Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Charles J. Maland

Committee Members

Mary Papke, Christine Holmlund, Lisi Schoenbach


In “Democracy and Capitalism in the American Western,” I argue that the Western consistently dramatizes the tensions between democracy and capitalism while revealing the cultural structure of feeling at the time of its production. Since the first modern Western, Wister’s The Virginian (1902), the genre has expressed a concern that the balance between democracy and capitalism has been upset and that this imbalance has engendered or exacerbated other social problems. The genre generally worked to promote consensus about progress until the breakdown of the liberal consensus in the 1960s, when Americans’ belief in progress was shaken, resulting, in turn, in a shift in the Western to highlighting and critiquing the darker motivations and results of American progress.

In Chapter One, “‘The Code of the West’: Democracy, Capitalism, and the American Hero,’” I argue that, though classic Westerns share a basic faith in America’s progress, they also reveal contemporary tensions between democracy and capitalism. As the Western evolved into a medium of cultural criticism, it openly recognized greed as a major motivating factor in the settlement of the West, which I argue in Chapter Two, “‘Riding off into the Sunrise’: The Revision of the Western.’” In Chapter Three, “‘No Longer a Poor Man’s Country’: The Anti-incorporation Western in Post-consensus America,’” I build on Alan Trachtenberg’s The Incorporation of America to argue that many Westerns produced since 1980 can be called Anti-incorporation Westerns because they reveal the settlement of the West as a Civil War of Incorporation rather than as the triumphal achievement of America’s manifest destiny. The West these works depict belies the morally self-aggrandizing American narrative of the settlement of the West. Rather, the spirit informing the Anti-incorporation Western’s west is an implacable mercenary spirit.

Westerns so effectively interrogate both the tensions between democracy and capitalism and the structure of feeling because the time and space displacement of the Western setting provides a vehicle for writers and filmmakers to ask their audiences to consider the complexities of our traditional myths, intimately intertwined with Western history, and our current national and international situations, perhaps provoking intelligent debate and discussion.

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