Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Slinger takes the cowboy film or story as its subject because it is the essence of modern Western ideology: The subject of the cowboy film is a white male hero who overcomes the forces of evil in other white men, the adversities of the environment (wolves, raging fire, storms) or the perversities of so-called primitive peoples such as American Indians and the “half-breeds” south of the border. What is said to triumph in such heroic tales is reason itself—cold, empirical logic set against wild nature. Dorn’s perspective runs directly counter to each of these assumptions. His sympathies are squarely with Indian America, with wilderness, the unspoiled frontiers of the New World that the European immigrants contaminated and largely destroyed.

Dorn’s purpose in this mock epic is to puncture his readers’ illusory certainties and attack their cultural assumptions. The Gunslinger is modeled on the figure of Charles Olson, a kind of philosophical and ideological outlaw who is opposed to the conventional roots of modern reality. Behind Dorn’s beliefs lies the century’s heritage of new thinking, which is redefining nature as harmonious balance and creativity, and rediscovering in the primal societies colonialized by Western imperialism secrets to living in harmony with the earth. The new villain of modernism and postmodern writing is not the wild Indian or the savage beast of the forest, but the predatory ingenuity of Western society itself.

The cowboy story is the place to set up Dorn’s mocking denials; here is the lode of images and...

(The entire section is 645 words.)