The mysterious stanger
Although far from my favorite Western and flawed in many ways, Shane still stands as an iconic example of the genre. Every Western blog will contain a fair bit of Shanery. Today, though, we'll look at the source novel.
Jack Schaefer (1907 – 1991) wrote Shane twice. So I thought it only fair to read it twice.
Well, in reality he revised the first edition (which appeared in 1949) in 1954, taking out all the damns and hells and making it suitable as a book to be read in school. In fact the first time I read Shane was in a lovely boys’ edition illustrated by Wendell Minor in the Illustrated American Classics series. And it makes a good book for children because it is short, it is written in a direct, straightforward style, it has a noble hero to be admired and the story is told from the point of view of a boy on a farm with whom juvenile readers can identify.
The 1984 “critical edition”, however, edited by James C Work, University of Nebraska Press, makes excellent adult reading because as well as the unexpurgated text of the novel you get a series of interesting essays about the book and about the author, as well as reviews of the famous film.
For of course this novel is more than a children’s book. It has become, along with the 1953 movie Paramount made from it, an iconic statement of the Western myth. The novel has appeared in more than seventy editions and thirty languages. As Marc Simmons says of the characters in the story in the Foreword to the critical edition:
[They were] cut from noble cloth. They were strong, hardworking, brave, self-disciplined, responsible, honest; ungalled by self-doubt or any sense of inferiority. In short, they possessed those virtues that, by the mid-twentieth century, were increasingly being dismissed as outdated or unattainable.
Perhaps this describes the appeal of all Westerns, books, movies or in other guise. They described a simpler time, when justice was administered directly and when if might was right, it was tempered by qualities of decency and fairness in the dispensers of the frontier justice. Of course, this time never existed but it makes a satisfactory myth.
The tone of the quotation above is perhaps nostalgic, even reactionary, and that is one major weakness of the novel (and, by extension, the film). It has a certain naïvety about it, an overly bucolic sentimentality that the “boy’s eye view” cannot wholly excuse or disguise. Another way to say it would be that it now seems terribly dated.
But at the same time it is literate and literary. There are powerful passages whose impact is heightened, rather than weakened, by the directness of the prose. Metaphoric language is used sparingly and to greater effect because of that.
And naïve or not, it is a great yarn! The lone stranger rides in from the West and arrives at a farm whose owners, the Starrett family, are being harassed by a powerful open-range rancher, Fletcher. The stranger wants to hang up his guns and live the simple life of a homesteader among his new-found folks but eventually decides that he must bring his lethal skills to bear in the struggle, on the side of the underdogs. For a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.
That tale became a cliché. But it wasn’t then. Shane was the archetype.
Just occasionally Schaefer’s style verges on Western pulp. In the saloon at the showdown with the sinister gunfighter Stark Wilson, Shane spits at him, “I’m waiting, Wilson. Do I have to crowd you into slapping leather?” And the writing is sometimes mannered, a self-conscious telling of the Western myth. Although Schaefer later moved to New Mexico and became a Westerner, he has said that at the time he wrote Shane, his first novel, he had “never been west of Toledo, Ohio.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Schaefer created one of the great Western heroes, to rank with Lassiter or The Virginian. Shane is a marvelous figure who sums up all the western virtues. He is brave, knowing, good with a gun, loyal and firmly on the side of right in a country where there is no marshal for a hundred miles and if justice is to be done, it has to be home-made.
His appearance is always shadowy. We know he is not tall but he is lithe, cat-like. “For all his slim build, he was plenty rugged.” Darkness, of costume and mien, is suggested. (This notion was of course lost in the movie where Alan Ladd, in coiffed blond hairdo, Hollywood tan, light buckskins and a white hat, verges on the dude). Schaefer’s Shane is, naturally, taciturn. He does not need to justify himself. His actions speak for him. All the family fall under his spell: Joe Starrett, leader of the farmers and giant of a man, defers to Shane. His wife Marian is captivated by the stranger. The boy Bob hero-worships him.
Schaefer himself has denied consciously inserting symbols. Some writers have suggested that Shane is a Christ-like figure, or a gun-toting Western Christ anyway, and say that it isn’t an accident that the humble couple visited by this savior are called Joe and Marian. That seems far-fetched to me. But there is something “Olympian” or super-human about Shane (in the film he descends from the mountains) and other commentators have compared him to a messiah, a saint or an angel. Others still have thought of him as an Arthurian knight or a Japanese samurai, which is probably a better image. For Shane is a wandering warrior from another time.
Historically speaking, the book does capture something of the spirit of the time and place. We are in Wyoming in 1889, when the big ranchers were on the point of being “fenced out” by the farmers and some were resorting to violence to protect their open grazing land. It was the time of the Johnson County War (1892) and so it does ring quite true. In 1891 two homesteaders were murdered, shot to death near Buffalo WY, and although it has never been proved, it is likely that a “stock detective”, Frank Canton, hired by the big cattlemen, did it. Stark Wilson in the novel, when he shot down the farmer in town, was not so far removed from the reality.
The sexual tension in Shane lies beneath the surface - to the point where young readers (1950s ones anyway) would not have noticed it, as Bob appears not to notice. But the “triangle” is subtly done (and also very well handled in the film). It is all the more electric for the restraint with which it is treated. (This was lost in Clint Eastwood’s remake, or homage to Shane, Pale Rider in 1985, in which the preacher sleeps with the woman).
A fundamental theme of the book is “growing up.” Bob tells the story as a man, in retrospect, and there are many references to growing into manhood. The frontier is also growing into a stable society, with laws and churches and schools. The United States, indeed, is growing up as a nation. It was in fact a key theme of Schaefer’s, in many of his books. As John Ford so often underlined, this very act of maturation as “civilization” marched West, eroded exactly the noble and worthy qualities of independence, courage and self-sufficiency which had made the West what it was. Mr. & Mrs. Ransom Stoddard express this eloquently in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Shane is a dinosaur. As is Fletcher, the cattleman, of course. The difference is, Shane says, that he knows it while Fletcher is trying vainly to turn back the tide.
Shane does have a wider appeal than merely “a Western”. Like all good writers (and Jack Schaefer was one), the author uses his setting, in this case the frontier, to illustrate people’s true natures and describe universal truths and qualities. Shane is certainly a key milestone for anyone interested in the Western myth, but it is also a damned good book. Edited version for schools: a very good book.