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John Wayne’s Republicanism. On his Birthday.

May 26, 2016

It’s John Wayne’s birthday today.  I was reminded of the Duke because I few days ago, I referenced him in an academic presentation for the first and last time in my academic career.  Actually, I more than referenced him.  I let him speak.

I was trying to develop a case about what might be specifically “republican” about particular kinds of poetry – not just in terms of content but in terms of form.  I decided (and people were I suspect too bored to contradict me) that there are no intrinsically republican verse forms – but rather formal choices might be republican in respect of prevalent contemporary expectations of different forms.  Blank verse might be more or less reactionary than couplet verse depending on the specific cultural context involved.

John Wayne pitched in because of this speech from The Alamo (1960):

Republic. I like the sound of the word. It means people can live free, talk free, go or come, buy or sell, be drunk or sober, however they choose. Some words give you a feeling. Republic is one of those words that makes me tight in the throat; the same tightness a man gets when his baby takes his first step or his first baby shaves and makes his first sound like a man. Some words can give you a feeling that make your heart warm. Republic is one of those words.

John Wayne directed The Alamo himself (although John Ford showed up uninvited and tried to).   Wayne’s Davy Crockett, in conversation with Laurence Harvey’s Travis, tries to put some flesh on an abstraction, tries to figure out what sort of visceral sense of allegiance “republicanism” can claim.  I always sort of loved this speech – not so much for the content as for the sense of commitment that informed it.  John Wayne believed in a bunch of stuff that was Horrible and Wrong, but he did articulate an emotional connection with a belief system without which belief is perhaps moribund.   I wish the good guys could come up with a taste and a smell and a poetry for the stuff they believe in that works half so well.

I should of course make it clear that I disagree with just about everything that Marion Morrison ever believed in – that there’s pretty much nothing that John Wayne offers in terms of substantive political influence.  And indeed by way of an antidote (or atonement) for what we’ve just watched, we should all watch and listen to  David Rovics   singing “The Irish Battalion” a ballad about war with Mexico (another republic incidentally), in which an Irish contingent decided to fight on the Mexican side (rousing chorus).

(Thank you Deaglan for pointing this out to me.)

Enjoy.

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