“The American mentality is a cowboy mentality – if you confront them…they will react in an extreme manner,” are words referenced by James Fallows in the September 2006 issue of The Atlantic. Fallows writes of an interview with Saad-al-Faqih, a Saudi exile and reformist, who has long observed Osama bin Laden and his key strategist Ayman al-Zawahiri. According to al-Faqih, “Zawahiri impressed upon bin Laden the importance of understanding the American mentality” (Fallows 71), likely using words paraphrased by al-Faqih in the quote above. The Fallows article followed on the heels of the July 17th issue of Time, which carried the cover story, “The End of Cowboy Diplomacy,” detailing how President George W. Bush was forced to alter his unilateral pursuit of a historic realignment of power in the Middle East and his accompanying Wild West rhetoric: “Osama bin Laden – Wanted Dead or Alive.” Such news items are grist for the mill presented by Stephen Cook in Realizing Westward: American Character and Cowboy Mythology, a collection of essays on American culture by writers ranging from Cook himself to classic observers like Frederick Jackson Turner.
This slender anthology expands on an English composition class Cook has taught for over ten years, examining American culture through the microscope of the mythological American West. Realizing Westward moves beyond the temporary fashions of popular culture into critical discussions of the values by which Americans live. The text shows how the ethos of the Cowboy, especially as presented in film, exemplifies many quintessential American values, for example, courage, physical prowess, independence, commitment to democratic ideals, and an innate sense of justice expressed in commonly-accepted codes of conduct. The anthology also examines the destructive qualities of Cowboy Mythology. Along with the heroic aspects of the myth, its dark side – violent, arrogant, racist, and misogynistic – is considered as well. Today, perhaps more than ever, an understanding of American Cowboy Mythology is crucial because the conscious and unconscious premises of that mythology continue to inform national perspectives in ways most Americans are probably not aware of. For example, as the book’s Epilogue notes, the direction American voters choose in the 2008 elections will significantly influence how the American character expresses itself nationally and globally in the future. Students, many of them first-time voters, encountering Realizing Westward will gain a deeper perspective of the important choices they must make.