U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Western Myth and the Cheerful Stoicism of Buster Scruggs

The Lavender Pit, Bisbee, Arizona, December 2018.

Driving into Bisbee, Arizona, last month, the first thing we saw was the old quarry. Coming in from the east, just before reaching Old Bisbee, you could pull into a lot, park, and peer through a chain-link fence into the enormous, red pit below. Earth-moving machines had raked and scalloped its walls. At the bottom was a pool of worrisome liquid, thick and red as—well, I’m not just being dramatic—it really looked like blood.

Bisbee was founded in 1880, a boom town near the border, where copper was mined. Like Butte, Montana, Bisbee is representative of industrial practice in the West in the decades after the Civil War. As the historian T. H. Watkins says in Stephen Ives’ documentary series, The West, “The mining industry, probably more than any other single industry, was designed specifically to get into the West, find what resources it had, dig them out, leave a wreck behind, get out, and move on someplace else.”

Not all had moved on. The mine closed in 1975, and Bisbee has survived as a small, remote high desert town. The historic district seems to have resurrected itself as an artist colony and bohemian enclave, with make-do homes up the mountain side, vintage hotels, funky shops, galleries, and sites of tourism. It’s no ghost town, but it does seem to have a fascination with the ghosts of its past. Some of these ghosts may be the disappeared, the 1200 striking miners of 1917—mostly Mexican and Eastern European–who were gathered at gunpoint, packed into cattle cars, hauled off into the desert, and abandoned. Last year’s film, Bisbee ’17, part documentary, part reenactment, tells this story. I’d read about it and watched a trailer, but the movie itself only had a short run in theaters, and so far, has been unavailable to stream.

I thought about Bisbee, and the Watkins quote, when a week or so later, I watched the Coen brothers’ new film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The Scruggs story is only the first of six separate narratives, taken from an imagined book of Western tales. The segment that made me think of Bisbee was the one with Tom Waits, called “All Gold Canyon.” It begins with scenes of an idyllic canyon glade, glowing in the sun, where flora and fauna go about their days in perfect homeostasis. Balance is disturbed by the arrival of an old prospector, played by Waits. He pauses in the stream to do a little panning and discovers a few specks of gold. Intrigued, he conducts a series of experiments, digging holes, panning the dirt, eyeing the specks, calculating. With slow deliberation, he is systematically determining the best spot to dig in earnest. Soon the glade has a pock-marked patch, as if diseased.

Tom Waits as the prospector in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018).

Much environmental philosophy stresses the need to be in relations with the world outside us, rather than to see it as dead matter to exploit as we wish. The old prospector does speak to “Mr. Pocket,” the vein of gold he is hunting, as if it were a living intelligence. I’m going to find you, Mr. Pocket. Sooner or later, I’ll track you down. The trust he places in his science proves sound. Eventually, he locates Mr. Pocket and reacts with a burst of maniacal laughter.

The idea of a lone prospector, talking to himself amidst the vastness of the American West, serves myth more than it does history. According to Ives’ The West, the westerners of the second half of the nineteenth century and after “were rugged individualists chiefly in their dreams. In real life they were likely to draw paychecks for digging in corporate mines, plowing corporate fields, or chasing corporate cattle.” This myth continues to support Western libertarianism, which tends to ignore the massive corporate and federal expenditures that have made collective living there viable.

Not that miners themselves aren’t tough individuals. Industrial mining requires brute strength and quick wits. It isn’t bothered with abstractions. The point is to extract the ore; you can see it, you can weigh it, and you’re paid accordingly. One can appreciate how a miner would take pride in the job and be hesitant to give it up for paper pushing or the service industry.

These are the impressions I gathered, anyway, from the ancient miner who gave the Queen Copper Mine Tour in Bisbee. Leading us into the tunnels on rail cars, he told of how he’d gone into the mine right out of high school and stayed on through the years to its closing. Although he talked some about the history of the mine before his time and supplied some historical information, he didn’t mention the 1917 incident. Rather, he seemed to most want us to know what good money he’d made when he worked there, a base salary with a bonus tied to production. If I understood him correctly, he was pulling down well over a thousand a week, and that was in 1960s money.

He acknowledged the danger involved in the work but mostly to joke about it. Danger is best met with good humor. This stoicism in the face of hardship and death—long celebrated in Western myth—is one of the threads that ties the six stories of Buster Scruggs together. At times this stoicism is cheerful to the point of absurdity. Characters find themselves in dire straits: the savages are attacking, there’s a noose around your neck, a faster gun appears on the far end of Main Street. When conditions are boiled down to first principles, these heroes don’t flinch.

How do these myths function? On one level, the heroes are celebrated. On another, the principles are reinforced. Nature is red in tooth and claw, and only the strong survive. If we didn’t manfully accept that fundamental reality, if we hid behind feminine sentimentality or “a pretense of humanitarianism,” as Theodore Roosevelt argued in his speech, “The Strenuous Life,” we might as well “leave the Apaches of Arizona to work out their own salvation.” In the West, this myth about the fundamental nature of reality has been used to justify all manner of deeds and behaviors.

To get to Bisbee, we made the long drive to El Paso and then west along the border on I-10. The highway was abundant with border patrol vehicles. We passed through check points, saw officers operating sensors on poles. We saw the tent city outside Tornillo. The president was on the radio, arguing for his border wall, and threatening to shut down the government. It isn’t that he’s against immigration. He’s in favor of “merit” immigration, he explained. If you don’t have something valuable to trade, we have nothing for you, in other words.

It’s a policy that regards humanitarianism as a pretense, either to gain political advantage or to protect the weak from the brute fact that, deep down, we’re all predators seeking the upper hand.

I thought about this policy of merit immigration when I watched another of the Western stories from the Coen brothers’ movie. This one, titled “Meal Ticket,” features an orator, a young man without arms and legs, whose impresario/handler takes him from town to town in a carney wagon. The orator specializes in Shakespeare’s sonnets, the Gettysburg Address, and the Cain and Abel story from the Bible. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The films of the Coen brothers are often described as ironic, darkly comic, and misanthropic. Now critical seems a more apt word.

3 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Thank you for your fascinating post. I wonder if “All Gold Canyon” (spoilers) challenges the idea of rugged individualism as the “lone prospector” is neither quite so alone nor as extractive as it may first appear. As you point out, he talks to “Mr. Pocket.” But there is also an owl. In one scene, the prospector plans to take all the speckled eggs from a nest. The owl looks at him; the prospector says, “I cain’t do it,” and replaces all the eggs save for one, which he presumably needs to survive. The owl reappears when it appears as though the prospector has been killed by a treacherous newcomer who has opportunistically violated basic fairness. Finally, when the prospector leaves, singing of lost love, his burlap sacks filled, the traitor dead, we see the glade from the owl’s point-of-view.

    The story is hardly sentimental, but, still, the presence of the owl would seem to suggest that the virtues of this world are finally not conflict and greed but those represented by “I cain’t do it.” Thank you again.

    • WM., I’m glad you brought up the owl. Here’s something more about the owl that supports your point.

      I was watching the movie with my fourteen-year-old son. “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou” is a family favorite, but there are few other Coen brothers’ films that I want him to see till he’s fully grown. It’s not so much the violent behaviors they depict. It’s the violence of their ideas, their themes. Are the Coens nihilists or do they critique nihilism? I suppose I’ve come to think the latter, but they can tread a very fine line.

      “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a prime example. Every once in a while, I’d look over and see how my son was taking it in—regretting that I’d invited him to watch it with me–and would find that he wasn’t watching it at all. He was looking at his cell phone instead. My usual reaction to this is annoyance—this time I was relieved. He’d lost interest, it seemed. Then came the owl scene, with the prospector taking two eggs and leaving one. Out of the blue, my son spoke up. “He’s not so bad,” he said.

      These youngsters can really multitask! But now I was worried again
      .
      In any case, you’re right. The owl complicates the issue I was essaying. And I,’d forgotten all about the owl’s final POV … though I can’t say for sure what that means.

  2. Thanks for your response. I would agree that the Coen brothers “tread a very fine line” but are finally critics of nihilism. For instance, the part of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs that would seem to be the most nihilistic is “Near Algodones,” in which the Cowboy, unfairly on the gallows after having been miraculously saved from a previous and more justifiable hanging, turns to a crying fellow condemned man to quip, “First time?” That might suggest that, in the face of the absurdity of a meaningless world, we can only aspire to ironic laughter.

    But those aren’t the Cowboy’s last words. He turns to the crowd, sees a woman, and says, “There’s a pretty girl.” The line isn’t meant, I think, to be tasteless. The screenplay describes the woman as “beautiful” but with “the face of a saint” and “an expression of bottomless sadness.” So, perhaps, what’s most important about the Cowboy is that, in the absurdity of a meaningless world, there is still a “saint” who weeps for him.

    There’s the possibility of nihilism but perhaps that’s not the only possibility? (I also think about the last part of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, in which a clever and knowing Frenchman, characterized by insouciance, is as unprepared for death as a judgmental moralist and an insipid trapper.)

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S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.