Thursday, March 24, 2011

Wednesday's Western: MAVERICK

maverick:  a, someone who exhibits great independence in thought and action; b, an unbranded range calf, sometimes used to refer to adult cattle, particularly lone steers of an independent or wild nature; commonly, unbranded, irregular: independent in behavior or thought.

The word was derived from the legend of the no-brand brand of  U.S. cattleman Samuel Maverick.  The name became widely famous  due to a comedy-western television series created by Roy Huggins that ran from September 22, 1957 to July 8, 1962 on ABC and featured James Garner, Jack Kelly, Roger Moore, and Robert Colbert as the poker-playing traveling Mavericks (Bret, Bart, Beau, & Brent).

The success of the series depended on its humorous non-conformity to the standard television westerns of the 1950s.  The Mavericks were also mock-existentialists, pretending to care only for their own interests but constantly drawn into situations where they worked cons for the common good, often winding up broke themselves in the process (except for the $100 bill pinned to the lapels of their coats), and then moving on to the next game.

Ed Robertson wrote what will probably be the definitive history of the series, with a forward by Roy Huggins himself.  Huggins also ghosted Poker According To Maverick in the persona of Bret Maverick.
The concept of maverick was appropriated by the Republican Party during the last Presidential election,  with Sarah Palin calling Senator McCain a maverick, then McCain at first denying it (even though the subtitle of his own ghosted book had previously proclaimed him as such).  The media then immediately picked up the term as a buzz word both cheerfully and sarcastically, depending upon the partisan agenda at hand, thus making it a political cliche, devaluing the word and the concept behind it in the process.

Unrecalcitrant academic westerner Owen Ulph wrote his history and defense of the concept in The American West back in 1966.  It was subsequently published in his book of essays entitled The Fiddleback.  Besides detailing the history of the usage of the term, he explains why it was the maverick steer instead of the mustang which became "the distinctive appellation applied to the independent, irrepressible individualists."  Here is just a small sample of his flamboyantly ranting style:

"The maverick is not a recluse or a reject from organized community life as a consequence of his personal psychoneurosis.  He is an independent spirit who avoids becoming bogged to the saddle-skirts in conventional disregard and contempt of atrophied institutional morality...a creative, integrated, compulsively self-reliant personality type with which the West, factual and fictional, was as speckled as a spotted hound.'

"The mutations in the term maverick and its ultimate extravagant transfiguration into the concept of 'the Maverick' is only a single instance in which skirmishes between romantics and realists mask a basic conflict between ethical and material values within a society.'

"Which brings us to the cream of civilization's jest.  Settled in debilitating, easy-payment-plan comfort, the remnants of their shrunken minds transfixed by a square of jittering glass, the pitiable, spineless, sniveling, sycophantic slaves of the Gorgon-headed establishment revel in the antics of saddle tramps who are never gainfully employed, bonanza-ing rancheros whose fancy spreads miraculously operate themselves...Spellbound audiences thrill to the chivalry of noble mavericks who...always upholding principle over expediency and reaffirming the face of the grinding tyranny of a corrupt law and the apathetic gutlessness of an ossified community.'

"These same audiences, fatuous and fragmented, return to their respective offices, practitioners as well as victims of the vices they had vicariously deplored and hissed the evening before.'

"Throughout densely populated, suburban Squalidonia, the maverick is a hero as long as he confines his heroics to Stultavision, Blatherania, and Disintegral Paperbacks.  But whenever he is so indiscreet as to materialize and venture into the lush pastures of the current establishment, he is hazed off to forage with the wild cattle as soon as possible. . .Such ambivalence, characteristic of the psychosis of nostalgia, betrays the confusion, self-deception, hypocrisy, and absurdity of homogenized establishmentarian society.  Rotten as the old corrals may be, they will hold as long as some ornery critter can be prevented from taking it into his skull to give them a try.'

"Present-day existence is hopelessly schizoid.  Nobody really loves Big Brother, and inside the most timorous conformist a smothered rebel cringes in fear.  The discrepancy between our ideals and daily realities is manifest in the fascination with which even intelligent people view western fantasies depicting the achievement of social justice by maverick heroes who ride roughshod over all obstacles and 'put things right,' and the silent despair most of us suffer at the shoddy compromises and degrading sell-outs we incessantly endure.  How else is it possible to account for the fervid popularity of a novel and film such as Shane?'

"Sophisticated critics insist that no mature person takes Westerns with their maverick heroes seriously--their popularity being attributable solely to their escapist entertainment value.  It is a simple explanation that eliminates necessity for considering them critically and also allows one to enjoy them without admitting to complete infantilism.  But this explanation is unconvincing.'

"Much western myth and legend can be described as 'hokum' and its defenders contend that it is a hokum we cannot do without.  The hokum does not consist of the inner nature of the myths and legends, but in their crude distortion.  The ideals behind these myths were present long before the western frontier.  The frontier provided another historical theater in which they could find expression.'

"What elevates Shane to the status of literature is that the ideals retain plausibility and purity in the eminently human course of the action and do not cease to carry conviction under the impact of a conventionally dramatic plot structure.  These same ideas remain valid even though the frontier has gone."

If you like this style, you should read the entire essay and Owen Ulph's other books as well.  He wrote about mavericks at the time the Ford Motor Company was coming out with the car by that name.  The American West ran its Ford Maverick advertisement in the same issue, a caption under the picture saying that it was available in the colors "Anti-Establishment Mint, Freudian Gilt, and Thanks Vermillion."

This is just one of the many things mentioned by Thomas Frank in The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism, his study of how corporate materialists sell the image of individuality to the masses, Americans choosing material appearances instead of intrinsic inward values time after time.  All of which goes to prove Owen Ulph's point.

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