U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Frontiers and Founding Moments: Deadwood and Emerson’s Piano


In his essay collection Society and Solitude (1870), Ralph Waldo Emerson celebrated the powers of those Western pioneers who brought the rudiments of Eastern civilization with them to the frontier. In this myth of development, the piano was the great augury, appearing almost ex nihilo:

Tis wonderful, how soon a piano gets into a log hut on the frontier. You would think they found it under a pine-stump. With it comes a Latin grammar, and one of those tow-head boys has written a hymn on Sunday. Now let colleges, now let senates take heed! For here is one, who, opening these fine tastes on the basis of the pioneer’s iron constitution, will gather all their laurels in his strong hands (10).

It would be great if Emerson were simply out of touch. The sentiment seemed hopelessly optimistic or downright atavistic in the aftermath of the Civil War, but Western myths like these survived the slaughter. Emerson’s mythic piano got plenty of play in the decades to come. Eastern settlers brought “civilization” to the frontier; heroic “tow-head boys,” cast light into the Western darkness, in turn casting their light eastward in the offing. It conjures up Bryan, “the boy orator of the Platte,” or at its best Julius Wayland’s Appeal to Reason.

In a review in the pages of Overland Monthly in 1870, Bret Harte let some air out of Emerson’s bloated mythos, noting that anyone with any kind of experience in the West knew that “the piano appears first in the saloon and gambling house…the elegancies and refinements of civilization are brought into barbarism with the first civilized idlers, who are generally vicious” (386). What plays in Concord doesn’t play the same way in Dodge City, Ralph. [1]

Jangling pianos also appeared in the saloons and gambling houses of the terrifying HBO series Deadwood, which ran for three seasons from 2004 to 2006. Deadwood’s pianos were essentially Harte’s pianos, but with some startling complications. The show gave an inside view of a rough-hewn mining camp eventually taking the shape of a small community. “Community” seems too positive a term for what it becomes, but it does have some of the trappings. It so happens that a piano features during one of the Deadwood’s founding moments, when camp leaders meet to found a municipal government.

Deadwood worked over many of the tropes common to the Western, heaping them on to excess. Outrageous physical violence and horrible, exploitative sex frequently interrupted the strange, cracked frontier speech of the show. The weird dialect—its baroque cursing and odd syntax—was the wondrous concoction of the show’s creator David Milch. Up to that point, no one on this planet had ever talked like that. Yet the words are strangely apropos in Milch’s alternate universe. Maybe people talk like that in hell. Maybe people talk like that in Hogarth paintings in hell.

Much of the language is shockingly offensive, largely because Milch wanted modern viewers to get a feel for outrageous profanity in frontier talk. Nineteenth century curses wouldn’t do the same work. It’s an ahistorical choice that follows certain misguided historical impulses, a misogynist fantasy that, for being so fantastical, seems to critique or satirize misogynist fantasy.[2] It can be hard to tell to be honest, which is a problem to say the least.

The show had sources in actual people and events. Many of the main characters appear in the historical record. Deadwood was a settlement in the Black Hills region of the Dakota Territory, probably best known as the place where Jack McCall murdered Wild Bill Hickok. That story appeared early in the first season. Things got much more interesting once the writers dispensed with that particular myth, getting down to the gritty details and brutal logic of a society in the making.

Much of the action revolves around the doings of one of the truly great, complex villains in recent television, Al Swearengen, played with satirical, Machiavellian brio by the British actor Ian McShane. Deadwood was among those shows occasioning emergent talk of a “golden age” of American television in the aughts. (My friend Bob and I made it appointment television on Sunday nights. The Sopranos came on before it. I didn’t know anyone at the time with a “Tivo,” and DVR technology wasn’t widespread then.)

Episodes focused tightly on the goings-on in the community itself, but the remote concerns of territorial government and national politics intervened regularly. The viewer got a good sense of the precariousness of the boomtown. Money could be made hand over fist as settlers streamed in to extract gold from the Black Hills, but it was only a matter of time before more powerful influences took notice, corporate or formally governmental, as if there was much difference between the two in the Gilded Age, where the Senate doubled as the “railroad lobby.” Regional and national concerns cast a pall over many plots and subplots.

The historian Frederick Jackson Turner outlined the general pattern a century before Deadwood appeared. The vastness and tremendous scale of those spaces we now mythologize in “Westerns” required a much greater marshaling of resources than in frontiers past, ultimately creating that combination of enormous corporate enterprise, rugged individualism, and democratic institution-building that he figured defined his own place and time:

It [the West] gave to the pioneer farmer and city builder a restless energy, a quick capacity for judgment and action, a belief in liberty, freedom of opportunity, and a resistance to the domination of class which infused a vitality and power into the individual atoms of this democratic mass. Even as he dwelt among the stumps of his newly-cut clearing, the pioneer had the creative vision of a new order of society. In imagination he pushed back the forest boundary to the confines of a mighty Commonwealth; he willed that log cabins should become the lofty buildings of great cities. He decreed that his children should enter into a heritage of education, comfort, and social welfare, and for this ideal he bore the scars of the wilderness. Possessed with this idea he ennobled his task and laid deep foundations for a democratic State…Even those masters of industry and capital who have risen to power by the conquest of Western resources came from the midst of this society and still profess its principles.

Turner included Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropy as the great example of the tendency,

In his “Triumphant Democracy,” published in 1886, Mr. Carnegie, the ironmaster, said, in reference to the mineral wealth of the United States: “Thank God, these treasures are in the hands of an intelligent people, the Democracy, to be used for the general good of the masses, and not made the spoils of monarchs, courts, and aristocracy, to be turned to the base and selfish ends of a privileged hereditary class.” It would be hard to find a more rigorous assertion of democratic doctrine than the celebrated utterance, attributed to the same man, that he should feel it a disgrace to die rich.[3]

Owing to quasi-Emersonian moves like this, Turner’s thesis underwent a tremendous revision in historical literature in the 1930s and 40s. Deadwood certainly takes in that revision in Western historiography. Yet it troubles things further by the sheer excess of its dark, satirical vision: its prurient abundance of greed, chicanery, sex, and violence, its astounding political intricacy.

I didn’t think about it at the time, but one can certainly read Deadwood as an allegory of the Iraq War then ongoing: the exploitative tendencies of vast combinations of capital and political power replicating themselves in atrocities at the local level, where the unlimited desire for natural resources at the expense of presumably “heathen” people make for pornographic spectacles of torture, all heralded in a dubiously complex, highly offensive, fractured syntax spoken by ambitious men.

The action in Deadwood circles around those ancillary businesses that crop up in boomtowns based on extraction.[4] For example, Sol Star—imagined quizzically by the fantastic John Hawkes—and his partner Seth Bullock—Timothy Olyphant, he of upright bearing and hair-trigger brutality—run a hardware store. With the prostitute Trixie, his treacherously ambivalent gal Friday (a razor-sharp yet tender, searchingly intelligent Paula Malcolmsen), Al Swearengen runs a saloon and brothel called the Gem, the hub of activity in the town. Powers Boothe portrays yet another impossibly sadistic frontier asshole, Cy Tolliver, owner-operator of a competing operation, the Bella Union, with the aid of Joanie Stubbs (an achingly beautiful, tragic Kim Dickens). Joanie eventually breaks from Cy to open her own brothel. Brad Dourif gives yet another tour-de-force performance as Doc Cochran, the moral center—if there is such a thing—of the camp. The cowardly and unctuous, constantly scheming E.B. Farnham (William Sanderson) runs the local hotel. The town also has a newspaper, the Deadwood Pioneer. The editor of the paper, A.W. Merrick, his clueless bathos neatly captured by Jeffrey Jones, counts as a voice for “civilization.”

The first town meeting of any import comes by necessity after a deadly outbreak of smallpox in the camp. A municipal government comes to be when the territorial government gets a whiff of the money being made in Deadwood and wants a taste, driving the need for incorporation of some kind. A territorial magistrate meets with Al Swearengen to discuss the particulars. Once the native peoples of the land are dispensed with, the gears of the territorial bureaucracy, headquartered in Yankton, will need a little greasing if Deadwood is to survive. In response to that meeting, Al calls a founding convention of sorts at the Gem Saloon. What follows unfortunately doesn’t come close to capturing the strangeness of the speech in the show:

Al Swearengen: So, the U.S. government’s negotiating peace with Spotted Elk, Red Cloud and other leaders of the heathens. The heathens will get money to give up the Hills, and the Hills will be annexed to the territory. First notice of our cost, to avoid getting fucked in the ass by those legislative cocksuckers was just handed to me by Yankton’s toll collector, who says also our best case in keeping title to the claims, properties, and businesses is to start up now a kind of informal, governing organization that’ll be recognized by the territorial cocksuckers and given legal status when the territory is annexed, since we all have proved ourselves civilized sorts that don’t only wear our pants to cover our tails. Hence the fucking meeting.

E.B. Farnham: Do the bribes come out of our pockets?

Cy Tolliver [aside to Al]: The hell you musta gone through talkin’ to that leech, Al. Hereafter you let me take my fair share of the weight of those conversations.

Al: Thanks Cy.

Farnham: Couldn’t our informal organization levy taxes on the settlement to pay the bribes? Say to license businesses? Wouldn’t that spread the burden?

Leon [a worker for Cy at the Bella Union, referring to Joanie Stubbs]: Will women who pay the license fees have the same right to operate brothels as men?

Here the conversation comes to a dead, comic stop. The principals look dumbstruck at the very suggestion. The camera cuts to Trixie, who stands off to the side at the head of a group of Gem prostitutes, crossing her arms with a wry smile. In a deadpan, disgusting pun, a minor character whispers conspiratorially, “What’s that got to do with the price ‘a fish?” Everything, you misogynist jerk.

Al continues:

Al: Our proper order of fuckin’ business is to make titles and departments before the territorial cocksuckers send in their cousins to rob and steal from us.

Farnham: Who fills the various positions?

Al: Draw the names out of a fuckin’ hat as far as I’m concerned.

Farnham: I’d like to be mayor!

Al: Objections? [No one says anything, a couple people huff at the very notion of a scheming greaseball like Farnham being mayor]

Al [pounding a makeshift gavel, pointing to Farnham]: Mayor.

Seth Bullock: Wouldn’t a good use for an informal organization with temporary appointees be providing a few services to the camp?

Al: Mayor?

Farnham: We could provide services but use the lion’s share of revenues to pay the bribes. More than providing services to ‘em, taking people’s money is what makes organizations real, be they formal, informal, or temporary.

As Farnham bloviates on political theory, the scene takes an absurdist turn as Al’s assistant, general heavy and designated murderer Dan Dority breaches frontier “decorum,” interrupting the founding convention with a delivery for a piano. He and Al pronounce it “peeanna.” He leans into Al, telling him the situation:

Dan: There’s a piana outside. [Al looks at him curiously] Piana. When Tolliver opened up across the way you said we need a fancier piana.

Al: You want me to abandon the fucking meeting to bring in a new piana?

Dan. I’m jus tellin’ ya. It come in from Montgomery Ward. “Any big arrival notify me immediately.” You said that.

Al [rubbing his temples]: Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.

Farnham: Floor’s open to levy suggestions for nominees for department heads. Self-nominations are permitted.

Doc Cochran: Who’s gonna be comptroller?

A.W. Merick: Will, um, elections, w-w-will we have some elections down the road? This is temporary.

Farnham: Yeah. Ad hoc.

Al: Ad fucking hoc. Free fucking gratis. Let’s get on with the fucking meeting.

Obviously Deadwood favors Bret Harte’s piano over Emerson’s, but with a Turnerian twist on rough-hewn democracy. Al Swearengen, by worrying that the legislature will “rob and steal from us” expresses what Turner saw as the natural suspicion of Westerners for distant sources of power, a kind of republican brake on vested authority that ultimately shaped American democratic institutions, articulated with much wider vision by titans of industry like Andrew Carnegie.

But Deadwood complicates this even further. The founding moment in the camp amounts to little more than a plebiscite made for the larger purpose of bribing those in far-flung seats of government. The piano interrupts the founding moment of institutions corrupted from the start. Harte’s “vicious men,” embodied here by Swearengen, resent the piano. This piano annoys frontier democracy, which is really about making space for masculine enterprise, horribly attested to by the silence of the characters upon any suggestion that women have some stake even in the exploitation of other women in prostitution game.

If Emerson’s piano appears almost ex nihilo (“you would think they found it under a pine-stump”), the Deadwood piano comes from reliable sources. It ships from Montgomery Ward, a national corporation with a reach long enough to deliver the commodity to a squatters’ space stolen from the sacred lands of the Sioux people. It’s a convenience made possible by an ever-expanding capitalist enterprise begun only a few years earlier in Chicago, and its appearance ironically signals the precariousness of the founding moment itself.

A running gag about canned peaches does the same kind of work. Just before the meeting, Al asks the dim-witted Johnny, who works at the Gem, “Whose idea was them pears and fuckin’ peaches? Johnny responds, “I figgered since we had ‘em for the plague meetin.’” Al complements him, “Shows good thinkin’ and initiative. Ladle ‘em out at various intervals on the fuckin’ table.” Canned fruit in the late 1870s would have been something of an emblem of a nascent military-industrial complex, a necessity for military campaigns now become modern convenience.

If Montgomery Ward can get there with a piano and canned peaches and pears amount to hospitality, how long will it take the legislators in Yankton, or for that matter Washington, D.C., to take acquisitive notice? When will the Edenic world of extra-legal theft and violence give way to the fallen world of theft and violence managed by legally constituted authority?

The piano scenario ends with ever more machinations. A closing scene features a bacchanal at the Gem Saloon, the Montgomery Ward piano clanging in the background, the new mayor Farnham being openly serviced by a prostitute. Amidst the proceedings, Al and Dan reflect on the day:

Al: I gotta find early occasion to put the mayor off his pedestal.

Dan: Don’t do it with no nudge.

Al: Did you wait a day before you ordered that fucking thing?

Dan: Boss, you specifically countermanded my a-waitin’ n’ askin’ agin when you gimme the order to git it.

Al: What fucking revenue is being generated by these hoopleheads gathering ‘round that cocksucker and yod-lin’ about their fucking points of origin?

Dan: Shine’ll wear off.

Al: My fucking head.

Dan: All that organizin’ bidness?

Al: Ah, twenty-five cups a coffee and too much circulatin’ in the fresh air.

Dan: You chair’t d’piss out that meetin’ this afternoon.

Al: It still don’t getya off the hook about that piana.

Indeed it don’t. It’s the durn machine in the garden.

[1] I didn’t find these quotes from Emerson and Harte myself. Anthony Hutchison of the University of Nottingham provided them in a paper given for our annual intellectual history workshop at Belmont University on May 16 and 17. My use here is less sophisticated than Tony’s use of them in a different context. Thanks to Tony for pointing them out.

[2] Geoffrey Nunberg, “Obscenity Rap” http://people.ischool.berkeley.edu/~nunberg/deadwood.html

[3]Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History http://www.gutenberg.org/files/22994/22994-h/22994-h.htm#Page_243

[4] The viewer sees very little mining in the show. One supposes that kind of labor would amount to pornography. The consummate example appeared a year after the run of Deadwood in P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, where Daniel Day Lewis’ Daniel Plainview labors down deep in the veritable pit of capitalist creation, maniacal eyes gleaming as he’s covered head-to-toe in a gush of oil.

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  1. That man is a lunatic. High water he never made much sense, but now? He just utters pure gibberish.

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