A Salute to Shane

by Marc Simmons

The following article was first published in The Roundup, the magazine of the Western Writers of America, in May 1974, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Shane. Reproduced by kind permission of the author.

Western novels that time and the critics have judged to be classics can be numbered on the fingers of one hand. Among them are The Virginian, Paso Por Aqui, The Ox-Bow Incident--and Shane. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of Shane's publication in book form, an examination of its history and success seems fitting.

In 1945 newspaperman Jack Schaefer developed an idea for a short story: a lone and mysterious gunman rides into a troubled Wyoming valley, befriends a homesteader and his family, and helps defeat the ruthless rancher threatening to evict them. The story grew in length and complexity as Schaefer worked on it nights, and the following year it appeared as a three-part serial in Argosy under the title "Rider from Nowhere." In bare outline, perhaps, the tale had little to distinguish it from the standard Western fare. But on examining it in detail even the most jaded reader could discern elements that raised this work above the ordinary.

Houghton Mifflin perceived enough of this to take a chance on an unknown writer and in 1949 issued the revised and expanded text as a hardback novel. Schaefer had tinkered with his serial, added the crucial stump-chopping scene, and retitled it Shane, after the leading character. Four years later, when George Stevens produced it as an award-winning film, preserving the essential theme, creating starkly realistic sets, and selecting the grandeur of the Tetons as a backdrop, Shane was on its way.

Now, twenty-five years later, the novel has been printed in seventy or more editions, in thirty foreign languages, and has been adopted in many high schools and colleges as a student text. Its success allowed Schaefer to abandon journalism and devote his full energies to writing fiction. While many of his later products, notably Monte Walsh, The Canyon, Old Ramon, Heroes Without Glory, and The Collected Stories are of sterling merit, Shane remains pre-eminently the book that comes to mind when the name of Jack Schaefer surfaces in literary circles.

It may be that the popularity Shane has enjoyed for the past quarter century will wane in the mid 1970's as cynicism, the trend toward socialism, the cult of the anti-hero, and mindless rebellion against the Establishment increase in intensity. In such an atmosphere, a mythical archetype and heroic exemplar such as Shane would seem to find little acceptance, except in escape literature. Most of traditional Western fiction, in fact, may find itself imperiled by this drift in popular taste. Nonetheless, it is safe to assume that some readership will always exist for novels skillfully crafted and of high purpose, and that Shane will continue to attract an admiring coterie of fans.

To explain in detail why Shane exercises such strong appeal and evokes such deep response in so many people would require a book in itself, but a few of the main points can be stated briefly.

From the beginning, Shane was classed by reviewers as a "psychological" Western, meaning that action and plot development served as a façade for the more fundamental interplay of psychic forces that roiled beneath. In school editions of the book, explanatory notes indicate that the larger conflict in Shane symbolizes the age-old struggle between good and evil, or between civilized and primitive life. And certainly this is apparent in the contrast between the virtuous gunfighter Shane and his antipode, the remorseless killer Wilson. The question of whether resort to a gun can ever be justified is answered by Shane himself: "A gun is a tool like any other, as good or as bad as the man who uses it."

While the symbolism in Shane readily lends itself to interpretation in moralistic terms, the book contains an even stronger underlying theme--the one that gives it universality. This theme is also a timeless one--that of man's search for himself, of his efforts to tap his latent potentialities, and of his struggle to establish mastery over the chaotic forces of instinct and the unconscious that threaten him with personal disintegration.

To impute such conflict to a Western gunfighter, even in a well-developed novel like Shane, is perhaps too much for most people to swallow. But the tell-tale clues are there, sprinkled through the narrative like pearls interspersed in the beads of a rosary. Schaefer himself has disavowed any intention of creating symbols or of probing inside the psyches of his characters, but evidently once he started composing Shane the matter was outside his hands.

As analytical psychologists have shown, a piece of writing, particularly one recognized as a work of art, may be laden with unconscious symbols that well up spontaneously in the midst of the creative process. The symbols and the extra meaning taken on by commonplace words and incidents can be discovered by a discerning interpreter, even while remaining hidden from the author. If doubters persist in regarding this as mere intellectual invention or pretentious twaddle, the matter is easily settled by a quote from the book. Young Bob, who narrates the story, describes Shane as "the symbol of all the dim, formless imaginings of danger and terror in the untested realm of human potentialities beyond my understanding." From this it is but a short step to the problem of Shane's inner war, hinted at throughout the book but never made explicit.

From the opening scene, Shane emerges as an uncommon man--in his personal appearance, his movements, his abilities, his character. Just how uncommon becomes clear as the story unfolds. Drifting through Wyoming Territory, he pauses at the homestead of Joe Starrett, who, with his wife Marian and son Bob, is having a rough go of it. Shane, since he seems to have no destination in mind, is invited to stay on as a hired hand, and the stage is set for development of his friendship with the Starretts and of his entanglement with their problems. The series of events that follow, culminating in the climactic shoot-out in the saloon, all serve to focus attention on the hero and to illustrate the details whose sum portrays a man capable of standing up to any crisis "in the simple solitude of his own invincible completeness."

The thesis of the book, then, expresses belief in the essential worth of the individual and in the necessity for his separation spiritually from the mass, the only process that allows attainment of personal autonomy. Above all, Shane is an autonomous man, accepting the responsibility of the ethical decision and exercising a measure of control over events surrounding him. Rather than drift with the tide, he disciplines himself toward wholeness. He is the antithesis of T. S. Eliot's "hollow men" and of the average modern man, sunk in herd morality and feeling himself powerless at being caught in the coils of deterministic forces.

When Bob gets a glimmer of what Shane is and represents, it awakens him to the possibility that man can become what he ought to be. At that moment of perception, Shane "was no longer a stranger. He was a man like father in whom a boy could believe in the simple knowledge that what was beyond comprehension was still clean and solid and right."

This is the meaning of the heroic exemplar to youth or to anyone else who cares to learn. Such models have been held up for emulation in the writings of the Greeks, in medieval epics, and in modern literature. L'uomo universale has inspired civilized men in all times and places and created in them an awe similar to that felt by Bob when he confronts Shane, who is "so deep and vital in his own being," and who can so uniquely remain "cool and competent" under conditions of stress.

Nevertheless, with all of Shane's attainments, he is still wrestling with the basic problem that besets any man who advances beyond the stage of a drifting robot: how to summon at will the enormous charges of energy that ordinarily lie incapsulated and dormant in the unconscious and to direct that energy toward productive purposes. Shane's difficulty, and it ultimately proves to be his tragic flaw, is that only under the shadow of violence can he trigger a surge of psychic energy that brings about total integration of his personality and results in the "wholeness" for which all humans unconsciously strive.

Schaefer refers to this psychic energy metaphorically as "fire," and the meaning is clear. In the last moments of the furious battle to uproot the stump, Shane's eyes "were aflame with a concentrated cold fire. It was all of him, the whole man, pulsing in the one incredible surge of power. You could fairly feel the fierce energy suddenly burning in him, pouring through him in the single coordinated drive." Again, in the instant after the fight with the cowboy Chris, "the fire in Shane smoldered down and out." And later, in the midst of a brawl in which Shane is set upon by four toughs, the blows pelting him "seemed only to feed that fierce energy. He moved like a flame among them."

Shane's attempt to gain complete self-mastery by releasing and controlling his latent powers through other than violent means is the element that makes him mysterious and incomprehensible to the homesteader friends of Starrett. Most of them peg him as a tinhorn gunfighter whose identity and manhood rest upon the power of his pistol. Yet Joe Starrett perceives the difference in Shane, and joins with him in that holy friendship that always holds together men of higher purpose.

In the end Shane's personal conflict remains unresolved. After defeating the rancher Fletcher and his hired gun, he tells Bob that he must ride on. Of course, this is a fine stylistic touch and one that the book requires. But in his final speech, Shane gives the actual reason that compels his departure. "A man is what he is, Bob, and there's no breaking the mold. I tried that and I've lost." In a sense it is a capitulation, at least for the moment--an admission that he needs the stimulus of violence to reach the higher levels of human consciousness. This dénouement might suggest to the unwary that the mountain peak, which the hero unsuccessfully sought to scale, was in fact unassailable. But such a conclusion would be misleading, as it obscures the authentic message of this novel: that the trail to the top, win or lose, is well worth essaying.

Shane is a complex web of allegory; the remarks here only scrape the tip of the iceberg. Since the story can attract readers in Arabic, Japanese, Urdu, Czech, and other exotic languages, we are led to the assumption that its symbolism transcends national and cultural boundaries, for it is the deeper meaning that qualifies a novel for universal popularity and for acceptance as a classic. On this ground it is safe to predict that Shane will still be read and enjoyed after time has ticked off another twenty-five years.

Marc Simmons is an independent historian who has written numerous articles and books on the American Southwest. He contributes a weekly column on historical matters to several New Mexico newspapers and the El Paso Times. He was a long-time friend and neighbor to Jack Schaefer, and wrote the Foreword to the critical edition of Shane.

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