The Last Cowboy
by Jane Kramer
Rating – 7/10
Summary – In the mid-1970s the New Yorker’s Jane Kramer convinced her editor to let her go to Texas so that she could find out what had become of the great American cowboy. The result was an article that Kramer later also published as the book The Last Cowboy. What Kramer recounts from her time in Texas is depressing, and The Last Cowboy – while short and entertaining – suffers from Kramer’s aloof view of rural America and its inhabitants.
Review – Jane Kramer’s nonfiction The Last Cowboy focuses on Henry Blanton, a forty-year-old cowboy in the Texas panhandle. In Kramer’s view, Blanton is an anachronism – a man who believes in the code of the Old West long after all semblance of that world has vanished. The Last Cowboy focuses on Blanton’s attempts to make a living while remaining true to his vision of himself.
One of the best things about the book is Kramer’s prose. She is perceptive and her eye for detail helps reveal both people and places. Consider her description of Blanton’s wife, Betsy’s, preparations for Christmas Eve:
“Her spread on Christmas Eve was elegant. There was a big pot roast simmering in its juices in the oven. New bottles of steak sauce and salad dressing and Dr. Pepper glittered on the table and the Christmas candles cast warm shadows on the yellow walls” (p. 141).
The Last Cowboy is also well paced and entertaining. (However, Chapter 7 (pages 75-89) – which tries to explain modern agriculture – is an unfortunate exception; it is boring and difficult to follow)).
Readers will find Henry Blanton – the book’s main focus – to be an ambivalent person. On one hand, he is the rare person who tries to live based on his principles and – to that end – he works very hard as a cowboy. But, at his worst, Blanton is sexist, violent, and often drunk. In describing the early years of his marriage, Blanton tells Kramer:
“Course, Betsy had her home and her babies and that’s everything a woman should need. And I tried to be real good to her. There was only one time when I hit her. I swatted her with a rope – I never did hit a woman openhanded. But, like I said, she was alone most all the time, except for the babies” (p. 113).
While I like The Last Cowboy, I do think that the book has one serious flaw. Kramer sets out to explode the myth of the cowboy, and she succeeds. However, she fails to appreciate that the myth might have value in and of itself. After all, we continue to find value in the ancient Greek and Roman myths, though we know that they are not literally true. Why does the image of the cowboy speak to so many people – even if it no more than a myth? After all, if the cowboy myth is a crock, then Kramer’s book is just the story of another working stiff who labors too hard for too little money.
Kramer takes a stab at this idea early in the book, but she finds no value in Henry’s image of the West:
“The West that Henry mourned belonged to the Western movie, where the land and the cattle went to their proper guardians and brought a fortune in respect and power. It was a West where the best cowboy got to shoot the meanest outlaw, woo the prettiest schoolteacher, bed her briefly to produce sons, and then ignore her for the finer company of other cowboys – a West as sentimental and brutal as the people who made a virtue of that curious combination of qualities and called it the American experience” (p. 23).
Kramer sells the West – and its fans – short. I think that there is something else there, something more than jingoism, that speaks to so many.
In my humble opinion, The Last Cowboy is well written and entertaining, but potential readers should remember that Kramer’s impressions tell us as much about her as they do about the West.