Friday, 4 December 2009

Literature Review

For the purposes of this review I have divided my research into four main categories: historical data surrounding the Lewis and Clark expedition and the life of William Clark’s Nez Perce son, Tzi-Kal-Tza; personal identity in the writing of Native American authors; the use of landscape in literature of the American West; and the acquisition of authority.

Historical Data
Since its completion in September 1806, numerous books have been written about the explorations of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, almost all of them based on the diaries of the two Captains and four of their enlisted men. Sergeants Charles Floyd, Patrick Gass and John Ordway, along with Private Joseph Whitehouse all kept journals during the expedition’s two-and-a-half years.

The first complete record of the expedition to reach the public was the journal of Sergeant Patrick Gass, published in 1807. As Gass was relatively uneducated and his literary skills limited, his work was heavily edited for publication and his original manuscripts have since been lost. The official expedition report wasn’t published until 1814, five years after Lewis’s apparent suicide, and the complete journals of Lewis and Clark themselves were finally published in their entirety, in 1904-1905. Whitehouse’s accounts were included here, in abridged form, alongside those of the two captains, and Ordway’s account was published in 1916. Floyd died of a ruptured appendix three months after the party set off from St Louis, limiting his contribution to the expedition’s archives. In 1966, the last of Whitehouse’s journals was discovered, and between 1983 and 2002, the University of Nebraska Press published three editions of what is now an unabridged thirteen-volume set of diaries, The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Numerous abridged and annotated editions have also been published over the course of the last century, but the UNP’s thorough and academic treatment is considered to be the definitive version, inspiring a number of recent scholarly works.


Among these, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (Ambrose, 1996) is perhaps the best known, putting the expedition into historical context and offering new insight into its leadership. Drawing on the UNP’s edition of the journals and Donald Jackson’s Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1978) Ambrose expands on Richard Dillon’s Meriwether Lewis: A Biography (1965) to provide the most comprehensive and up-to-date study currently available.

A number of recent books explore the expedition’s relationships with and subsequent impact on Native Americans communities they encountered. Lewis, in particular, portrayed many of the Native Americans whom the party met in fairly two-dimensional terms, neglecting in many cases to record even the names of tribal chiefs. In Lewis and Clark Among the Indians (1984), leading Lewis and Clark scholar, James P. Ronda, builds a portrait of some of the Native Americans who provided assistance, hospitality and sexual companionship to the men of the expedition.

New information about the Corps of Discovery and the men involved continues to emerge as previously unknown documents come to light. In 1988, fifty-one letters written by William Clark to his brother Jonathan were found in the attic of Jonathan Clark’s great grandson. Compiled into the collection Dear Brother: Letters of William Clark to Jonathan Clark (Holmberg, 2002), the letters, dating from 1792 to 1811, include six written during the time of the expedition, and offer a more intimate glimpse of Clark’s character than is available from his journal entries. Lewis and Clark are considered great heroes in the United States, and certainly their task of mapping a route to the west coast, through the vast unexplored land of the Louisiana Purchase and Oregon Country, between the Rockies and the Pacific, is a heroic one. But the modern reader finds it difficult to overlook what, today, are viewed as less-than-heroic attitudes. While both men exercised restraint in their dealings with, and a degree of respect towards, the Native Americans they met during the expedition, it is clear from the way they repeatedly address them as ‘our red children’ that they did not view them as their equals. The modern reader can see these interactions as either patronising or paternalistic, but it takes a broader reading of the men’s actions and thoughts to begin to draw a complete picture of their true attitudes. Both men refer to their guide and translator, Sacajawea, as ‘the squaw wife of the interpreter’, or ‘Charbonneau’s Indian woman’. This may be partly due to the fact that both Lewis and Clark were atrocious spellers or that, as a woman, her lower status made such references acceptable. The journals do, however, give us a sense of something approaching affection when on 24 November 1805 Sacajawea, along with Clark’s personal slave, York, is allowed to vote on the location for the party’s winter fort, and Clark records the event using the nickname ‘Janey’. Towards the end of the journey, after Toussaint Charbonneau and Sacajawea have been returned to their Mandan village, Clark again uses the nickname when he writes to Charbonneau, inviting the family to move to St. Louis. In his letter, Clark says that Sacajawea derserves ‘a greater reward for her attentions and services’ (20 August 1806) and offers to raise their son, Jean-Baptiste, born during the expedition, as his own child. Three years later, the child was sent to Clark, and after Sacajawea’s death in 1812, Clark formally adopted Jean-Baptiste and his sister Lisette. Landon Jones points out in a recent biography, however, that there is no evidence that Jean-Baptiste ever lived in the Clark household (Jones, 2004, p 194). The child was enrolled in a local boarding school and by 1920 was settled in ‘a boardinghouse across the street [from Clark]’ but there are no records of the boy visiting his father’s home (Jones, 2004, p 260).

But despite his continued involvement with Sacajawea’s family, Clark was still very much a man of his times. Looking again at the letters he wrote to his brother Jonathan, we find him complaining about York, whom he has known since the two were boys. After the expedition, when Clark had settled in St. Louis, York requested that he be allowed to visit his wife in Louisville, where she was in service to another master. Clark agrees to allow him a few weeks with his wife, but writes to his brother that he refuses to sell York to a master of York’s own choosing and that if he should attempt to run off, ‘I wish him Sent to New Orleans and Sold, or hired out to Some Severe master [sic]’ (Holmberg, 2002, p 160). These are not the letters of an enlightened democrat but of a slave owner and military man who, throughout his life, was engaged in taming the continent through force. His fondness for individual Native Americans is incidental.

Lewis and Clark Among the Nez Perce
Again, the information we have regarding the expedition’s engagement with the Nez Perce stems largely from the journals. The Corps met various bands of the tribe on two occasions, on their emergence from the Bitterroot Mountains in September 1805 and during their return trip east. On the second occasion, the men remained with the Nez Perce from late April to mid-June, 1806, spending the main portion of that time on the Camas Prairie in present-day Idaho.

During this period, the journals record how they met with a number of neighbouring Nez Perce chiefs and discussed the government’s wishes to set up trading posts in the western part of the continent, an idea which was agreeable to the Nez Perce.

The Nez Perce were the dominant tribe in this area of the country, with an estimated population of 6000 people, inhabiting roughly 17 million acres or 70,000 square kilometres in present-day eastern Washington, north-eastern Oregon, and central Idaho. Tribal historian, Otis Halfmoon (2001) discusses how the Nez Perce first befriended the Corps of Discovery because they desired the weapons and ‘material wealth’ which the white men carried, but during their extended stay in 1806, a mutual respect and friendships developed: ‘They got to know each other--the Nez Perce and the Corps of Discovery. They played. They had foot-races. They had horse-races. They had other games that was going on in the valley at Kamiah’ [sic]. Though there is no record in the journals of either Lewis or Clark, or in the journals of their men, it was probably during this second visit that Clark’s son, Tzi-Kal-Tza was conceived. In an earlier journal entry, dated 21 November 1805, Clark wrote how a wife of a Chinook chief brought ‘six young squaws’ to the expedition’s encampment ‘for the purpose of gratifying the passions of the men of our party and receiving for those indulgences such small presents as she (the old woman) thought proper to accept of’ (Bakeless, 2002, pp 281-2). This was not an infrequent occurrence. Ambrose (1996) describes seven occasions when native women were offered to the men of the expedition, oftentimes by their own husbands. Sometimes these exchanges, as with the Chinook women, were purely financial, but other times women were offered in the belief that the ‘power’ of the white soldiers would be transferred to the woman, and then, later, on to her own husband (p 180).

On most of these occasions, Lewis and Clark record that though their men happily participated in these exchanges, they, themselves, declined the offers outright. Jones (2004) notes that this sometimes resulted in the displeasure of the husbands and the disgust of the women. On receiving a second such offer from one disgruntled husband, Clark wrote, ‘I wavered the subject,’ a journal entry which seems deliberately designed for its lack of clarity (p 137).

Once the party returns to the Nez Perce, however, all discussion of sexual interaction stops. Jones (2004) finds this highly suspicious, especially as relations between the men and the Nez Perce were so amiable. He speculates that these were ‘some of their happiest weeks of the journey’ and is doubtful that ‘this most agreeable of captains remained celibate’. Jones goes on to suggest that the apparently heretofore abstinence of the captains may have weakened while at Camp Choppunish due to their anxiety about recrossing the Bitterroots. He emphasises that the party were ‘desperate to acquire more horses’ exchanging ‘everything they could, including buttons cut from their uniforms’ and ‘good relations’ (pp138-9).

Ronda (2002) also notes that ‘all journals are oddly silent’ during this time (p 232). Pointing out that earlier references to sexual relations between Indians and the expedition’s men ‘involved disease, personal trouble, or cultural misunderstanding’, he attributes the silence not to any conspiratorial designs to protect the good names of the captains, but rather that ‘mutually satisfactory’ relationships just weren’t interesting enough to record (p 233).

Halfmoon (2001) fills the void in the journals by relating Nez Perce cultural practices which oral history claims produced a child by William Clark:

The old time method of making allies, creating allies with another people...was through intermarriage, and children. And some of the women slept with Lewis and Clark, and York...We know two children that was left with the Nez Perce people that were created in 1806. We had a son of Clark, and we also had a son from York... (part 8)


Nez Perce legend asserts that the sister of Red Grizzly Bear bore a son by William Clark. This man, who had light hair, was proud of his ancestry and would proclaim "Me Clark!" He was photographed at least once, in his old age. He was with the famous Nez Perce flight in 1877, and with this group was deported to Indian Territory, where he died.


The Effects of White Settlement
Of the books covering the after-effects of the Corps of Discovery and subsequent white settlement, Beal’s (1966) ‘I Will Fight No More Forever’ Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce Indian War is probably best known. Beal looks at the 1855 and 1863 treaties which reduced the land on which the Nez Perce were allowed to live, from an estimated 17 million acres to 750,000 acres, and comprehensively documents the 1800 mile journey taken by Chief Joseph and the five bands of non-treaty Nez Perce.

First published in 1965, The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest (Josephy, 1997) is another classic and highly-respected text, frequently cited by historians. It is the only book on Nez Perce history to focus on the period prior to 1877.

Nez Perce Summer, 1877: The US Army and the Nee-Me-Poo Crisis (Greene, 2000) seeks to present a thorough and unbiased account of the Nez Perce War, using source material from Nez Perce, the military and settler points of view. Exploring the effects of trade and Christianity, which the increasing numbers of white settlers brought with them, Greene sets in context the cultural changes that occurred in Nez Perce society.

Laughy (1993) compiles three distinct first-person accounts of the 1877 war, that of General O. O. Howard, Chief Joseph, and Duncan McDonald a mixed-blood Nez Perce. Each offers an insider’s perspective on events as they unfolded.

The self-taught historian Lucullus Virgil McWhorter was an ardent supporter of Native Americans when he moved from his home in West Virginia to Washington state in 1903. After meeting Yellow Wolf, a survivor of the Nez Perce War, McWhorter embarked on a detailed study of the conflict and its leading participants. Yellow Wolf: His Own Story (1940) records events from the perspective of the warrior himself who escaped to Canada with White Bird after Joseph’s surrender at Bear Paw. Hear Me, My Chiefs! (1952) draws upon the author’s extensive interviews with survivors of both the Nez Perce and government combatants.

In 1879, the North American Review printed the article ‘An Indian’s View of Indian Affairs’, now published as Chief Joseph’s Own Story and General Howard’s Comment (Joseph, 2005). The work is based on an interview with Joseph after his unsuccessful meeting with President Hayes, the Secretary of the Interior and various congressmen in Washington DC in which he made an impassioned appeal for his people’s return to Idaho. It was this article, together with earlier reports of his surrender speech, that revealed Joseph’s skilful rhetoric and ‘pricked the consciences of many readers’ (Beal, 1965, p 286). Recent writers, including Nerburn (2005) and Guthrie (2007), however, have taken a more sceptical approach to this material, pointing out that Joseph’s famed eloquence may be a fabrication as the words attributed to him have been filtered first through a Native American interpreter, and secondly through the interviewer.

In Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce, Nerburn (2005) specifically looks at the role of Chief Joseph, tracing his early life in the Wallowas of eastern Oregon, through the events leading up to and including 1877, exile to the Indian Territory, and his diplomatic efforts to return his people to their homeland.

Pearson (2008) picks up where all other writers leave off, focusing her research on the eight years after 1877 when Joseph and the surviving non-treaty Nez Perce were taken to federal prison camps in Kansas and the Indian Territory. Confined in an unfamiliar and arid landscape, two-thousand miles from their homeland, many succumbed to malaria and other diseases. An elderly man whom Pearson says went by the name Old Clark or Daytime Smoker was among at least eighty-four Nez Perce prisoners who died of malaria in 1879 (pp 121-2).

All history is speculation. It is the story that survives long enough to be made tangible through the process of being written down. When facts have been deliberately omitted, as appears to be the case with the Corps of Discovery journals, it is an attempt to alter the future’s perception of the past. Might such deliberate omissions be accurately labelled as untruths, or even anti-history? We seldom call them such. Conversely, as historians are apt to ‘read between the lines’ – filling in gaps purposefully left with educated guesses – might these speculations be considered true? Taking that idea one step further, might fiction, where it is based on fact, well-researched and with a broad and analytical perspective, also be considered a type of truth?

Questions of Identity in Works by Native American Writers
Unsurprisingly, the question of identity has been a frequent subject of Native American writing since its emergence in the early nineteenth century. William Apess, whose 1829 autobiography Son of the Forest is among the first known examples, was a mixed-blood orphan, of Pequot descent. From the age of five, Apess lived as an indentured servant to two white families, and attended school until the age of twelve. His book is a conversion narrative, and looks at events which shaped his identity as a Native American living in white society. One of those childhood events was an encounter with ‘a company of white females’ while berry picking in the woods with his foster family. ‘[T]heir complexion was, to say the least, as dark as that of the natives’ (Vizenor, 1995, pp 26-7) for whom Apess mistook them. Recalling how he had fled in terror, he writes, ‘[T]he great fear I entertained of my brethren was occasioned by the many stories I had heard of their cruelty toward the whites – how they were in the habit of killing and scalping men, women, and children’ (p 27). In an effort at assimilation, his white family and white education had formed within him a fear and mistrust of his own people.

Luther Standing Bear was a mixed-blood Lakota, born on the Pine Ridge Reservation around 1868. His autobiography, My People, the Sioux, includes several chapters covering his years at the Carlisle Indian School where, upon arrival, children were banned from speaking their own languages, dressed in ‘new outfits of white men’s clothes’ and made to choose new names for themselves (pp 133-135). Opened in 1879 by Captain Richard Henry Pratt, the Carlisle Indian School was among the first federal boarding schools for Native children with the stated purpose of ‘civilizing’ them through acculturation.

John Rogers (1996) also attended a federal boarding school where his Native identity was taken away. In one poignant scene he describes returning home to his family after a six-year separation and being unable to speak to his mother because he’d forgotten his own language (pp 4-5).

Writing about the mixed-blood’s search for identity, Momaday (1976) describes his blue-eyed mother’s deliberate claiming of her Indianness: ‘She imagined who she was. This act of imagination was, I believe, among the most important events in my mother’s early life, as later the same essential act was to be among the most important of my own’ (The Names, p 25). This conscious decision to attach oneself to a specific element of one’s cultural inheritance fits with Kellner’s assessment of identity construction in modernity. ‘In pre-modern societies,’ he writes, ‘identity was unproblematical and not subject to reflection or discussion.’ Modernity, however, has allowed individuals a freedom to choose or to change their identity ‘as fashion and life possibilities change and expand’ (Kellner, 1992). Momaday’s mother was sixteen years old when she transformed herself from a precocious southern schoolgirl, one-eighth Cherokee, into an Indian woman before going on to marry a full-blood Kiowa (Momaday, 1976).

The search for identity continues to be a primary feature of Native American fiction, the first wave of which emerged into mainstream literature in the 1920s. In his novel Sundown (1979), first published in 1934, Mathews writes about a mixed-blood Osage by the name of Challenge Windzer. Chal leaves the reservation in Oklahoma to attend the state university in the years before the First World War and when he returns, he is embarrassed by and ashamed of his tribal heritage. He wants to belong to white society, which he sees as superior, but finds that he doesn’t fit in there, either. He is torn between two cultures.

D’Arcy McNickle grew up on the Flathead reservation in Montana, of mixed Cree and Irish descent. First published in 1936, his book The Surrounded (1978) revolves around the character of Archilde, who, on returning from the Indian boarding school, is torn between white and Indian cultures, a conflict mirrored by his relationships with his Spanish father and Indian mother. The novel takes place during a period of great change on the reservation when many of Archilde's contemporaries have fallen under the destructive influence of cultural disinheritance, dependence, and hopelessness.

In the introduction to Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel, Owens (1992) discusses ongoing questions of identity and ‘Indianness’, and the contemporary western idea that ‘real’ Indians no longer exist – that to be Indian refers strictly to the traditional archetype. The pre-occupation with blood-quantum (the measurement of racial inheritance) by both Natives and non-Natives limits the perception of what it means to be Indian in contemporary western and tribal societies. Native writers, he states, are at the forefront of ‘the recovering or rearticulation of an identity, a process dependent upon a rediscovered sense of place’ (p 5).

Credited as starting ‘the Native American Renaissance’ with the 1968 publication of his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, House Made of Dawn, N. Scott Momaday continues the discourse on identity. Emotionally scarred, Abel returns to the reservation at the end of the Second World War to find himself caught between two worlds. After killing a man, Abel is sent to prison, and when he is released into the urban wilderness of Los Angeles, the downward trajectory of his life continues with a cycle of violence and alcohol. Redemption comes through Abel’s eventual reconnection with his cultural roots.

Set in the 1860s, James Welch’s Fools Crow (1986a) ‘inverts’ the traditional Western genre by immersing the reader in the world of the Blackfoot (Owens, 1992). Owens cites Welch as saying of the novel: ‘I’m trying to write from the inside-out, because most historical novels are written from the outside looking in...[In this novel, t]he white people are the real strangers. They’re the threatening presence out there all the time’ (p 156). In writing Fools Crow, Welch draws upon Blackfoot history and his own deep knowledge of the landscape to recreate an authentic world on which the white outsiders are only beginning to encroach. Owens asserts that Welch ‘attempts the full act of cultural recovery’ by precisely ‘reimagining’ this past world, in a sense bringing the past back to life, and linking Fools Crow’s sense of identity firmly with place he inhabits (p 156-7). Fools Crow, unlike so many other Native protagonists, is a full-blood and knows exactly who and what he is.

Owens points out the different ways in which Welch evokes landscape in Fools Crow, depending on whether he is writing from a Native or White point of view. To the Native, the landscape is intimate and familiar. The movements of the clouds and the luminosity of the moon have meaning, and there is no sense that nature is threatening or malign. For the White man, however, the landscape is ‘vast’ and ‘empty’, waiting to be taken over and inhabited. The White man sees potential in the ‘vast and empty’ sea of rolling prairie grass, potential for cattle grazing, new communities, and wealth. The Native eye sees the land as a protector, providing everything needed for life; the White man is mistrustful, seeing a threatening force needing to be tamed (1992, pp 162-3).

In Welch’s first novel, Winter in the Blood (1986b), landscape also has deep significance. The story, here, takes place after that of Fools Crow, once the Indians have been herded ‘like cattle’ onto the reservation in northern Montana. The landscape here takes on the White man’s vision, becoming bleak and desolate, ‘mirroring in its sterility the inner state of the narrator (Owens, 1992, p 128).

In her essay ‘Where I Ought to Be: A Writer’s Sense of Place’, Louise Erdrich (1985) discusses this differing viewpoint and links it to the practice of oral storytelling:

In a tribal view of the world, where one place has been inhabited for generations, the landscape becomes enlivened by a sense of group and family history. Unlike most contemporary writers, a traditional storyteller fixes listeners in an unchanging landscape combined of myth and reality. People and place are inseparable.


Instead of viewing a stable world, as in pre-invasion Native American cultures, instead of establishing a historical background for the landscape, American writers seem bound into the process of chronicling change and forecasting destruction, of recording a world before that world’s very physical being shifts. (Erdrich, 1985)

Erdrich’s first novel, Love Medicine (1993), is a multiple and fragmented narrative, weaving together the lives of three generations of Chippewa and mixed-blood families on a reservation in North Dakota. The characters, here, are displaced from their tribal culture and alienated from their families and their people through poverty, alcohol and destructive government policy. The threatened loss of identity at the heart of the book is not that of the individual, but of a whole community, and it is the community, in the end, which reclaims its sense of self to continue.

Probably the most commercially successful Native American author at present is Sherman Alexie, whose work includes four novels, fourteen volumes of poetry and short stories, and three films. In his writing, Alexie combines contemporary culture and Native tradition to explore themes of identity, on and off the reservation. His work addresses the concerns of everyday life of modern-day Native Americans and avoids the stereotypes of ‘the corn-pollen, four directions, eagle-feathered school of Native literature’ (Fraser, 2001) which he sees as reinforcing the liberal view of Native Americans as being peaceful, tolerant and possessing of special wisdom (Capriccioso, 2003). For this, he frequently receives criticism by the Native American community for ‘not being Indian enough’, misrepresenting Indian culture, and portraying negative images of Indians (Grassian, 2005). His latest book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2008), is an autobiographical novel set on and around the Spokane Indian Reservation where Alexie grew up, and draws upon his feelings of not fully fitting into either reservation culture or white culture.

Use of Landscape in Contemporary Literature of the American West
Annie Proulx has been recognised for her vivid depiction of landscape and rural life since the publication of her first collection of short stories, Heart Songs (1988). Born in Norwich, Connecticut, she spent her childhood and most of her adult life based in the extreme eastern part of the United States and Canada, but apart from that first book, all of her fiction has been written in Wyoming, where she has lived since 1994 (Testa, 2005). She has stated that for her, character and place should reflect one another (Detrixhe, 2005) and the landscapes which dominate her work have a pensive quality, arid and remote, but also geologically and historically complex. In Postcards (1992), Loyal Blood leaves his family’s Vermont farm after killing his girlfriend, severing his connection to the land forever. Over the next forty years, Blood wanders throughout the West, unable to settle, unable to find a place where he belongs. He is a haunted man, wandering through an unforgiving and often brutal landscape. With him, he carries the memory of the farm: ‘the rich twenty-acre field propped open toward the south like a Bible, the crease of the water vein almost exactly in the center of the ten-acre fields’ (Proulx, 2003, p 14) and dreams of one day finding a place for himself with ‘gently swelling earth like the curve of hip and breast’ (p59).

In “Dangerous Ground: Landscape in American Fiction”, an essay delivered to a conference on regionalism at the University of Nebraska and subsequently published in Regionalism and the Humanities (2009), Proulx discusses the changing role of landscape in the American novel. She describes the first half of the twentieth century as the ‘golden period’ of ‘landscape novels’, a time when landscape was used to ‘shape and control the content, direction, plot, and characters’ psychological profiles’ (p. 7). In these novels, landscape and character are bound together in a way that neither could exist on its own. In contrast, she argues that today’s fiction is disconnected from the land to the point where it becomes a mere backdrop for the action, providing ‘local color’, scenic vistas and holiday locations without being an integral part of the story.

For this reason Proulx is critical of Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (1991) saying that apart from the opening scene, in which the reader is introduced to Larry Cook’s farm in Zebulon County, Iowa, the landscape has been reduced to a ‘quantitative commodity’ (2009, p 23). But this, perhaps, is the point. The land, to a Midwest farmer, is a commodity: the larger the farm, the greater the value, the more powerful the owner. Therefore, in this retelling of King Lear, the land is an essential element. Despite Proulx’s disproval, A Thousand Acres displays a strong sense of place, with detailed descriptions of drainage fields, wild rosebushes, and an overgrown and disused quarry where ‘the sea within the earth lay open to sight’ (Smiley, p 247).

In Blood Meridian (1985) and No Country for Old Men (2005) Cormac McCarthy’s recreation of the American West is relentlessly dark. Here, there is a malevolence to the landscape, which in the former title, takes on a hellish tone to mirror the satanic figure of the judge:

They crossed the del Norte and rode south into a land more hostile yet. All day they crouched like owls under the niggard acacia shade and peered out upon that cooking world. Dust-devils stood on the horizon like the smoke of distant fires but of living thing there was none. They eyed the sun in its circus and at dusk they rode out upon the cooling plain where the western sky was the color of blood. (p. 152)
Steinbeck’s use of landscape is altogether different from Proulx and McCarthy, just as his world view is altogether different. While his characters are no less tormented than the other two authors’, he himself expresses a much greater sense of compassion towards them. Steinbeck’s novels are deeply rooted in the soil, but in the worlds he creates, hope exists, and the landscape is ultimately forgiving. In the opening paragraph of The Grapes of Wrath (1939) we see the seasons quickly shift from the final, gentle rains of spring to the desiccation of summer when “the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country” (p 3). The landscape here, drying up and blowing away, is absolutely bound with the plot, forcing the story and the Joad family into motion. The same is true of East of Eden (1952) where the fortunes of the Trask family and the Hamiltons are mirrored in reverse by the fertility of their farms, and in Of Mice and Men (1937) where George and Lennie dream of having a farm of their own where they can ‘live on the fatta the lan’ (p 111).

A Writer’s Authority
The ability to portray characters belonging to an earlier time, with accuracy, is a challenge which all writers of historical fiction must face. We are shaped by our experiences and, in Henry James’s view, it is ‘nearly impossible’ for a modern writer to recreate the consciousness of a character inhabiting another time due to these subconscious influences (Horne, 1999, p 360). When the writer aims to portray characters from a different culture, the challenge of authenticity is even greater.

In an interview published in the Iowa Review (Fraser, 2001), Sherman Alexie voices concerns about the portrayal of Indians and Indian culture by non-Native writers. He accuses writers such as Larry McMurtry and Barbara Kingsolver, of being ‘colonial writers’, who, regardless of the accuracy of their research can never fully understand the Indian perspective. He defends his writing from the point of view of white characters by his everyday involvement in white culture saying, ‘I have to be white everyday’. Non-Indian writers, on the other hand, do not live in the Indian community, so do not develop an intimate understanding of Indian life. With this apparent contradiction, he seems to suggest that the possibility for authenticity exists, but that it is reliant on the writer’s submersion in the culture.

The desire for authenticity appears to confront writers of the American West more so than writers from other regions. Cormac McCarthy and other contemporary writers who have a sceptical, postmodern perception of the past may attempt to tear down the romantic view of the West – where individualism is reined-in by personal integrity, and ‘progress’ is always good – but that romantic view persists. Western literature has traditionally drawn from historical events, and in doing so, writers have felt compelled to present their work as truthful and authentic. In the introduction to Unsettling the Literary West: Authenticity and Authorship, Lewis (2003) cites the nineteenth-century writer, Owen Wister who remarked on this dilemma: ‘When our national life, our own soil, is so rich in adventures to record, what need is there for one to call upon his invention save to draw, if he can, characters who shall fit these strange and dramatic scenes?’ This, Lewis argues, is why the writing of the American West has not received the critical respect of other regional literatures where the author’s ‘invention’ is more clearly seen (pp 1-18).

The essays in True West: Authenticity and the American West (Handley, 2003) also explore the relationship between truth and authenticity, reality and representation. The collection includes critical examinations of Euro-American writers’ portrayal of Native tradition alongside Native writers’ portrayals of Native tradition, and the use of landscape in creating an ‘authentic’ West.

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Bibliography

Alexie, S. (2008) The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Anderson Press

Alexie, S. (1996) Reservation Blues, Minerva

Ambrose, S.E. (1996) Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, Touchstone

Apess, W. (1929) A Son of the Forest. In G. Vizenor ed. Native American Literature. New York: Harper Collins, 1995, pp 19-31

Bakeless, J. ed (2002) The Journals of Lewis and Clark, Signet

Beal, M.D. (1966) ‘I Will Fight No More Forever’ Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce War, University of Washington Press

Capriccioso, R. (2003) Sherman Alexie: American Indian filmmaker/writer talks with Robert Capriccioso [online] Available from: www.identitytheory.com/interviews/alexie_interview.html Accessed 16 March 2009

Edemariam, A. (2004) Home on the Range. The Guardian, [online] 11 December. Available at: www.guardian.co.uk/books/2004/dec/11/features reviews.guardianreview13 Accessed 10 February 2009

Erdrich, L. (1985) Where I Ought to Be: A Writer’s Sense of Place, New York Times, 28 July, [online] Available from: www.select.nytimes.com/search/restricted/article?res=F50F11FC3E5C0C7B8EDDA Accessed 13 March 2009

Erdrich, L. (1993) Love Medicine, Harper Collins

Fraser, J. (2001) An Interview with Sherman Alexie. Iowa Review [online] Available from: http://www.english.illinois.edu/MAPS/poets/a_f/alexie/fraser.htm Accessed 16 March 2009

Grassian, D. (2005) Understanding Sherman Alexie, University of South Carolina Press

Greene, J. (2000) Nez Perce Summer, 1877: The US Army and the Nee-Me-Poo Crisis, Montana Historical Society Press

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In Native American tradition, the land is constant. It is always there, always has been, and always will be. In Euro-American culture, this is not the case. The land is a commodity, to be bought and sold, ploughed-up, fenced-off, bulldozed, dammed, excavated, plundered. White writers, she says, write elegies to a vanishing wilderness, destroyed by our agrarian tendencies:
As to whether or not Clark knew about his Nez Perce son, Halfmoon (2001) thinks it likely that he did. The Nez Perce, he says, saw the material wealth of the white people and believed that it had been bestowed on them by their god. In 1829, a party of four Nez Perce warriors travelled east in search of the ‘book of heaven – the white man’s religion’ and they met with Clark who was, by this time, Superintendent of Indian Affairs in St. Louis. One of the warriors was the son of Red Grizzly Bear, and if Nez Perce history is correct, would therefore have been a nephew to Clark. Halfmoon believes that the Nez Perce would naturally have brought news of Clark’s son as this man would have been considered a physical tie between the two cultures.
In a footnote to Lewis’s 10 May 1806 journal entry, Moulton (2002) repeats this claim:

1 comment:

Michael L. Ritter said...

Loree,
you've written a marvelous piece, quite full of strong perspective. As to writing about individual activities in the 19th century West, or perhaps any time and place, I suggest accuracy is present if writers 1) know the history, geography, economics and other conditions of their subjects and places (all of which is quite discernible), 2) have lived in the West and know its environmental and temporal challenges and 3) have enough experience with types of people to apply principles of human behavior past and present.
Without primary documentation "history" is fiction, but not necessarily a big stretch, and such writing is all we have for accuracy unless research produces applicable primary history.