Recently, I had the most delightful interview at the Harvest cafe with Amber Kelly-Anderson, professor of English at Howard College and now a renowned essayist. I say “renowned” because she was recently contracted for 12 months to write blog essays for Ploughshares.
Ploughshares is a national award-winning literary magazine published by Boston’s Emerson College. Since it hosts one of the best MFA (Master of Fine Arts) programs in creative writing in the country, most of the writers accepted tend to be from the East with previously published novels. Many aspiring writers have submitted to Ploughshares, few are accepted. Congratulations, Amber!
Amber’s first published work for Ploughshares is “The Myth of the Literary Cowboy, Part I: Peculiarly American.” Who built the romantic characterization of the American cowboy we have fallen in love with? A strong case can be made that writers like Owen Wister, a college classmate of Teddy Roosevelt, and early romantic western writer, Zane Grey, created the character, while President Teddy Roosevelt seized upon that creation to carry it forward for a specific purpose.
What was that purpose? America was still suffering from its near self-destruction, the Civil War. War grudges die slowly, if ever, and ours were not from a common outside enemy but within ourselves. A new hero needed to be born and the West needed to finally be settled into the 20th century.
The persona that was captured by the likes of Wister and Grey, and Roosevelt for his national purpose, was to take the characteristics from the central figure of the British knight in the popular tales of King Arthur, and Robin Hood, and make it the western cowboy — horse-reliant, wanderer, gallant, masculine, military-like demeanor, romantic, and one who lived by a chivalric code.
The central figure to be sold and portrayed to the public in order to capture its imagination must be different from men in the industrialized North and not from the feudalistic South. The creation must become iconic — Anglo, stoic, spiritual, self-reliant, detached from the corruption of society, a man who answered to no king but only to himself. The President took it upon himself to unite Americans with positive imagination of the cowboy as he said, “The Republic will find its guidance in the West …”
Of course, this was a far cry from realism. The typical ranch hand who worked the ranches of the West had no idea of such characterization. They were just hard-working men and women (which the created imagery seemed to forget) who did routine ranch work. Nevertheless, the “literary cowboy” was born, created for the general public to be entertained and fall in love with.
At first created out of Arthurian morals for the American idea of the untamed West, the cowboy character was rebuilt and redefined with each passing generation as each reinterpreted the icon to project the morals of their period. As the ’30s and ’40s arrived, it was more of a “white hat” versus “black hat” vision, as opposed to the original settling of the West. There were real men with exaggerated legends like Jesse James and Wyatt Earp. By the ’70s, the cowboy character became morally ambiguous, as in Clint Eastwood’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” In time, the cowboy icon became the reminiscent singer, poet, and entertainer.
Amber writes that the cowboy image is part of us, each of us, deep in our culture — even if we have never been on a horse. This talented writer, Amber Kelly-Anderson, has published in numerous literary journals but Ploughshares is a particular coup.
She is a West Texas, hometown gal; graduated from Lee High School and lives in Midland with her husband and two children, while commuting to Howard college to teach. She has a bachelors degree from NYU and an MA from Sul Ross. Her accomplishments speak positively for her talent.
Aspiring writers have to deal with rejection. We submit to publishers to be published but are rejected far more times than accepted. I took this opportunity to ask this accomplished essayist how a writer should accept rejection. I was struck with what she said. Amber related to her teaching as a parallel. When a student fails your course, it hurts, but you have to go forward. It’s the same when you receive a rejection letter, “You can’t let rejection determine what you do.”
Part II of “The Myth of the Literary Cowboy” is scheduled to publish online in Ploughshares March 15th.