Palgrave Macmillan, $14.00, ISBN 1-4039-7597-3
Popular Culture, 2006 (Reissue)
This review originally appeared on The Naughty Bits, which is sadly no longer around. It’s now here with Teddypig’s permission.
I bought this damn thing and read it this weekend knowing full well we were walking on flimsy ground with one of these many new gay study books being published to tie into the whole Brokeback Mountain thing. Just so you know, when dealing with any cowboy-oriented subject matter, you are dealing with almost strictly fictional tales. Even back when there were actual cowboys around, these books were mostly written by well-educated easterners who may or may not have actually visited any of the areas they were writing about, and most likely never met any real cowboys to speak of. The stories were basically considered pulp fiction being sold like comic books and appealing to the young.
Chris Packard does his best to make the case that the original cowboy tales – those written before 1901 – were the most authentic and most likely to reflect the possible homosexuality being practiced by men isolated from civilization and leading a life secluded from women. He goes to great lengths sometimes convincingly to pull from various sources as the poem by Charles Badger Clark’s The Lost Pardner (written in 1917). He also goes into a lot of analysis when looking at Owen Wister’s The Virginian (written in 1901), which I shall probably now read since it is of Mr Packard’s opinion that this particular critically praised book was the first that brought in the idea of the main character cowboy getting hitched to the closest available schoolmarm as the ending; the point of it showing the disassociation from his past life as this homosexual wild man into this genteel straight husband material. From what Chris Packard says, the book’s influence turned the once raw tales of manly men dominated heroics into straight romances, which eventually tainted this male only literary form. Chris Packard in fact goes through great deal of analytical gymnastics to define a hell of a lot of these stories as purely homosexual in subtext.
That’s where I get into trouble here actually. When someone tries to force-feed me that all of this fictional literature relied on some type of homosexual undercurrents, I just don’t buy it, especially when so much of what is gone over here comes down to assuming a great deal about what the author intended. These were pulp novels and no one was spending that much time editing their writing. The other problem I have personally with this very short book is how off-topic it seems to be half the time, with its dalliances with Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and some civil war gay story by Frederic Wadsworth Loring Two College Friends (written in 1871) that has, I guess, recently come to light. Fascinating stuff and all that, but it just leads to more talking and commentary and not showing the goods in my opinion. I think this reflects how little the author actually had to work from to make his case.
So, if you do decide to read Queer Cowboys, hopefully you will track down a library copy and not do what I did and actually pay for the dang thing. It does have a few high points like when Chris Packard goes over Andy Adams The Log of a Cowboy (written in 1903) and points out a whole different way of looking at the story. That is all fine and good, but I still don’t buy that every guy that shared a bed roll or a bunk or went skinny dipping with other guys out in the middle of nowhere was doing so as a come on. I’ve seen the pictures, those cowboys “looked” like they smelled bad. Could you imagine sleeping with one every night? And no matter how much I find it a hoot, it’s dang hard to qualify poor Tonto and the Lone Ranger as fuck buddies.
Oh and Chris, the whole overly intellectual talking in the third person deal at the start of the book – “Queer Cowboys seeks to blah blah blah” – oh man, that’s just wrong Chris. You are the only author of the book and it’s annoying. Stop it!