Ahh, the wild American West: trout-filled streams, howling wolves, decrepit ghost towns, jagged peaks scaled by adventurers and ... Robert Redford?
You betcha. The Sundance Kid birthing the Sundance Catalog is the only link many people might make between the Old West and the New. What that perception may mean for those of us living in the real deal is the subject of Imagining the Big Open: Nature, Identity, and Play in the New West.
The editors of this collection of essays were graduate students in history at the University of Utah when The Horse Whisperer was released in 1996. Elaine Bapis, who teaches at Westminster College, recalls that the three were skiing when the concept of Redford as director, merchant and protector of the West came under discussion.
The grad students found Redford’s uncontested emergence as the West’s chief interpreter irritating, but reluctantly admired the actor’s ability to seamlessly incorporate “Old West” and “New West” sensibilities into his own identity. Redford annoys them, in part, because they often find themselves in conflict between their rural upbringings and their New West lifestyles (e.g., lassoing lattes at the Starbucks ranch).
The discussion led to a panel at a Western History Association conference that explored the West that Robert Redford has constructed as an actor and director, resort developer, catalog merchant and environmentalist. The panel, in turn, led to the book published this year by University of Utah Press.
Bapis said she was struck that two of Redford’s films, The Electric Horseman and Whisperer, were made 20 years apart but revolve around the same idea: that the West should stay the same. But she finds that Redford’s empire grew from promoting this view of the West “at the expense of the people who live there.”
Bapis grew up on a farm in rural Plain City, west of Ogden, and has many relatives in the mining community of Price. She said she had difficulty reconciling the mythic West “with a country upbringing in an economy different than that which Redford has created. We’re not all cowboys. We are people with a history and a time, and that dynamic should be allowed to be recognized.”
The real West, Bapis says, had agri-business and extractive-resource industry but “a movie with a miner hero would not be made by Redford.
“Utah claimed a past that is more from a Hollywood Western than an actual history,” Bapis observed, a point she elaborates in her essay “Scripting the West.” “Redford has a way of reconciling his mythic West, bringing in a possibility of what it might be and making it real, making it popular.”
Liza Nicholas, who grew up in Montana and now teaches in Bozeman, contributes a wry essay on the Kid as entrepreneur. In “1-800-SUNDANCE,” she describes taking guilty pleasure in the catalog that taps into her sense of “being Western,” with its “fetishizing” of products like Kokopelli salt and pepper shakers that somehow reconcile “conflicting meanings given the West by cowboys and environmental recreationists, Sioux Indians and wealthy second home owners.”
Tom Harvey, news editor for government and education at The Salt Lake Tribune, spent much of his youth on an Indian reservation in Montana. He writes about Redford’s Sundance resort as a “collage of objects and images torn from historical and social context and repositioned and displayed as a narrative of a particular version of the Old West come home to a new place in nature ... a narrative we can call the ‘wilderness plot.’”
“The wilderness plot is a particular view of nature as that part of the world outside of the city and apart from our day-to-day existence,” Harvey said. “It values unpeopled spaces where little or no work takes place over the reality of the places where we live, work and play. That’s no formula for an effective environmentalism or for the world in which most of us live.”
Other essays in Imagining the Big Open explore the salmon crisis of the 1990s, the welfare of wolves and the cultural conflict surrounding Devils Tower (American Indians vs. rock climbers), as well as how the Patagonia catalog uses nature poet Gary Snyder to make buying its goods guilt-free. There is an essay on the changing face of mountain-climbing in the Northwest, and another exploring the romance of fly-fishing in the high country.
The book contains an essay on Moab, which successfully shifted from uranium mining to becoming the mountain-biking capital of the world. Other writers demonstrate how economic or political ends can shape views of regional or local history: “Reno’s Silver Legacy” describes how that city’s gaming industry capitalizes on its mining history; while “Contesting Boot Hill” tells how Dodge City chose a violent mythic image of its past to draw present-day tourists.
Perhaps it comes down to this: the hard-working miners and ranchers idealized in the Old West are finding themselves marginalized as increasing numbers of disenchanted (but affluent) suburbanites make a playground of the West that once was theirs. The editors state that they are examining “the differences in lifestyle, taste and perception that lie at the root of many misunderstandings in today’s West.” The rift brought about by shifting expectations and aesthetics is swiftly creating a division among Westerners that can’t be bridged. No matter how often you dial 1-800-SUNDANCE.