Updated: Oct 8, 2021
We Americans love to look back at times past with a sense of awe. Some of us not-too-subtly want to go back to times past when they were “simpler.” We do this with a lot of different groups and times, but one that is frequently thought up is the American cowboy. The life of a cowboy has been romanticized probably more than any other line of work. At one point in time, some of the most popular movies were Westerns. Notable amongst these are films such as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, True Grit, 3:10 to Yuma, and the list goes on. The depictions are that of a world where a man could make his own way in the world with enough grit and a quick draw.
Of course you don’t have to be a genius or even know much history at all to understand that the lives of those on the frontier were not glamorous. Nor was it profitable for most. The life of the American cowboy was, to be frank, crappy. Dangerous with terrible pay. You usually only went into that work with the understanding that you did not have much else going for you. I am reminded of the song Ghost Riders in the Sky, wherein a cowboy is haunted by the vision of hell being him having to chase down a herd of demon cattle for all eternity. This romanticism extends to the America of the 1950s as well.
To paraphrase several political commentators that I have heard over the years, conservatives miss the culture of the 1950s, while liberals miss the economy of the 1950s. Of course, this is an absurd desire. The 1950s may be idealized as a time of a triumphant United States fresh off back-to-back World War victories, with stable families and an ever-growing economy. This was a time when families stayed together and a man could get a job through which his whole family could be supported. The former was the result of firm moral values rooted in Christianity and the latter in the work of the then strong unions that infested every sort of labor market. However, as a rather humorous scene between Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson in Captain America: Winter Soldier points out, the 1940s and 1950s had its drawbacks.
We in the United States love to romanticize the past. Especially, if you happen to be of the more populist persuasion. However, it shouldn’t need to be said that while the past possessed desirable qualities for sure. It was more than negated by the fact that life in many ways sucked. I could give any number of examples of why we should not want to return to the past, but the one that I think gives this impression the best is given by Johnny Cash in his autobiography.
Cash describes the day after his older brother’s tragic death at the business end of a saw blade. The Cash family, far from being able to mourn their family member’s death, are instead forced to go work in the cotton fields. Cash recalls:
I watched as my mother fell to her knees and let her head drop onto her chest. My poor daddy came up to her and took her arm, but she brushed him away.
“I’ll get up when God pushes me up!” she said, so angrily, so desperately. And soon she was on her feet, working with her hoe.
Lest you get too romantic an impression of the good, natural, hardworking, character-building, country life back then, back there, remember that picture of Carrie Cash down in the mud between the cotton rows on any mother’s worst possible day. When they talk about how cotton was king in the rural South, they’re right in more ways than one.” ( Johnny Cash the Autobiography 36- 37)
We should not desire to return to the past. The past, whether it be mere milliseconds ago or centuries, only exists in our imagination. For that reason, the perception of it is warped where only the most positive of visions filter through for many. For many, childhood was a time of idyllic peace and simplicity, when the reality may be different. Growing up is hard for any child, even in the best of circumstances. What may seem to be simple problems to us adults seem like major obstacles to the child. So it would make sense we would want to go back to a time when our biggest problem was homework and trying to manage your social status in school.
For those who look back in longing to the past fall into the same trap. We long for the time when the thing that must be done was to head out to the fields with your family to work. You lived in close-knit communities. Everyone went to the same church. Everyone knew each other. This is of course ignoring that prior to modern medicine and sanitation, upwards of half of children would die before adulthood. As well as innumerable problems that plagued society. Even getting into the 20th century, stories like the one given by Johnny Cash were not uncommon. This is not to castigate the past. That would be the height of arrogance and ungratefulness. But we should recognize that we have it comparably easy, at least materially. We should not fall into the trap of utopianism nor pretend we understand the true costs of things we cannot possibly know.