A Bad Rap for the American West
By Frank Bergon
The rural West and its small towns get a bum rap. Or no rap at all. That’s what I hear from friends and relatives everywhere from Battle Mountain, Nevada, to Pagosa Springs, Colorado, to Madera, California, all places where I’ve lived. To many Westerners, the eastern urban media—newspapers, magazines, internet, radio, books, and TV—either ignore the rural West or report it negatively. A lot of people struggling to make a living in the rural West feel left out and looked down on, even vilified, with their voices unheard, their stories untold.
And they’re right. Just to take books for a moment, Publishers Marketplace recently released a season preview of “Buzz Books 2019 Spring/Summer.” Out of 199 “hot” nonfiction books, only two from the venerable eastern publishers Knopf and Viking are about the West, and both are negative.
What’s the problem here? We’re now in a tumultuous period when a controversial and sullied presidential election has revealed a widening gulf between the country and the city. The rift isn’t just between elites and the working class but between city and country people of all social classes and ethnicities. From the rural Great Basin to the rural San Joaquin Valley I’ve heard the same refrain: “It’s like we don’t exist. We’re invisible.” A Wyoming ranch woman told me, “If I turn on a morning TV show, I want to write a letter. Good Morning America needs a country reporter.”
How can literature and the humanities help us find ways to write about American regions in accurate ways? That’s what writer David Means and I will talk about at the Nevada Humanities Salon on March 15 at Sundance Books in Reno. David has a new book of stories coming out this month, Instructions for a Funeral, set in the Midwest and West. I have a nonfiction book published the day after his, Two-Buck Chuck and The Marlboro Man: The New Old West, presenting portraits of Westerners I know, including the legendary Fred Franzia, creator of the best-selling wine in history, and Darrell Winfield, the real-life Marlboro Man for 30 years.
David and I don’t agree on everything. Yet our writing in both fiction and nonfiction shares a strong sense of place. A big problem today is too often the West gets jammed into popular stereotypical extremes of the Mythic West or the Debunked West, one legendary and romantic, the other brutalizing and empty, both cartoonish. More complicated entanglements of myth and fact shape the lives of Westerners. A simplistic attempt to separate the myth and reality of the West is a mistake. In our writing David and I find agreement in the way myth and reality intertwine. A mythology has always been recognized and lived out self-consciously by many Westerners themselves.
To understand today’s rural and small-town West is to see how the Old West lives on after it was declared dead, enlivening the way people think and feel, not so much clashing with the New West as blending into it.
Frank Bergon will be participating in the Nevada Humanities Salon: Writing About Place. You can join in this Salon on Friday, March 15 at 6 pm at Sundance Books & Music in Reno.
Frank Bergon, a member of the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame, was born in Ely, Nevada, and grew up on a ranch in California’s San Joaquin Valley. He has published 11 books, focusing mainly on the history and environment of the American West, including Basques of his own heritage. His most recent book is Two Buck Chuck & The Marlboro Man: The New Old West.