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Old Nick Crossed the Mississippi: The Figure of the Devil in Late Cold War Era Novels of the American West

Michael Walonen


The figure of the devil – employed time and again by Americans as a means of culturally construing the perceived enemy Other, as W. Scott Poole illustrates in his study Satan in America – appears with great frequency within the corpus of the literature of the American West. This essay focuses on Western regional novels of the late Cold War period (1968-1991), analyzing their manner of using the devil figure to variously challenge and/or reinforce mainstream conceptions of evil and come to terms with the meaning and direction of America at a time of crossroads and vast social transfiguration. It argues that Stephen King’s The Stand (1978) employs the satanic Randall Flagg to interrogate what is taken as an intrinsic strain of evil running through America’s history and emerging in especially pointed form in the social unrest and malaise of the late 1960s and 1970s. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985), on the other hand, attributes Mephistophelean attributes (among others) to its antagonist Judge Holden as a means of dramatizing how barbarity, destruction, and expenditure are inexorably intertwined with the values and goals of civilization, while Ishmael Reed’s Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969) reconfigures and repurposes the devil figure, drawing on the cultural valences of pagan male fertility figures and the Africana traditions he elsewhere conceptualizes as “neo-hoodoo” to wage a counter-cultural attack upon the pillars of American and Western Christian society.

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1The literature and folklore of the American West abound with appearances by the figure of the devil that well up from the deep substrata of U.S. cultures. During the late Cold War period (1968-1991) literary deployments of the devil within Western settings take on particularly pointed thematic contours that variously challenge and/or reinforce mainstream conceptions of evil and in doing so seek to come to terms with the meaning and direction of change in this period of vast social and cultural permutation. These long two decades saw, among other things, the emergences of the cultural realities critics have come to label postmodern, the social-structural realities dubbed postindustrial, and the various technologies of the Information Age. At the same time, they marked the birth and growth of neoliberalism as an ideology and political-economic system: the shift away from the early postwar form of social state that sought to guarantee full employment and provide a basic set of New Deal-spirited protections to its citizens, to a sort of governance driven by free market logic, privatization, and corporate power, in which citizens are atomized and valued almost exclusively in their functioning as consumers. These disorienting nature of these changes can in part explain the need of cultural producers to look for conceptual anchors in such absolutist, foundational cultural figures as the devil, particularly given how in the face of these changes and the increasingly voluble calls of different social groups for recognition of their practices, value systems, and needs, Americans found themselves challenged to adopt more relativistic, multiculturalist outlooks.  In addition, various historical events, examined below, provoked a particular cultural fixation on the nature of evil and the dark side of the American experience during this period, which helped give birth to the narrative uses of the devil figure in the three novels to be analyzed in this essay: Stephen King’s The Stand (1978), Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985), and Ishmael Reed’s Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969). Focusing on novels—the most heteroglossic of literary genres, Mikhail Bakhtin reminds us—published by these three writers over a span of sixteen years will facilitate a consideration of the range of conceptualizations of the role and nature of evil during this era of tumult and transformation.

2An exhaustive treatment of the figure of the devil in the narrative fiction of the American West would need to consider a broader array of genres and stretch farther back in time to consider such works as Robert Bloch’s “That Hellbound Train” (1958) and even representations of such early frontier moments as Robert M. Bird’s Nick of the Woods (1837), as well as other rich and deserving texts like Robert Heinlein’s Job: A Comedy of Justice (1984). However, taken collectively the works of King, McCarthy, and Reed offer especially penetrating, even portentous, insight into the evolving social character of late Cold War/early postmodern America and the  ways in which American cultural producers have conceived of the (internal or external) moral Other. My analysis will address some of the ethical, socio-historical, and political conflicts represented through the figure of the devil in the literature of the American West during this late-Cold War period of cultural change.

3But before considering the thematic uses of the devil figure in the three novels in question, it bears asking why the geography of the West, and particularly the Southwest, has so frequently been conceptualized in terms of the diabolic. One aspect of this cultural equation is evident in descriptions of the region’s once-sparsely settled reaches, which often take on satanic overtones due to its apparent maleficence, its strangeness and seeming hostility.i  For example, as Craig Miller observes in his “Nature and Cowboy Poetry,” pre-twentieth-century cowboy ballads from West Texas and the surrounding area recurrently equate the region with the devil and hell (227). In anonymous works like “The Llano Estacado” and “Wrangler Kid” the harshness of the land is described as a form of hell come to earth, while in Homer W. Bryant’s “He Rang the Devil’s Knell” the vocations of the cowboy and the devil, with their common hardships and hell raising, are conflated, with the latter being presented in the role of the former (Miller 229-230). The ballad “Hell in Texas,” on the other hand, presents the desiccated land “on the Rio Grande” as a home relegated to the devil by God because it is so harsh, rugged, and infertile. The devil has proceeded, so the song goes, to further accentuate these attributes so that the land conforms to his image: “he put thorns on the cacti and horns on the toads ... and poisoned the feet of the centipede.” “Hell in Texas” presents even the comforts the state has to offer as taking on a diabolical character, with its water “a regular cathartic that smelt like bad eggs” and its cuisine dominated by red pepper that makes its eater “shout / ‘I’ve a hell on the inside as well as without.’” Other cowboy ballads, such as Gail Gardner’s “Sierry Petes” (also known as “Tying Knots in the Devil’s Tail”), present the West as the devil’s dwelling place, but in a less formidable manner, with the devil functioning as just one more hostile element of the land for the intrepid cowboy to tame and dispense with. This work narrates the encounter in the mountains near Prescott, Arizona between two tough cowboys and the Prince of Darkness, during the course of which the former lasso, tie up, brand, and knot the tail of the latter. At the song’s conclusion the two leave the devil in the mountains, bound and howling in rage and discomfort, thus symbolically embodying the view that while the devilish aspects of the West have been tamed by rugged American individualists, they have not been altogether expunged.

4But the West has been envisioned as not just a place rugged to the point of maleficence, but also in terms of a broader set of ideological constructs informing a sense of Western American place and the identity of its inhabitants. It is in this regard that the preponderance of the devil in the literature of the West can perhaps best be understood. In his essay “The Sense of Place” Wallace Stegner sees the West as lacking a firmly established cultural definition, “that human attention” born of an admixture of memorialization and memory “that at its highest reach we will call poetry” (3). That is, just as the West has been seen historically as a site of spatial openness where new identities and forms of society could be forged, it has also been a place of relative semantic openness lacking a discernible social spatial character of the sort that is produced and codified by a large body of indigenous expressive culture.ii  Because of this, the region has tended to be described in terms that reflect the essential mythic substratum of American national culture, as Richard Slotkin argues in Gunfighter Nation. Consequently, the most centrally archetypal American character types—figures including, for instance, the frontiersman, the good clergyman, the bad clergyman, and the rebel—have been especially preponderant in Western narratives. One of these figures, who has occupied a particularly obsessional role in both the American national mythic system and the expressive culture of the American West, is the devil. Cultural Historian W. Scott Poole vividly traces America’s historical obsession with the devil in his Satan in America: The Devil We Know, detailing why America, of all Western nations, has had such a distinctively pronounced relationship to this figure in its imaginary. He argues that America’s particular forms of religiousness have time again caused the country to look at social problems in theological terms, with the result that Americans of each successive era have seen themselves as innocent, externalizing the notion of evil by envisioning the enemy Other (Catholics, alcoholic beverages, first World War Germany, communists...) in diabolical terms (xi, xiv).

5This tendency has been particularly pronounced in the American West, given that the region has held and continues to hold a special, psychically charged place in American history and the national imaginary—a synecdochic one, as the western frontier, starting with the Atlantic Seaboard and moving westward over time, has represented core American notions of promise, autonomy, and new beginning for generations of European-descended settlers and inhabitants. That is, the West as a site of cultural projection (rather than an actual lived environment) has been conceptualized as a place with a special paradigmatic relationship to American national identity. In light of this, it makes perfect sense that the figure of the devil, so psychically charged and fixating within American culture in general, would appear so prominently within the literature of the American West. And so a broad cross-section of the chroniclers of the region, sparsely populated historically and at times seemingly hostile, have used it to serve as a site of confrontation with the devil. They envision it in terms akin to those Rudi Blesh uses to characterize the spaces of the Mississippi Delta where Robert Johnson legendarily bartered his soul: as “full of evil, surcharged with the terror of one alone among the moving, unseen shapes of the night. Wildly and terribly, the notes paint a dark wasteland” (qtd in Poole 129). In this manner the West has been culturally construed as a fraught, teleologically privileged setting for different versions of a struggle of moral forces imagined in distinctly American terms, one which had previously been imaginatively situated amidst the milieus of earlier frontiers, for instance, by Washington Irving in “The Devil and Tom Walker” and Nathaniel Hawthorne in “Young Goodman Brown.”  Amongst the mountains, plains and deserts of the West, descendants of Tom Walker and Young Goodman Brown, latter-day representatives of America’s proverbial “city on a hill” have, in varying imaginative terms, been pitted by their creators against the ultimate imaginative embodiment of the malign and the destructive.iii

6This vision of the West as battleground for the clash between evil and distinctively American good is central to a work that lies close to the pulse of the contemporary United States in its apocalyptic purview and its absolutist forms of moral reckoning: Stephen King’s epic post-apocalyptic novel The Stand. King’s text narrates the story of a world in which over ninety-nine percent of America’s population has been killed off by a leaked government-engineered plague, the survivors of which end up grouping themselves into two camps, one located in Boulder, Colorado and led by the aged and saintly Mother Abigail, the other located in Las Vegas and led by the antichrist figure Randall Flagg. The Stand was an attempt by King to represent the “contradictions” he saw evident in the America of the Patty Hearst case, the Arab Oil Crisis, and the increasing despoilment of the environment as well as “write a fantasy epic [of good versus evil] on the scale of The Lord of the Rings, only with an American setting” (King Danse Macabre 370; King, “Inspiration”).  

7The novel’s personification of malignity and darkness, Flagg, is not the devil per se; in the words of Mother Abigail, “He ain’t Satan...but he and Satan know each other  and have kept their councils together of old” (504). In a hypnosis-induced trance Tom Cullen, one of Mother Abigail’s compatriots, reveals that Flagg is an incarnation of Legion, the possessing demon(s) Christ drove into a herd of pigs in the bible (Mark 5:9, Luke 8:30, Matthew 8:28-34). But this demon has a distinctively American character—the paragraph that first introduces Flagg notes that “From New Orleans to Nogales, from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine, it was his country, and none knew or loved it better” (171). Flagg personifies the dark side of the American character, the forces of disorder, hatred, and violence that have run through the nation’s history. As Jenifer Michelle D’Elia observes, “By the time Randall Flagg is introduced, readers are ready to accept that Flagg knows America—his kind of evil resonates in the landscape of a country that has long been home to dastardly deeds”(118). Flagg has instigated anti-establishmentarian violence, furthered and participated in both white-on-black and black-on-white racial violence, and helped to inspire serial killer Charles Starkweather and presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald (174-175).iv King uses him to come to terms with the violent turn taken by the counter culture in the 1970s, noting that “[h]e sometimes thought he might have been born in [the] strife” of the Civil Rights Movement and placing him in conspiratorial contact with the Symbionese Liberation Army and associates of the Weathermen.v  While postwar evangelical Christianity envisioned an imminent coming of the Antichrist and end of time as an attack by an inimical, external force, King imagined the rise of the demonic as a rallying of a will towards destruction that has long been a part of the American equation, just as the disease that wipes out American society in the novel has been domestically engineered.

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      i  In this regard, narratives of the American West often resemble those of Puritan New England, in their imagining the “wilderness” surrounding them and its Native American inhabitants in devilish terms. This widespread trope of the Native American as savage devil, found for instance in the Lonesome Dove series of texts, is explored at length in such works as Shari M. Hundorf’s Going Native: Indians in the American Cultural Imagination and Gretchen M. Bataille’s collection Native American Representations: First Encounters, Distorted Images, and Literary Appropriations.

      ii  In both these regards, of course, this apprehension of the West has been predicated on an elision--an antipathy to and willful ignorance of the modes of relating to the land of the Native American tribes who had inhabited these territories long before the time of Euro-American encroachments.

      iii  The aridness of much of the West, particularly those locales in the Southwest that the devil has been preponderantly imagined within, has no doubt reinforced this connection. As Maximillan Rudwin notes in his TheDevil in Legend and Literature, the devil and demons have been particularly associated with desert spaces due to such biblical passages that situate them in “dry places,” such as Matthew 12:43 and Luke 11:24 (62-63).  

      iv  In his recent novel 11/22/63 (2011), King attributes America’s souring, its fall from what he presents as the grace of the Kennedy years, to Oswald.

      v  Thus, while Philip Roth attributes this birth of violent revolutionary domestic dissent to the fecklessness and myopicness of the generation of early Cold War America in his American Pastoral (1997), King sees it as a manifestation of the ingrown dark side of America’s character. That is, while Roth envisions this epochal conflict in socio-political terms, King does so in metaphysical ones.

      vi  Cassuto further notes that the novel’s almost wholesale indifference to events occurring outside of the United States, within which it situates its grand conflict between good and evil, marks it as a bearer of American exceptionalist ideology (83).

      vii  Jonathan P. Davis notes that this struggle “between pursuing the American dreams of life, liberty, and individual happiness and surrendering those values for the sake of keeping the societal machine rolling” is one of the most prominent thematic focuses in King’s oeuvre (90).

      viii  As numerous critics have pointed out, throughout his oeuvre King idealizes and sentimentalizes purity and innocence.

      ix  Along these lines, the Trashcan Man, one of Flagg’s associates, refers to Las Vegas in the novel as Ciabola, the legendary city of gold lying to the west.

      x  For an incisive consideration of this cultural dynamic as it pertains to Southern California, see Mike Davis’s “The Literary Destruction of Los Angeles” in his Ecology of Fear.

      xi  Ed Casebeer observes in his “Dialogue Within the Archetypal Community of The Stand” that this same archetypal character extends to most of the personae of The Stand and many of King’s other works, which accounts for much of their popularity.

      xii  This is not to argue reductively the judge is simply Mephistopheles or the devil--he is a complex character bearing prominent aspects of this figure (making him relevant to this study), but also shades of Captain Ahab, Iago, and the archetypal figures noted below, among others.

      xiii  “Loup garou” is French for werewolf, and so the protagonist’s name lends him a dark protean quality. Additionally, as Robert Elliot Fox notes, “loop” plays off significations of continuity, circuitry, and being thrown for a loop (45).

      xiv  Who functions in the text as an archetypal “any-pope,” but who textual clues also encourage the reader to see as the inquisitorial Pope Innocent VII.

      xv  Here Reed, like the Trashcan Man in The Stand, uses the name of the mythic seven cities of gold sought out by the conquistadors to evoke the West as a goal/ideal.

      xvi  The original sense of the Hebrew word “satan” is “one who obstructs” (Russell 28).

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      Electronic reference

      Michael Walonen, « Old Nick Crossed the Mississippi: The Figure of the Devil in Late Cold War Era Novels of the American West », European journal of American studies [Online], 9-2 | 2014, document 1, Online since 26 September 2014, connection on 15 December 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/ejas.10335

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      About the author

      Michael Walonen

      Bethune-Cookman University

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      This text is under a Creative Commons license : Attribution-Noncommercial 2.5 Generic

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