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John Wayne's America: The Politics of Celebrity

John Wayne's America: The Politics of Celebrity

by Garry Wills

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The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Lincoln at Gettysburg brings his eloquence, wit, and on-target perceptions of American life and politics to this fascinating, well-drawn protrait of a twentieth-century hero. In this work of great originality—the biography of an idea—Garry Wills shows how John Wayne came to embody Amercian values and influenced


The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Lincoln at Gettysburg brings his eloquence, wit, and on-target perceptions of American life and politics to this fascinating, well-drawn protrait of a twentieth-century hero. In this work of great originality—the biography of an idea—Garry Wills shows how John Wayne came to embody Amercian values and influenced our cultoure to a degree unmatched by any other public figure of his time. In Wills's hands, Waynes story is tranformed into a compelling narrative about the intersection of popular entertainment and political realities in mid-twentieth-century America.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Having written about the founding fathers ("Inventing America"), the presidency ("Nixon Agonistes"; "Reagan's America") and Shakespeare ("Witches and Jesuits"), Wills now turns his powerful intellect and considerable reportorial skills to another icon: John Wayne (1907-1979). Still one of America's top 10 favorite movie stars 16 years after his death, Wayne proves to be an unusually fruitful subject for Wills's brand of cultural criticism. As much an excavation of the meaning of a pop icon as a portrait of a man, the book explores the business and politics of filmmaking, the price of ambition, the historical reality behind the myths of Wayne's life and the American mythologies associated with him. Wills also excavates Wayne's relationship with his most celebrated directors, especially John Ford, who comes across here as a brilliant filmmaker but a brutal and unforgiving patriarch. Wayne emerges as a self-mythologizing charmer whose personal history hardly matches his image: a draft-dodger who, in the movies, seemed to win WWII single-handedly; a canny careerist acutely aware of his gifts and image who regularly played unself-conscious men who cared little about either. Wills's often brilliant readings of Wayne's most important and lasting films (Stagecoach, Red River, The Searchers, The Alamo, etc.) are film criticism of the highest order, combining a mastery of film theory and American history. Not only is this stunning book essential reading for anyone interested in Wayne and popular culture, it's a key text in Wills's continuing investigation into the meaning of America.
Library Journal
Touted as the biography of an idea, this book traces the impact of one of America's great mythic figures.
Charles Taylor
[T]he trouble with academics and theorists and social and political critics who write about the movies is that they treat pictures as if they were theses to be proven or discredited. Even when Garry Wills is right in his new John Wayne's America (and that isn't often), what he's saying seems to bear no relation to our experience of the pictures he's talking about. Before he's out of the prologue, Wills has made factual errors (claiming screenwriter-director John Milius created Conan the Barbarian; it was actually '30s pulp writer Robert E. Howard), put forth embarrassing misreadings and given no indication that he has anything original to say.

Topic sentences come thick and numbingly familiar: "The disappearing frontier is the most powerful and persistent myth in American history ... The Western deals with the 'taming' of the West ... (The) air of invincibility gave Wayne his special status." Everybody got that? Wills wanted to write the book, he says, because Wayne is an intellectually unfashionable star who has figured prominently in the public imagination. Fair enough. But Wills overestimates how deeply Wayne has penetrated into the American psyche. Wayne's popularity spanned decades, but as an American icon, Wayne has remained static (unlike Elvis, whose mutability seems nowhere near exhausted).

Wills' real problem, though, is that he simply doesn't know how to read movies. He claims that John Ford wasn't trying to make Wayne a star with the famous shot in "Stagecoach" that introduces Wayne (a laughable claim to anyone who's seen it and fallen immediately for this intensely likable kid). He falls for the "greatness" of later Ford duds like "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," that pile of blarney "The Quiet Man" and the overrated "classic" "The Searchers," while completely missing what may be the older Wayne's most appealing picture, Howard Hawks' relaxed and thoroughly engaging "Rio Bravo," a movie where his authority carries some weight precisely because it isn't invincible.

After slogging through John Wayne's America, I still wasn't sure why Wills wanted to write the book. But I got a clue from the author photo -- Wills in Monument Valley, trying to look both like a regular guy in his running shoes and baggy chinos, and authorial as he clutches a pencil and book. Wills is too much the serious academic to admit it, but I think that, for him, John Wayne's America is a way of living out a fantasy of being a man who can take the measure of men, of paying homage to a male authority figure who fascinates him without violating his own reputation. "How the fuck can John Wayne die?" asks a mobster in the new movie "Donnie Brasco." Wills doesn't have an answer to that. But his book does show how the Duke might be embalmed. --Salon

Kirkus Reviews
Pulitzer Prize winner and author of 18 previous books, Wills ("Witches and Jesuits", 1994, etc.) brings his usual insightful and far-reaching erudition to bear on one of the most culturally important "stars" America has ever produced.

At one time or another John Wayne has been blamed for everything from cowboy diplomacy to the Vietnam War; the critic Eric Bentley called him "the most dangerous man in America." But as Wills expertly details, the fault is not so much with Wayne as with ourselves: "By a confluence of audience demand and commercial production, the Wayne that took shape in the transaction between the two expressed deep needs and aspirations that took `Wayne' as the pattern of manly American virtue." Wills is not particularly interested in Wayne's personal life, although he offers a number of fascinating details. He focuses almost exclusively on a close analysis of Wayne's image as it played itself out in his major movies (made with such visionary directors as Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks, and John Ford). Most of these films—classics such as 'Stagecoach', 'Red River', and 'The Searchers'—were prime examples of a uniquely American genre. "The Western," Wills writes, "can deal with the largest themes in American history—beginning with the `original sin' of our country. . . . It explores the relationship of the people with the land, of the individual with the community, of vigilante law to settled courts." With their themes of sacrifice, order, and duty, Wayne's films (Westerns and non-Westerns alike) were perfectly attuned to a newly imperial America. What Wills has wrought here is little short of a masterpiece. His intelligence and perception, his range of ideas, and his sheer readability set a high standard for writing about American culture and entertainment. He completely redefines our understanding of Wayne's work, its meanings, and its impact on our collective imagination.

A major achievement in cultural criticism that will not be easily surpassed.

Product Details

Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.41(w) x 9.59(h) x 1.25(d)

Read an Excerpt

From Chapter One

John Wayne, like Ronald Reagan (born four years after him), was part of Iowa's great exodus to California. A net of commercial and filial connections dragged people from their cornfields off to citrus groves. Wayne's family was typical: first his paternal grandfather went, then his father, then his mother with his maternal grandmother and grandfather. Reagan went, taking a whole cluster of friends from his broadcasting days, to be followed by his brother and his parents. Iowans turned like sunflowers toward the California sun.

Wayne forgot Iowa, and Iowa forgot him, while Reagan kept up ties with his Midwestern past. This is mainly, but not only, because Wayne left as a child (seven), and Reagan as a young man (twenty-five). Studio publicists highlight or invent links to a star's roots if they are useful to the star's image. It served Reagan to be a homey and down-to-earth Iowan, the unpretentious star of Des Moines radio. But Western heroes appear from nowhere. Their past is mysterious, their name a title or a mask—the Virginian, the Texan, the Kid. Is Shane a first or last name—or both, or neither? Even when not masked, this Western hero is always a lone ranger, come back from beyond the farthest ridge, not formed "back East" in settled ways. John Wayne had nothing to gain from the farmlands in his past. It is accidental but appropriate that Reagan lost his nickname (Dutch) in California returning to his real name (Ronald), while Wayne lost his real first name (Marion) there, gaining a nickname (Duke) before trading his family name (Morrison) for a stage name. If Wayne was not quite Sergio Leone's "Man with No Name," he was at least a manfrom nowhere. The nowhere was Winterset, Iowa.

Later on, residents of Winterset entertained a myth that Wayne sneaked back, once, to look at his native place—as if Wayne could slip unnoticed through the rows of corn. Wayne's son Michael fed this illusion by saying that he showed Wayne, toward the end of his father's life, a movie made in Winterset (Cold Turkey), without telling him where it was set. Wayne, his son averred, found something familiar about the Madison County courthouse—a remarkable achievement for a child who left Winterset at age two, moving on to other towns in Iowa.

The Wayne family took few happy memories away from Iowa, and some of the happy few were false. Wayne later boasted that his father's Iowa pharmacy was a real drugstore, not a place for selling general products. But the store Clyde Morrison owned specialized in paint and wallpaper, and the drugs he sold were mainly patent medicine. Even more important was the memory that Clyde had been a football star, an "all-state halfback" at Simpson College.

The Simpson College yearbooks and school papers tell a different story. Clyde Morrison grew up in Indianola, the site of Simpson College, and attended its preparatory academy. In his freshman year at the college, he started on the football team's first string but was replaced as the season wore on. His hometown paper made this embarrassing report: "Morrison did well [in an early game] but does not get into condition for proper work."' In his second and last season, Morrison was on the bench, not mentioned in a single game's newspaper report. In a college with only 106 male students, one that did not have an entire second eleven (the roster was sixteen players), this is hardly an "allstate" career. Yet the legend is still being passed on.

The Clyde Morrison who went to Winterset in 1906 to clerk in a drugstore was no star, and there would be few memories of him or his family after they left in 1909. Two decades later, when "John Wayne" had acquired some fame, there was an attempt to connect him with the baby Marion Morrison, but local report gave different stories about things as basic as the house where he was born. The woman doctor who delivered him told her daughter that she did it in a second-story apartment. A former secretary of the Madison County Historical Society, Lloyd H. Smith, told the ghostwriter of Wayne's unfinished autobiography, Maurice Zolotow, that there were three or more contenders for the honor. Smith himself assigned it to a house now destroyed, a picture of which appears in Zolotow's Shooting Star 10.

When, after Wayne's death, the Winterset Chamber of Commerce decided to honor the site of his birth, no documents (sale, rent, or phone records) revealed where the Morrisons were in 1907, and no address was given on Marion's birth certificate. Local authorities relied on one woman's testimony. The late Alice Miller, then in her eighties, said that she remembered, as a girl, watching the excitement across the street as John Wayne was born in 1907, though Marion Morrison had disappeared from Winterset in 1909. Alice Miller was also a source for the biographical pamphlet, sold at the birthplace, that remembers Clyde Morrison as a football star.

Perhaps the designated birthplace, which drew fifty thousand tourists in 1994, is the actual house. It has an advantage Lloyd Smith's candidate lacked. It is still standing. Or perhaps when Wayne made his rumored secret visit to Winterset, he was a phantom Iowan visiting a phantom home.

Clyde Morrison went to work in 1906 at M. E. Smith's Drug Store, whose ads ran to items like this: "Foley's Kidney Cure ... Take it at once, Do not risk having Bright's Disease or Diabetes ... 50¢ and $1.00 Bottle, Refuse Substitutes." Clyde proved no more successful at holding a job than at staying on the first string at Simpson. By 1909, he was a drug clerk in another Iowa town (Brooklyn). A year after that, Clyde used some family money to buy a Rexall store in Earlham, a store which folded in a year. This was the place that sold paint and wallpaper—the kind of thing he was selling, a year later, at a general store in Keokuk. In 1913, having exhausted the possibilities of pharmacies and of Iowa, Clyde went to California where his father had preceded him. In 1914, Clyde's wife and two sons joined him there. The future Wayne was seven, and had already lived in four different Iowa towns. No wonder his recollections of the state were vague to nonexistent. In his aborted autobiography, he says that his younger brother ("Bobby") was born in Winterset, though he was actually born two towns later (in Earlham).

The Morrison family had been unhappy in Iowa, and would become unhappier still in California, where Marion was now old enough to hear more of his parents' quarrelings. Clyde, with his unfailing gift for failure, made two reckless decisions—a) to become, with no experience, a farmer, and b) to do his farming in Antelope Valley. The Valley is an and basin just over the coastal range of California mountains north of Los Angeles. Other Iowans went to lush fruit fields or seaside views. Clyde contrived to find a desert in the garden, one sealed off from verdure and the ocean.

Copyright © 1997 by Literary Research, Inc.

Meet the Author

Garry Wills is an Emeritus Professor of History at Northwestern University. Born in Atlanta in 1934, he has taught widely throughout the United States. A prolific writer and scholar, Wills is the author of more than twenty books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lincoln at Gettysburg, Papal Sin, and What Jesus Meant. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Brief Biography

Date of Birth:
May 22, 1934
Place of Birth:
Atlanta, GA
St. Louis University, B.A., 1957; Xavier University, M.A., 1958; Yale University, Ph.D., 1961

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