Stephanie Pope essay, Janus Series: Two Faces, One Coin Part 3: The Cowboy Nation and Its Myth, mythopoetry.com
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Two Faces, One Coin Part 3: The Cowboy Nation and Its Myth

I’ve been examining the comparison made between George W. Bush and Madonna in an article by Alessandra Stanley written for the New York Times on line the week of October 26, 2006. In the article Ms Stanley uses the mythic image of one coin and two faces to make an unlikely comparison. In Part 1 I look at Madonna’s image of gender trouble in relation to popular culture and in Part 2 examine the Presidents image of cowboy resolve in relation to popular and global culture. This is one kind of coin with two faces.

Since cowboy resolve is not about two faces but only the one face presented, I thought I would give this face a closer scrutiny in Part 3. I also thought it might be interesting to examine our American monomyth as a cowboy nation by taking my images from prose, politics and poetry. First, some mood music Tumbling Tumbleweed

Two Faces One Face: Like A Cowboy  

cowboy photo, 1890


Cowboy watering horse

Unknown photographer, ca. 1900
2002.168

Purchase by Donald C. & Elizabeth M. Dickinson Research Center

virtual exhibit



I want to be boss
O' a little bronc hoss,
That has got heaps o' git-up-an'-git,
With an unbroken pride,
An' a free-swingin' stride,
That will never lay down 'er say quit!

I want to be dressed
In the duds I like best,
An' havin' the freedom I crave,
Out there in the West,
In the land o' sweet rest,
In the home o' the free an' the brave!

                              -James Edward Hungerford, Land o' Freedom


He may not be a pleasing sight and what he does may not be pleasing but a cowboy is a cowboy is a cowboy. Or as Jeff Bransford, a character in the story, Good Men and True by Eugene Manlove Rhodes explains, a cowboy is atypical.

…take the typical cowboy. There positively ain't no sich person! Maybe so half of 'em's from Texas and the other half from anywhere and everywhere else. But they're all alike in just one thing - and that is that every last one of them is entirely different from all the others. Each one talks as he pleases, acts as he pleases and - when not at work - dresses as he pleases.

The character in the story tells us the cowboy originates in Texas around cattle ranching but the word “cowboy”, a word most American in mythic terms, is an inheritance from medieval Ireland as the word for boy (literally) who tends cattle. This idea is taken from a PBS.org word tracking article. The article further unfolds tracking the word “cowboy” to the American Revolution and refers to a Tory, or American colonist who supports the British Crown by stealing cattle from the colonial rebels. This is how the word makes its way into our American vocabulary. Literally, the word and notion of a cowboy is first shaped around the three terms cattle, boy and a bit of revolutionary thievery!

One Coin: Two Faces, Synthetic and Real

cowboy washing clothes

There is also an important distinction to make between the material point of view of a cowboy as a real live person and the psychical point of view of the cowboy as an offspring of the imagination, something the character, Jeff Bransford in the novel of Eugene Manlove Rhodes makes apparent. Philip Ashton Rollins calls the imaginal kind of cowboy the synthetic cowboy and the other kind of cowboy,
---------- Postcard "Wife Wanted" - Cow Boy washing clothes, 1909
             the real. Writing in 1928 -----------------------------------------------------------------in a book called Jinglebob he says

America has had two types of cowboy, the synthetic and the real. The better known cowboy, the synthetic, is the son of imagination; and, living upon a cattle range which is bounded by either the covers of a novel or the edges of a silvered screen, he has indefatigably devoted himself to the rescue of ranch-owning heiresses and to the extinction of their scheming and amative foreman...But America has had also the real cowboy. He dwelt upon the cattle range of actuality; and, there being in this latter almost womanless realm no heiresses available for succor
and but very few dishonest foremen, the real cowboy was compelled prosaically to earn money wages by herding live stock.


Former President Ronald Reagan is an example of a synthetic cowboy. While the cowboy image is groomed from the big screen to the White House, Reagan actually grows up in the non cowboy town of Dixon, Illinois. Roughrider and former President Teddy Roosevelt, a real cowboy, once operates a pair of dude ranches in the Badlands. Notwithstanding, both images of the former presidents help further a cowboy mythos operating within the administration of the current president’s Bush Doctrine or ‘cowboy diplomacy’ and also reaffirms an earlier innocence within the self-image of the cowboy nation we continue to imagine we are.

The etymology of the word “cowboy” locates its topos in psychic space as well as a material location. In other words the image of the cowboy has an imaginal location in the collective psyche of our national culture as well as references to real persons and their livelihood. The one word, ‘cowboy’ has two references much like our coin with two faces. How we spend that coin allows us to distinguish or blur the lines between two different kinds of speech. One kind, the kind talking from the psychical point of view, takes us into a landscape of soul. Once here, everything encountered is no thing. That is, what we encounter is an image that has metaphoric value. Images are not substantial but immaterial and mirrorlike. You and I will not see cowboy images in action because, although they form and shape our ideas, they are also very buried within our ideas. We will only see them if they are dug up and rendered in abstraction.

It strikes me that the word-image ‘cowboy’ and the word-image ‘soul’ have a similar problem in relation to popular culture. Namely, their imaginal value is bound to the material life of the cultural body, the blood soul, the thumos or thymos. This sense for soul in our contemporary usage of the term is taken from the Aristotelian logic as something rational, that can be described rationally, and presented as if it were something; an objective function of the material body. (Hillman, Dream, 213) But soul, like cowboy, is a symbol and like all symbols refers to something deep and psychological. James Hillman will say “something ancient” and akin to psyche and anima, something ungraspable in the depths. (Suicide, 43-47)

This is precisely the definition of symbols and what symbols do in our speech. They refer to something that cannot be found on the surfaces of our lives and because of this take us into psychological depths through the force of our convictions. It is through the innocence and the majesty of our own emotions based on what we have experienced, lived, felt, reasoned, or envisioned with regards to the image of the cowboy, the one who never lived, the synthetic one we are living now and mostly unknown to us, that we relive the cowboy heritage in us living today.

Referring to symbolic speech and quoting Heinrich Zimmer, a favorite teacher of his, Joseph Campbell will say, “The best things cannot be told, the second best are misunderstood. (Creative, 84) We have misunderstood our own symbolic speech, favored it as a socially authorizing mythology. This is the innocence Robert Kagan of the New Republic will go on to challenge in Cowboy Nation: Against the myth of American innocence.“We prefer,” he says, “to see ourselves in modest terms as a reluctant hegemon, a status quo power that seeks only ordered stability in the international arena. We struggle to hold our deepest conviction as a standard of our nation: we never go to war unless we have to.” Yet Kagan will go on to show quite convincingly how from the earliest times in our nation’s history we were an expansionist power. He notes

…the early United States was an expansionist power from the moment the first pilgrim set foot on the continent; and it did not stop expandingterritorially, commercially, culturally, and geopoliticallyover the next four centuries. The United States has never been a status quo power; it has always been a revolutionary one, consistently expanding its participation and influence in the world in ever-widening arcs. The impulse to involve ourselves in the affairs of others is neither a modern phenomenon nor a deviation from the American spirit.


The impulse to involve ourselves in Iraq is like the synthetic cowboy in Jinglebob. The impulse is a son of the imagination stuck to the son in the office of the White House who does not know there is a difference in cowboys, although he’s played one quite knowingly, and something akin to the material girl notwithstanding, something else at work, not a cowboy, a myth ―like a cowboy― operates.


next week Two Faces, One Coin: Part 4: The American Mononmyth




Look Who's Blogging About This Essay Series


Two Faces, One Coin Part 1
Two Faces, One Coin Part 2
Two Faces, One Coin Part 4
Two Faces, One Coin Part 5

Interlude: Part 6 Two Faces, One Coin
Two Faces, One Coin: Comments From Readers

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