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Theater, Film, and Television

Westerns

cultural crossroads, Western experience, eastern seaboard, young nation, American writers

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Westerns, works of fiction, radio or television programs, or motion pictures that have the American West as their subject matter. In searching for a subject unique to their young nation, some American writers of the 1800s turned to the land itself—the vast, largely untamed territory that stretched from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. As settlement moved westward from the eastern seaboard, the West came to symbolize the qualities associated with that land—open, wild, and full of opportunity. Artists of all kinds found this symbol so evocative that a new genre emerged in literature and the arts: the Western. Over time the Western became identified with the basic values and struggles of the American experience.

Americans have been revisiting and revising the Western experience for more than 150 years. Once seen as the story of hope, the simple life, equality, and open space, the Western today has become a cultural crossroads where diverse viewpoints meet, and as such continues to shape and reflect American cultural identity.

Impact

For 150 years, Westerns have provided a means for expressions of American identity, typically as a conflict between self-determination and community, open space and civilization, home and migration. Their evolution to some extent reflects American history. Because the traditional Western symbolizes America’s feelings of self-confidence, it has fallen out of favor in periods of American self-doubt. Today many historians see the West not as a closed frontier but as a place of ongoing contact among cultures. There is no longer one story about the West, but many, reflecting the rich diversity of voices that keep the Western genre alive.



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