Monday, 17 May 2010

Voices of the American West: Striving for Authenticity


As part of my research project, I am writing a novel set in the American West, with historical and contemporary narratives. From the outset, I have had two major concerns: how to access an accurate and authentic historical voice; and how to represent a Native American character in a culturally authentic manner. This paper will provide a context for those questions and look at the ways in which I have addressed them in my research.

The Importance of Authenticity in Western American Literature

No other region-based literature, and certainly no other genre is as concerned with the issue of authenticity as is literature of the American West. Even historical fiction, the form most closely associated with representations of actual people and factual events is at ease with supposition and probability. Western fiction, however, is often seen to regard its subject as if it were a holy relic, to be revered and scrutinized, but not to be tampered with in any way. Since Owen Wister published The Virginian, considered to be the first Western novel, in 1902, writers of the American West have been at pains to adhere to the known facts, reluctant to fabricate or experiment with alternative histories. Authenticity, not creativity, is viewed as the primary criteria for evaluating this literature. And so we must ask ourselves, what does it mean to be ‘authentic’?

According to Nathaniel Lewis, western literature strives to achieve what Baudrillard refers to as the ‘production of the real’, weaving history and mythology together into a fabricated reality. The evidence of this production is then so thoroughly erased that the reader comes to believe that what is contrived is in fact true. Western literature fabricates a history which people want to believe, and because they believe, it becomes authentic (Lewis, 192). Authenticity, therefore, is more than just the simple reproduction or imitation of the original, but is in fact the creation of something which is itself, real (Lewis, p 5).

What is ‘The West’ and Western American Literature?
From the beginning, literature of the American West was presented in a way that was historically faithful. Because it was grounded in specific detail with place names, dates, and historical figures and events that were already known to the reader, it achieved a level of authenticity that other regional literatures did not.

Many of the early writers whose works fill the canon of western literature, including Owen Wister and Willa Cather, were not, however, Westerners themselves. These writers were born and lived most of their lives in the East, yet they identified with the idea of the West and helped to develop the mythology of exploration and adventure in a new land where one could start life all over again.

Their claims to authenticity were helped by the fact that they were writing about a ‘vanished world’ (Wister, 1955, ix), a world which the reader could only visit in the pages of a book. What’s more, these early novels were written for an Eastern audience with no personal experience of life in the West, but plenty of romantic notions. Readers wanted confirmation that the West was indeed as they imagined, and the early writers provided them with the dramatic landscapes and heroic characters they needed.

Like Cather, who was born in Virginia, and spent all but twelve years of her life living in the East, many contemporary writers who find themselves linked to ‘the American West’ grew up in the Eastern part of the country. Barbara Kingsolver was born in Maryland and grew up in Kentucky, but has created a literary home for herself in Arizona; Annie Proulx lived most of her life along the eastern seaboard before moving west in 1994 and writing three volumes of Wyoming stories; Richard Ford grew up in Mississippi and Arkansas, and lived a somewhat nomadic existence before moving to Montana where the majority of his stories are set.

The West itself, however, has never been situated in a static geographical location. It has, from the start of European settlement in North America, always had a retreating frontier. In its earliest guise, it encompassed all but the thinnest margin along the eastern edge of the continent. Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio – all states now firmly entrenched in the East – lay beyond the frontier within a vast unknown. When I was at school in the1970s, American schoolchildren were taught that the West encompassed everything between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean, a definition which I, living a thousand miles to the west of the river boundary, found somewhat confusing. Until the early part of the twentieth century, the frontier receded physically with each new wave of white settlement pushing it ever closer to the Pacific coast. Since then, it has retreated from us in time. Consequently, the meaning of ‘the West’ has changed, and continues to change on a regular basis.

It is no surprise, then, that Literature of the American West has an equally vague definition, and includes works set in such diverse locations as the Nebraska prairies, Arizona deserts and coastal rainforests. What unites them within a single genre is their concern with place, and their realistic representations of landscape.

The Importance of Place

Western writing is tied to place more than any other regional form. As we read the pages of a Cormac McCarthy novel, or an Annie Proulx short story, we traverse a world filled with iconic images: startlingly red deserts, jagged mountain peaks, and arid expanses of sagebrush or hip-high winter wheat. It is a world of wide-open spaces and unpopulated places, where characters come and go, but the land remains – regardless. In the West, landscape offers opportunities and challenges: it is something to be conquered or overcome, harnessed and transformed; a setting both for dreams and postmodern nightmares.

In writing of the West, landscape is not a mere backdrop, providing scenic vistas. Being distinct and specific, it is linked so closely with character and plot that the story cannot simply be lifted up and transplanted to another location. Landscape is integral to story, and without attention to this key element, there is no authenticity.

Historical Authenticity

As well as authenticity of place, the writer must consider questions of historical authenticity and ask: how much responsibility does the fiction writer have to represent real people and real events accurately? A writer of science fiction, magical realism, or romantic comedy would probably not be expected to adhere to the ‘truth’, even when working with an historical subject. As discussed, authenticity is crucial to the western novel and readers of the genre are well-known for picking out flaws in a novel’s factual content.

There is, however, an artistic need to strike a balance between authenticity and readability. Between 1934 and 1989, the amateur historian Zoa L. Swayne collected Nez Perce stories originating from around the time of first contact, some coming from the descendents of Nez Perce who met Lewis and Clark, some from interviews with early pioneers who had been told the stories by Nez Perce friends, and others from newspaper reports. Though her book, Do Them No Harm! (1990) is written in the style of a novel, Swayne goes to great lengths to demonstrate the book’s historical authenticity by providing eighteen pages of endnotes and appendices, four pages of bibliography, and bracketed translations of Nez Perce words within the text. Drawing heavily on the journals kept by the men of the Corps of Discovery, she knits together the numerous anecdotes in her collection. The result is a narrative, which, like all historical novels, is part fiction and part fact, but her strict historian’s presentation creates a major challenge for the reader. Her book is difficult to read simply as a story, which, despite the demand for ‘real history’, is what most readers of the genre wish to do.

Another difficulty in Swayne’s novel surrounds the lack of distinction between fiction and non-fiction. While the authorial notes about Nez Perce customs and references to source material give the writing historical credibility, the inclusion of undocumented material is presented in the same emphatic manner. The danger is that this imaginative content will be received by the reader as being factual and that it will come to be accepted as historically accurate.

This danger is further illustrated in a subsequent novel by the writer Pat Decker Nipper (Love on the Lewis and Clark Trail, 2004) which again makes use of a number of respected historical texts to strengthen its claim to historical authenticity, but draws its storyline almost entirely from five pages of Swayne’s book, and focuses primarily on the imaginative content. Fiction writers are well-known as packrats, gathering ideas from many different sources, borrowing one another’s characters, and developing one another’s plots. Because both books claim historical authenticity, the casual reader will undoubtedly confuse fiction with fact, resulting in the muddying of already murky historical waters.

Cultural Appropriation
This leads me on to what is possibly my greatest concern in the writing of my own novel. The historical narrative I am writing centres around an actual Native American figure about whom very little is known – Halahtookit, the Nez Perce son of the explorer William Clark. Many fiction writers would rejoice at such a find – an intriguing ‘character’ which they can manipulate to their own ends without the worry of being criticised for historical inaccuracy. But in writing about a real Nez Perce personage – particularly so because I am not from the Nez Perce community – I am treading upon culturally sensitive ground. Like New Agers wafting sweetgrass smoke during imitation ‘cleansing rituals’, fiction writers are too often guilty of cultural appropriation and the misrepresentation of historical events and people. Swayne’s novel is an example of how the written word can acquire an authority it doesn’t deserve. As soon as something is written down, regardless of its factual content, it achieves a sense of permanence. And as that ‘information’ is transferred to conversations, student essays, web pages and books, that permanence, and its perceived authenticity, is strengthened. A lie told often enough becomes truth: Baudrillard’s ‘production of the real’.
It is partly for this reason, I believe, that the Spokane Indian writer Sherman Alexie is so critical of non-Native writers who write about Native American characters. He is quoted in numerous interviews, referring to Larry McMurtry, Tony Hillerman and Barbara Kingsolver, as ‘colonial writers’ who appropriate Native voices. Being ‘outsiders’ to Native communities, Alexie asserts that they possess neither the cultural knowledge nor the experiential insight to accurately portray Native American lives. He defends portrayals of white characters in his own writing, however, by claiming to know what it is like to be white. In an interview in the Iowa Review he states: ‘I live in the white world. A white person doesn't live in the Indian world. I have to be white every day’ (Fraser, 2001). This seems a reasonable statement, but the difficulty with Alexie’s cultural rule for writers is that it limits people to writing only about those things with which they have direct experience. It follows then, that ‘fiction’ would be reliant solely upon strictly autobiographical content. Such a situation would be an anathema to the creative community.

Alexie is not just critical of non-Native writers who attempt to write about Indian characters, however. He is equally dismissive of Native writers who perpetuate the romantic trope of the noble Indian by continuing to use cultural images which he believes are no longer relevant in contemporary Native American society (Fraser, 2000). Alexie has built a career on portrayals of contemporary Indians in contemporary settings, on and off the reservation, but he in turn has been criticised by Native writers of perpetuating the far less positive stereotype of the Indian figure visited by tragedy and self-destruction. Lewis Owens and Gloria Bird have both expressed their concerns that Alexie’s choice of negative images is more destructive than the enduring romanticism of White liberals (Bernardin in Lewis 2003, p166).

There is, in fact, another strand to the authenticity debate, focusing on Native American writers and writers of mixed Native and non-Native ancestry, which has caused many critics to question what being an Indian actually means, and what entitles a person to be known as an Indian writer. Some would argue that being Indian is simply down to genetics, that one’s ancestry is the sole determinant, while others, such as Alexie, dismiss mixed-blood writers like William Least Heat-Moon, who have had little connection with reservation life, as ‘Indian-esque’ (Cole, 2003). But I will leave this complex debate on Nature vs Nurture, tribal enrolment and blood-quantum for another paper.

Perhaps, though, we should question this preoccupation with authenticity and the value placed on it in the evaluation of literature. By clinging to what is perceived as ‘real’ and attempting to replicate it, and only it on the page, Western literature rejects the influence of other voices and is at risk of atrophy. Lewis argues that ‘because western writers so often stake their claims based on the authenticity of their work, rather than, say, creativity or individuality, they are left with a strange and largely unproductive form of literary inheritance’ (2003, p 10). The concern for authenticity, and the cultural reluctance to stray off the well-trod path into the realms of invention limits us to regurgitation and repetition. The ‘burden of authenticity’, Lewis warns, is a trap in which the mythological West, the West that was or the West we are told existed once in a heroic past, takes precedence over a writer’s attempts to discover a new literary territory.

In recent decades, the romantic view of the West, where individualism is reined-in by personal integrity and ‘progress’ is always good, has been torn apart by writers such as Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx. The contemporary view of the past is a sceptical one in which we have come to suspect the motives of the guy in the white cowboy hat. McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian and Proulx’s short story collection Close Range, are just two examples of the postmodern nature of contemporary western fiction which subverts heroic representations of the West. Gone are the valient images of honour, redemption and progress. Gone is the West where the men are invulnerable, emotionally self-reliant and unquestionably masculine.

In my own literary endeavours, I continue to return to the question – can a non-Native writer, living outside the Native community, ever write authentically about Native experience? Appropriation of voice does not just extend to questions of ethnicity, of course, but also to questions of individuality. It is equally justifiable to ask if a writer can ever get inside the head of a character which is not autobiographically based. Undoubtedly there are many hazards in taking on a viewpoint outside of one’s own experience, but with careful research and attention to cultural accuracy, the answer must be yes.

Fiction is fiction, after all, and I have not set out to write a history of the Nez Perce people, or a biography of Halahtookit. Perhaps, however, a new definition of authenticity is called for – one in which invention, not just reproduction is seen to provide a new, but equally valid perspective on reality.


Cole, W. (2003) Sherman Alexie in Conversation with Williams Cole. In N.J. Perterson, ed (2009). Conversations With Sherman Alexie. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, pp. 106-112.

Cormier, L. (2009) Cultural Appropriation: It’s Not Only Your Story. Historical Novels Review, 48, pp. 6-9.

Fraser, J. (2000) An Interview with Sherman Alexie. In N.J. Peterson, ed (2009). Conversations With Sherman Alexie. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, pp. 83-95.

Handley, W.R. and Nathaniel Lewis, eds. (2003) True West: Authenticity and the American West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Ibold, H. (2000) The Toughest Indian in the World: An interview with poet, novelist, filmmaker Sherman Alexie. Idaho Mountain Express [online] 21 June. Available at: [accessed 12 April 2010].

Lewis, N. (2003) Unsettling the Literary West: Authenticity and Authorship. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Nipper, P.D. (2004) Love on the Lewis and Clark Trail. San Jose: Syringa Books.

Owens, L. (1992) Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Wister, O. (1902) The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains. Reprint (1955). New York: MacMillan.

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