evocations of a supposedly simpler and more heroic past.
The Space Western has given the Western a new lease on life by creating a new setting for the old myth. In some cases this has meant simply a repetition of old Western characters and stories in slightly different clothes. However, at its best, the Space Western has also become a vehicle for exploring and commenting on the fallacies and ironies of the traditional Western. We can see this well developed in an interesting Space Western series like Firefly .
Why do you think people still create Space Westerns?
Basically for the three reasons I’ve suggested in the previous response. First, the landscape of the future can be a great setting for an adventure story. Second, because the use of traditional Western themes and episodes can express nostalgia for the dying myth of American pioneering. And finally, on the most sophisticated level, the composite genre of the Space Western leads to the creation of stories which satirize and deconstruct traditional American Western myths.
You were recently introduced to the series Firefly , what were your first impressions?
Once I got into it, I was quite delighted by Firefly . Unlike Space Westerns of the era of Star Trek and Star Wars , Firefly uses traditional Western episodes, such as the heroic shoot out, the train robbery, the lawless frontier town, etc., in a more humorous or ironic fashion. The cast of characters is often reminiscent of popular TV Westerns of the past—Mal Reynolds as Marshall Dillon, Inara Serra is like Miss Kitty and Shepherd somewhat like Doc. In turn the Gunsmoke cast of characters reflected the groups in classic film Westerns like Stagecoach and Red River . Other Firefly characters reflect other Western conventions. Jayne Cobb is a powerful lummox with a big heart who frequently gets in trouble like Hoss in Bonanza ; the partnership between Mal and Zoë echoes the buddy relationship in countless Westerns—they are a unisexual Butch Cassiday and Sundance Kid of space. However, in Firefly the Western conventions are not simply imitations, but commentary. There is usually an ironic juxtaposition between the fantasy of the Wild West and the reality of space, a juxtaposition neatly summarized in one of the central images of the series introduction—a herd of wild horses being driven by a space ship. On the whole, Firefly is both a celebration and a send-up of Western myths. In this respect it is like some of the most interesting recent Westerns such as Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove series and the television series Deadwood . All of these are post-Westerns meaning that they embody some awareness of the obsolescence of many of the most sacred traditions of the literary and cinematic Western.
Firefly is a wonderful series, perhaps a bit too sophisticated and iconoclastic for very wide popularity, but clearly destined to become a cult classic.
In the chapter on Post-Westerns of The Six-gun Mystique Sequel you devoted a little more than a paragraph to the subject of Space Westerns, specifically mentioning Star Trek and Star Wars . How would that section be different if you wrote it today?
Certainly that section would be much larger and more complicated in the light of more recent developments and what I have learned about Space Westerns from SpaceWesterns.com in the course of preparing this interview.
Can you let me in on any exclusive information, unknown insights, or trade secrets?
If I had any, I’d be glad to share them. For me, it’s been most important to have good editors and good readers. In addition, as I said in the acknowledgements to The Six-Gun Mystique I have learned an enormous amount from my students over 43 years of teaching.
What else can we expect to see from you in the near future?
The flippant answer to this is that as I will be 80 in little over a year it’s more matter of hope that of expectation. I don’t expect to complete any more big projects, but have been researching and writing on certain aspects of the literature of mystery that have caught my interest. Recently, I’ve been exploring the relationship between rationality and the supernatural in the mystery story, a curious conundrum that goes all the way back to the modern well springs of the literature of mystery in the work of Edgar Allan Poe, and before that to original sources of the ideas of mystery and myth. Recently, I wrote a small essay on the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Dracula in this connection and I will probably continue to ponder such questions.