Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Cold Dish’s Walt Longmire is the Quintessential Self-Made Man, An American Icon Rooted in the West

We Americans love our own mythology. We hear its iteration during every political candidate’s glossed résumé when he or she tries to persuade voters of his humble roots, his hard-working parents, and his connection to ordinary folk.

At least once a year, in November, we recall the unwashed masses who boarded ships searching for safe harbor--a place without the unbroken ceiling of birthplace and class, without prohibitions against worship. Those Pilgrims, Puritans, and daredevils were willing to tame a wilderness in exchange for a chance to rise, to own property, to make a future that European monarchies and cultures often denied them.

Some of those early settlers may have landed with soft hands, but they didn’t make it through winter’s hardships without raising calluses. Women hoed hard dirt to put in a garden while men pushed unwieldy plows. They hewed tall trees and hunted game through shadowy forests. Most endured. They stayed for more labor.  They were building a future, staking a claim, and venturing into unknowns in search of opportunity, of possibility.

Today it’s harder to find a self-made man. After all, he has the benefit of an education that gives him the skills and tools he needs to calculate for construction. He doesn’t need to hew trees to build a home or even understand which trees are best for culling and construction. He just needs a good FICO score so he can borrow money to give to a contractor who will order lumber, stone, brick, and mortar. Someone else will build while the man reads, plays, and works something less than dawn to dusk.

Contemporary men are free to create and contemplate, but the idea of a self-made man--a rugged, manly man--is still heroic to Americans, especially if he's accumulated great wealth. That man is also popular in fiction and film.

Although Walt is behind the wheel of a
full-sized Bronco more than on horseback,
as a manly man, he can ride, too.
Photo provided by Al Griffin.
Walt Longmire, the Sheriff of Absaroka County in Wyoming, is a self-made man. He is rugged enough to survive and triumph in rugged country. He relies upon himself and a small circle of trustworthy and trusted friends and co-workers, none of whom is entirely above suspicion if evidence suggests Longmire should consider them. He must, above all, live by and for his own code. He must avoid the blinders of sentimentality in seeking justice and safety for the citizens of Absaroka County.

To become sheriff and be re-elected, Longmire possesses the character traits admired by his constituents. Those are honesty, integrity, and judiciousness.

Nevertheless, a self-made man, Walt Longmire in particular, has a temper that may affect his good judgment. He is also often taciturn and too proud to apologize. He could even be called stubborn to a fault, but his actions aim for excellence and that redeems him of his own clay feet.

Longmire has traces of European gentility comingling with his rugged, Western individualism. He is an educated man. Some of that is formal; much of it is experiential in keeping with the pastoral rustic who knows so much about life and nature by living so closely to nature and death.

As a close observer of human nature, a necessity in his line of work, Longmire can nudge and nurture the best while arresting the worst. His keen observations may be slower than he would like, however. Like missing pieces of a puzzle, clues  do not coalesce into a whole before more harm’s done. A man like Longmire will hold himself responsible for that harm. He seeks an ideal wherein his intuition is sharp and his insight astounding. When he fails to measure up to his own high standards, he plummets into self-doubt and loathing.

Self-made men do not remain there long, as you might imagine. Self-worth, whether found in wealth, status, power, or all three, is the goal of self-made men. So Longmire rises to redeem himself--to take the measure of himself and strive anew.

Reading Challenge:

Glean insights into the popularity of Western literature, Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series in particular, by reading Cold Dish by Craig Johnson. I think you’ll find that the self-made rugged individualist, Walt Longmire, is responsible for much of the appeal.

Writing Challenge:

Respond please: which self-made man in literature is your favorite character?

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach. Read more from her at