Tom King's John Wayne: the western in Green Grass, Running Water

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Author: Joel Deshaye
Date: Summer 2015
From: Canadian Literature(Issue 225)
Publisher: The University of British Columbia - Canadian Literature
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,464 words

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Mouth-sore with bad breath, A runny-eyed roan, sway-backed, What kind of a horse is death?

--Louis Phillips, "Considering the Death of John Wayne"

When the American movie star John Wayne died in 1979 after a long career, the American poet Louis Phillips commented indirectly on the star's historical significance in "Considering the Death of John Wayne" The poem predates by fourteen years Thomas King's even more daring "consideration" in his novel Green Grass, Running Water. In 1974, CBS News reported that the "conservative Wayne" had visited the comparatively liberal Harvard University upon invitation from the provocative Harvard Lampoon, arriving on an "armoured personnel carrier" offered to him by supporters in the reserves ("John Wayne" n. pag.). Phillips remembers the scene in his poem: "He went to Harvard in a tank / Which is one way to get there" (265). If you remember Wayne's voice, you can hear it in the second of these lines; Phillips here is partly ventriloquizing and partly elegizing Wayne's transition from "tank" to "horse" to the grave. The poem and its historical contexts introduce many of the ideas that preoccupy me in this essay, such as the politics of celebrity and the fascination with dead celebrities. I argue, in fact, that King's vision of John Wayne reframes other Canadian Westerns about Billy the Kid and Jesse James as a collective fantasy of the death of American celebrity--or at least as an attempted subversion of American pop-cultural influence. In Green Grass, Running Water and other later texts, King articulates his stake in a popular culture that has a pernicious influence on opinions of the First Nations and Native Americans. As King suggests, the problem is that figures such as Wayne spin off out of popular culture into history, or at least into popular conceptions of history, and give the false impression that modern Indigenous culture is an oxymoron; it was supposed to have died in the nineteenth century.

Popular culture as a threat bigger than history--that is the concern of this essay, and it is one possible motivation for King's wading into the literary end of popular culture: to question it from within. This essay starts with King's reaction against the nostalgia of the Western in Green Grass, Running Water, thereby drawing attention to the role of public personas such as Wayne's in manipulating feelings about history through popular culture. It then compares the publicity and politics of John Wayne to those of "Tom King," partly to reflect on how these men appeal to fans. I call Thomas King "Tom" here and in the title as a reminder of the public persona he developed in the late 1990s on CBC Radio's Dead Dog Cafe Comedy Hour and during his candidacy for a seat in Parliament in 2007-08. In Green Grass, Running Water, King is teaching us lessons about popular culture and the publicity of "Indians" that he would develop not only on radio but also through his photographic series of "Native artists in Lone Ranger masks" (qtd....

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A457622772