by Ed Dorn
   Ed Dorn began to work on his mock-epic masterpiece Gunslinger shortly after seeing John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven (1960) and noting the success of Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti westerns,” A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), starring Clint Eastwood. James K. Elmborg explains the nexus between Dorn’s character, Gunslinger, and the cultural milieu that help generate this apparition: The Gunslinger, as Western archetypal figure, resides in the collective consciousness of the American people as a cross between a metaphysical hero and an existential outlaw. He is a man without a past, living outside the law, surviving on his wits and integrity-albeit, an integrity which sometimes appears fairly askew to those whose interests are more of the work-a-day world. Dorn’s Gunslinger functions like this archetypal hero of Western films who seems to come from nowhere to solve the problems of a small town, problems its citizens are unequipped to face because they have become too implicated in the structures that created the problems. The Lone Ranger, Heaven without a Gun, High Noon, Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti Westerns, and a whole genre of class-B movies have imbedded the saloons, gunfights, showdowns, dance-hall girls, loyal horses, and the gunslinger—all the stage props of this genre—in our collective memory. For Dorn, the Gunslinger represents one facet of the American soul. Dorn realizes that the cowboy– outlaw is part of the American mythology that influences the American psyche.
   Dorn started writing Gunslinger while working as a visiting professor at Essex University in England. The first book of Gunslinger was published in 1968 by Black Sparrow Press and represented a departure from the influence of charles olson on Dorn’s poetry. The second book appeared in 1969. The Frontier Press published “The Cycle,” a subsection of Gunslinger, in 1971 and the third book in 1972. Bean News, a mock–newspaper related to the poem, was published by Hermes Free Press in 1972. In 1975, Wingbow Press published the completed poem of four books as Slinger. Duke University Press brought the complete poem back into publication in 1989 as Gunslinger. Elmborg writes, “I think Gunslinger is perhaps the most important poem of the last half of the twentieth century.” Thomas McGuane declares, “Gunslinger is a fundamental American masterpiece.” Yet, despite the high praise from most commentators, the poem is relatively obscure.
   In Book I the Gunslinger and his horse (who can speak and smokes marijuana) meet “I” (a character rather than a personal pronoun), Lil (a cabaret madam), and a poet who all join the Gunslinger heading to Las Vegas in search of Howard Hughes. Book II has the group in a stagecoach picking up a hitchhiker named Kool Everything, who has a batch of acid that they pour into “I” when they believe that “I” has died. “The Cycle” is a transition piece that follows Book II and describes Howard Hughes’s trip from Boston to Las Vegas. Book III has the company journey to Four Corners, where they have been informed that Hughes will go, rather than Las Vegas. Book IIII [sic] fails to provide the expected confrontation between Hughes and the Gunslinger, as two forces controlled by Hughes, the Mogollones and the Single–Spacers, battle each other while the Gunslinger sleeps. Hughes escapes, and the Gunslinger takes leave of the company.
   Dorn uses an eclectic array of sources for the language of the poem. “A kind of cool, sardonic tone pervades the work,” writes Michael Davidson, “created mostly out of sixties hip jargon, scientific argot, newspeak, bureaucrateze, computer printout, comicbook dialogue and western slang.” The inspiration for the characters comes from pop culture. Davidson observes, “Slinger features a cast of characters out of TV westerns, Zap comics, The Scientific American, Star Trek, The Wall Street Journal and the narratives of frontier exploration.” Though Hughes appears to be the antithesis of the Gunslinger, he is more beneficially read as the dark side of the same cosmic force that spawned the Gunslinger. Together they are the Janus-face of American individualism: corporate brutality and outlaw resistance. The Gunslinger is unable to resolve the problem of the robber baron Hughes at the end of the poem because he is also a representative of the American individualism that has created a character like Hughes in the first place. In Gunslinger Dorn is putting a mirror to the face of America and pointing out that the American individualism that we glamorize in our mythic portrayals of American outlaws comes from the same source that contributes to the soullessness of our capitalist society.
■ Davidson, Michael. “Archeologist of Morning: Charles Olson, Edward Dorn and Historical Method.” ELH 47 (1980): 158–179.
■ Elmborg, James K. “A Pageant of Its Time”: Edward Dorn’s Slinger and the Sixties. New York: Peter Lang, 1998.
   Kurt Hemmer

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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  • gunslinger — [[t]gʌ̱nslɪŋə(r)[/t]] gunslingers N COUNT A gunslinger is someone, especially a criminal, who uses guns in fighting. Syn: gunman …   English dictionary

  • gunslinger — noun Date: 1927 a person noted for speed and skill in handling and shooting a gun especially in the American West …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • gunslinger — gunslinging, adj. /gun sling euhr/, n. 1. Informal. gunfighter. 2. Slang. a person who acts in an aggressive and decisive manner, esp. in business or politics, as an investor who takes large risks in seeking large, quick gains. [1950 55; GUN1 +… …   Universalium

  • gunslinger — noun a) In the old west: a person who carried a gun and was an expert at the quick draw. b) In modern usage: a person who behaves with the bravado expected of someone who would duel with guns …   Wiktionary

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