Saturday, 31 December 2011

New Year Rulin's for 2012

Discussion of Woody Guthrie's 'New Year Rulin's for 1942' have been all over the internet this week with some inferring that Woody's inclusion of hygiene matters (3, 4, 5, 9, 11) as an indication that the Huntington's disease which killed him twenty-five years later, at the age of 55, was already at work.  Maybe that's so.  Maybe not.  Maybe he was just so busy spilling words onto paper (the Woody Guthrie Archives contain the lyrics to nearly 3000 songs) that some of life's more mundane tasks occasionally got forgotten.  

You can tell he's concerned about the way he's treated his family.  You can tell that, at the age of 30, he's thinking about his health - eat good, drink very scant if any - and about his spirit - don't get lonesome, stay glad, dream good, love, love, love - and about the need to take action and not waste time.  I see Woody's rulin's as a to do list, a way of taking small but meaningful steps to self improvement.  He's not making any grand promises here, but he is saying he's going to try to do better than he has done in the past.  Isn't that what we should all be doing?

Having given up making resolutions I know from the outset I won't be able to keep, I've taken inspiration from Woody's Rulin's, and drawn up a set of my own. 

A Review of 2011

This is the third annual review I’ve written since setting off on this journey.  One more should see me through to the end, at least as far as submitting my dissertation and preparing for the final viva.  The viva, the ultimate test of whether or not my work stands up to scrutiny, will come in just over a year’s time.  Not too much over, I hope, for I fear that my husband’s patience has its limits.  And so does mine.  After three years, we are both anxious to get our lives back.  Anxious to load up our bikes and find a nice quiet road to pedal down for a few months.  Route 66 sounds good, passing through abandoned Oklahoma towns on the way to the west coast.  So does the northern tier trans-America route as plotted out by the good people at the Adventure Cycling Association – from Bar Harbor, Maine all the way to Anacortes in Washington state.  Or better yet, their Lewis and Clark route which passes right through my hometown.  No detour required.  That would be appropriate, considering I’ve spent much of the last three years reading the expedition journals and pouring over maps of their route.  Though at 3,262 miles long, the ACA route is a couple of thousand miles too short for my taste, so detours would be called for.

Wherever our bikes take us, though, I feel certain that we will travel east to west, for the pull to the west, the pull towards home gets stronger with each passing year.  Like a rainbow trout that’s swallowed a nightcrawler, something is tugging at my insides. If I’m to stop from being turned inside out, I am sure that that is the direction I must go.  Or am I just imagining that’s the case?  Is it simply that I’ve been immersed in the mythologies of the American West so long now that I’ve started to believe they are true?  Have I grown nostalgic on memories from my youth, recollecting the stories of my people for the purpose of writing a book so that I believe what is over still is?  Sure enough, I’m being lured back – I’m allowing myself to be lured back.  It won’t take much for Idaho to reel me in and claim me once more.  But it’s a scary prospect, having spent half my life elsewhere.  What if I moved back and it was different?  What if I moved back and it was the same?

All of that is in the future, though, too far off for me to seriously consider right now while there’s still work to be done. 

Let me just finish what I started here, and look at what I’ve done this past year so that I can reassure myself that I am indeed moving forward (even while contemplating a step back). 

Progress on Dissertation:

  •           40,000 words submitted for the M.Phil. upgrade viva to Ph.D.
  •    Upgrade viva passed in September
  •    Novel: 70,000 words written
  •    Thesis: 16,000 words written

Conferences, Presentations and Events Attended:

  •    Publishing Panel, UoC, 27 April 2011
  •    Writing the Self, UoC, 1 June 2011
  •    The World Through Memoir, UoC, 15 June 2011
  •    Winchester Writers Conference, University of Winchester, 29 June 2011
  •    Historical Fiction with Stella Duffy and Emma Darwin, 22 September 2011
  •    Workshop with Stella Duffy, 25 September 2011
  •    Royal Society of Literature discussion with Sebastian Faulks, 24 October 2011

  •    ‘Cowboys and Clowns’, Moonlight Mesa,  January 2011
  •    Review of Eddie Chuculate’s Cheyenne Madonna, The Short Review, February 2011
  •    Review of Cris Mazza’s Trickle-down Timeline, The Short Review, March 2011 
  •    Review of Belle Boggs’s Mattaponi Queen, Short Fiction in Theory and Practice, vol, no 1 spring 2011
  •    Review of Linwood Laughy’s Fifth Generation, Western American Literature, spring 2011

  •    Peer reviewed 1 essay for Short Fiction in Theory and Practice 
  •    Part-time teaching on undergraduate programme at University of Chichester 
  •    Part-time employment as student mentor at University of Portsmouth
  •    Editor of THRESHOLDS Short Story Forum

So, what’s left to be done?

I’m on schedule to complete the first draft of Legacy by the end of March. I’ll then return to my thesis and complete my chapters on Identity and Authenticity, hopefully by the end of June. I’m waiting to hear whether or not my proposal for the Affective Landscapes Conference at the University of Derby has been accepted, but if it has, this should spur me into getting a useable chunk of work completed by mid-May. I’ll be finished teaching, marking and mentoring around the middle of June, and will be just about finished with my work on the website, so I’ll then have a solid three months without distractions (I’ll be lucky) to redraft and polish before getting everything ready to submit in mid-October. Then the viva in January 2013, and barring any major rewrites, off on the bikes as soon as the weather starts to warm up.

How's that then?  Sound like a plan?

Friday, 9 December 2011

Ten Events That Shaped the West

Here's an article from True West Magazine, published in February 2007. It lists some of the events of the frontier era of American history which the author points to as helping to shape not only the country but also the identity of the American people.  It's disappointing, but not surprising, that the list focusses almost exclusively on events that reinforce the heroic myth of Manifest Destiny and western expansion.  The one exception is The Battle of Little Bighorn - but even here the author manages to give a sympathetic account of Custer's defeat: ‘…the weapons the soldiers were issued were single-shot Springfield trapdoors with copper casings that jammed, while many of the warriors had armed themselves with lever-action Winchesters.’  In effect what he’s saying is that the Indians, by being better armed, weren’t playing fair.  It makes a change, but I’m still not going to shed any tears over the 7th Cavalry, I’m afraid.
Gen. George Armstrong Custer

This article got me to thinking, so I’ve put together my own list of events which, through research for my dissertation, I believe had the greatest impact on the development of the West – for better or worse:
Removal of eastern tribes to lands west of the Mississippi

1. The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 which doubled the size of United States lands overnight and gave purpose to the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804-1806. 
    2.  The Indian Removal Act of 1830 that set in motion the Trail of Tears, opening land for white farmers and transferring the country's first inhabitants (many of whom were also farmers) into marginal lands in the West.

A Forty-Niner
3.  The arrival of Christian missionaries in the West in the 1830s, seeding conflicts within tribes, and helping to destroy traditional culture.

4.  The California Gold Rush of 1849 which encouraged 300,000 people to head to the west coast to seek their fortunes. In just six years, the population of San Francisco increased from 200 inhabitants to 36,000. The influx of large numbers of immigrants had a devastating impact on the Native population. It is estimated that between 1845 and 1870, as many as 120,000 Indians – or four-fifths of the population – died as a direct result of the gold rush.

5.  The Indian Appropriations Act of 1851 which sought to confine Indians within reservations. 

6.  The near extermination of the buffalo in the 1870s, destroying a vital food source for Indian people throughout the central plains.
Fencing in the frontier

7.  The introduction of barbed wire in the mid-1870s. Barbed wire fencing was first marketed to farmers as an effective method for keeping cattle off of cultivated land. Cattlemen were initially opposed to its use because it stopped livestock from finding better grazing on open lands, but by the 1880s Texas ranchers used barbed wire to protect their land from overgrazing. With the arrival of the railroad, it was no longer necessary to move cattle to markets on long trail drives and by the 1890s, open ranges were a thing of the past.
Early Homesteaders

8.  The Dawes Act of 1887 further damaged traditional Indian life by allotting parcels of land to individual members of the tribe and encouraging private ownership and farming. The remaining ‘unassigned lands’ – often the majority of already reduced reservations – were then opened up to homesteaders.

9.  In 1892, the Johnson County War broke out in Wyoming after years of competition between small ranchers and 
Invaders, held at Fort D.A. Russell, 1892
wealthy cattlemen who grazed their livestock on public lands. After small ranchers were accused of cattle rustling, two dozen gunmen were brought in from Texas to protect the large ranching interests. Dubbed 'the Invaders,' the Texan mercenaries had already lynched a number of small ranchers when they and some of their supporters were trapped at the T.A. Ranch by the county sheriff and a posse of 200 men. During the ensuing stand off, the Wyoming Governor cabled President Harrison on behalf of the mercenaries, requesting he intervene to save them. Forty-five men were eventually rescued by the 6th cavalry and taken to Fort D.A. Russell to await trial. Charges were never filed against the 20 wealthy stockmen who were said to be behind the lynchings, however, and the men arrested at the T.A. Ranch were released on bail before disappearing into the woodwork. Comparisons with contemporary political and economic conflicts are easily made.
Oklahoma Land Rush 1889, by Xiang Zhang

10.  The various land runs in the West brought an influx of white farmers onto the grasslands. Good harvests over several years encouraged even more farmers onto more land, and over the years the use of modern machinery brought still more land into production. Poor farming methods, however, destroyed the soil's natural resilience, and led to severe erosion. When the drought began in 1930, crops failed and, without vegetation to hold it in place, the land was exposed to further erosion by the wind. In parts of Oklahoma, as much as 75% of the topsoil was lost in dust storms between 1930 and 1940.

South Dakota, 1936

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Using creative writing to increase confidence and motivation for learning amongst adult literacy students


During the last few years I have taught Literacy to a variety of learners in circumstances ranging from discrete courses for those with learning difficulties to long-term unemployed adults and those engaged in training as part of the last government’s Train to Gain scheme. Regardless of the situation, I have often found motivation particularly lacking when it comes to writing tasks. Learners can easily see the value of reading as it’s a skill we use every day in tasks as unrelated as shopping, driving and cooking. The printed word is everywhere. What’s more, it has authority. When something is written down it is perceived to carry a certain amount of importance, therefore motivation to read is generally quite high. Writing, however, is easier to avoid. What’s more, because the written word is viewed as having authority, many people – even those with sound ‘literacy skills’ – feel insecure about their ability to express themselves on paper. This reluctance to write, I believe, stems from the fact that historically, the act of writing was most frequently practiced by the educated and ‘ruling’ classes. For those engaged in physical labour, where strength and manual dexterity had obvious financial benefits, writing was seen as having little practical value.

My background is in Creative Writing and my purpose in carrying out this research was to look at ways Creative Writing might be used to empower learners, increasing their self-confidence and motivating them to improve their literacy skills. I wanted to look at the ways Creative Writing has been used by other educators and to gauge its effectiveness in teaching Literacy. I also wanted to gather new ideas and teaching methods to improve my own practice.

Friday, 14 October 2011

New Visions of the Old West: Blood Meridian as a reflection of anxiety

This section carries on from Perception, Character and Mood

photo by Brian Lary

During the 1970s and 1980s, the United States military took part in a series of engagements which many Americans found morally questionable[1], shaking the previously firm belief that America was a force for good in the world.  The rise of the Red Power movement and its close associate, the American Indian Movement, and publication of books such as Vine Deloria’s Custer Died for Your Sins (1969) also encouraged the dominant American culture to question the treatment of the nation’s first inhabitants.  Growing environmental concerns, and Cold War anxieties added to the uncertainty which many Americans felt.  At the same time, American writers began to challenge received notions of Western American history, and the revised literary mythologies they created reflected the nation’s mood by offering new perceptions (Lewis, 2003) of a West without heroes.  Most notable of these anti-westerns is Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985). 
       Dan Moos describes Blood Meridian, with its scenes of unremitting violence and moral depravity, as a Western in which we would rather not believe’ ([no date];23).  Set in the final days of the Old West period of American history, Blood Meridian recreates the exploits of the Glanton gang, a group of scalp-hunting mercenaries hired to remove Indians from the Southwest.  Based on historical events, the novel explores the nature of evil and man’s seemingly inherent penchant for violence.  As a reflection of that violence, the landscape against which the action is set is ‘wholly without [the] nurturing abilities’ (Holmberg 2009:172) shown in the novels previously discussed:
They rode through a region electric and wild where strange shapes of soft blue fire ran over the metal of the horses’ trappings and the wagonwheels rolled in hoops of fire and little shapes of pale blue light came to perch in the ears of the horses and in the beards of the men.  All night sheetlightning quaked sourceless to the west beyond the midnight thunderheads, making a bluish day of the distant desert, the mountains on the sudden skyline stark and black and livid like a land on some other order out there whose true geology was not stone but fear.  (47)

Holmberg describes the setting of Blood Meridian as ‘a pre-lapsarian world’ and ‘a land of light, dark, and formlessness’ (2009:172), without even the concept of morality or justice.  The West McCarthy portrays is a churning, chaotic void where ‘death seem[s] the most prevalent feature of the landscape’ (McCarthy 1985:47) and even the elements appear to be at war. 
The novel follows the sixteen-year-old boy known only as ‘the kid’ who, after surviving a barbarous attack by a Comanche war party, joins the Glanton gang’s bloody venture.  Accompanied by the mysterious Judge Holden, a demonic and apparently omnipresent figure, the gang’s exploits become increasingly violent as they progress westward through an increasingly hellish landscape:
They crossed the malpais afoot, leading the horses upon a lakebed of lava all cracked and reddish black like a pan of dried blood, threading those badlands of dark amber glass like the remnants of some dim legion scrabbling up out of a land accursed…They crossed a cinderland of caked slurry and volcanic ash imponderable as the burnedout floor of hell… (ibid:251)

Monday, 3 October 2011

Perception, Character and Mood: Landscape as a Reflection

In ‘Dangerous Ground,’ Annie Proulx contends that early writers considered western landscapes to be ‘hostile’ and that ‘[a]lmost never did the protagonist display any sense of belonging to or understanding of the country through which he journeyed, nor did he try to learn much about it’ (Proulx 2008:15).  While this may be true of the adversarial adventure stories featured in the later dime novels, Proulx’s statement is far too generalised and she offers no specific examples to support this claim. 
In her own work, Proulx uses landscape to explore the psychology of her characters.  External landscape reflects the internal contours and depth of vision her characters possess and, as a driving force within the plot, landscape controls their movements and influences what they can and cannot do.  Her characters are frequently outsiders, alienated in some way from the society around them, and rootless either by choice or coercion.  It is clear, however, that landscape is more than simply a mirror, reflecting and reinforcing her characters’ struggles.  The open spaces which dominate her writing have a pensive quality, arid and remote, yet geologically and historically complex, and mood, plot, action and theme are all influenced by the shape and behaviour of the land. 

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Pan-Indian Landscapes in Alexie’s Reservation Blues

This section carries on from 'Environmental Indians'...

Alexie’s representations of place have also attracted criticism.  While Reservation Blues (1996) and his earliest short stories are primarily located on the Spokane Indian Reservation and are littered with authentic place names (Wellpenit, Spokane Falls, Riverfront Park, Reardon), Alexie provides few visual references to landscape which would anchor these stories to a specific geographical location.  Owens describes the reservation portrayed by Alexie as being ‘a vaguely defined place where people live in cheap federal housing while drinking, playing basketball, feuding with one another, and dying self-destructive and often violent deaths’ (1998:71-2).  Bernardin takes up this point and suggests that Alexie deliberately uses what she refers to as ‘generic signifiers of “Indianness”’ (2004:167) to build a physical world recognisable by his target audience – young Native Americans[i].  The reservation Alexie describes could be anywhere in the country, and just as there are few visual clues to identify the location of his stories, there is little to distinguish Alexie’s Spokane Indians from members of any other Native American tribe. 

Friday, 5 August 2011

Environmental Indians: fact or fiction?

Since the increased public awareness of environmental issues in the 1960s, Native Americans have been closely associated with numerous ecological campaigns under the implied authority of having a uniquely harmonious and non-invasive relationship with the natural world.  In one now notorious television commercial, an ‘Indian’ in traditional dress is shown paddling a birch bark canoe through a polluted waterway of an industrial city.  Upon landing his canoe on the litter-strewn shore, the man walks to the edge of a highway where a bag of rubbish, tossed from a passing car, lands at his feet.  The voiceover delivers the campaign’s message: ‘Some people have a deep abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country.  And some people don’t.’  As the man turns to face the camera, a tear runs down his cheek and the narrator makes the emphatic statement: ‘People start pollution; people can stop it’ (Keep America Beautiful, 1971). 
       The commercial is today considered controversial on two counts: that it relies on a stereotype of Native culture; and, perhaps more damningly, that Iron Eyes Cody, the actor featured, was not Native American at all, but an Italian American who claimed to be Indian.  This second point will be discussed in Chapter Two, with regards to identity formation and transformation, and in Chapter Three in my exploration of authenticity and cultural appropriation. 

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Native American Perceptions of the Other in Louis Owens’ Wolfsong

Louis Owens’ widely-discussed novel Wolfsong (1991) illustrates both the homecoming nature of Native fiction, and an eco-conscious world view which exists in opposition to the view of the white community and westernised Indians.  At the opening of the novel, a road crew is carving a new route through the temperate rainforests in the Cascade mountains of western Washington state.  The land has been designated a wilderness area[i], but government authorities have recently granted permission for the construction of an open-pit copper mine.  From the cover of the trees above the road crew, Jim Joseph makes a one-man protest, shooting at the bulldozers to disrupt their progress. 

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The Significance of Landscape in Literature of the American West

The Broad Expanse: charting the landscape

Western literature 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 of staggering imagery: jagged peaks of distant blue mountains, arid expanses of red desert and sagebrush, and hip-high seas of winter wheat rippling and cresting in a prairie breeze.  It is a world of wide-open spaces and unpopulated places, where characters come and go, but the land is constant and forever. 
In her essay ‘Dangerous Ground’, Annie Proulx argues that landscape is much more than what the landscape historian John Brinckerhoff Jackson describes as being ‘a portion of the earth’s surface that can be comprehended at a single glance’ (2008, p. 12).  Rather, she offers her own broader definition:
Landscape is geography, archaeology, astrophysics, agronomy, agriculture, the violent character of the atmosphere, climate, black squirrels and wild oats, folded rock, bulldozers; it is jet trails and barbwire, government land, dry stream beds; it is politics, desert wildfire, introduced species, abandoned vehicles, roads, ghost towns, nuclear test grounds, swamps, a bakery shop, mine tailings, bridges, dead dogs.  Landscape is rural, urban, suburban, semirural, small town, village; it is outports and bedroom communities; it is a remote ranch.  (ibid:10)

       As Proulx points out, landscape goes beyond the physical, beyond what can be touched and seen and experienced, and includes those sometimes transient and elusive influences which help to shape the environment.  Landscape possesses not only the physical elements of geography, geology, flora and fauna, but also the products of civilisation which are scattered across the land itself – rural communities and cities, and all the detritus those communities produce.  But landscape is also history, the people who trod the ground before us, and the events which took place at other points in time.  Beyond the tangible landscape lies another which is perceived rather than seen, a landscape in which all of preceding time continues to exist.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Filling in the Gaps in the Corps of Discovery Journals

Numerous works of western fiction have drawn inspiration from the Lewis and Clark journals since their official publication in 1814.  Most, such as Vardis Fisher's Tale of Valor (1960) and Brian Hall's I Should Be Extremely Happy In Your Company (2003) have attempted to fictionalise what is known about the expedition, relying on the journals to structure the narrative and provide the bones of character development while relating the story of the expedition from the perspective of one or more real life members of the party.  James Alexander Thom's Sign Talker (2000) tells the story from the viewpoint of George Drouillard, the Corps’ half-blood Shawnee interpreter, while Anna Lee Waldo's Sacajawea (1978) and Diane Glancy's Stone Heart (2003) present the story from the point of view of the expedition's only female member.  Others, such as Will Henry's The Gates of the Mountains (1963), present the story from the point of view of a fictional character placed into the heart of the action. Richard S. Wheeler's Eclipse (2002) and Frances Hunter's To the Ends of the Earth (2006) both focus on the years following the expedition's return, and speculate on the mystery surrounding Lewis's premature death in 1809. 
          While a number of novels touch upon the time that the Corps of Discovery spent with the Nez Perce and draw attention to the warm relations that developed, few explore the claim that Clark fathered a child with a Nez Perce woman, or what may have subsequently become of that child[i].  What we know about the Lewis and Clark expedition comes primarily from the journals, and amid the detailed descriptions of previously unknown flora and fauna are a number of references to sexual encounters between the enlisted men and Indian women.  On October 12th, 1804, Clark records:
a curious Cuistom with the Souix as well as the reckeres is to give handsom Squars to those whome they wish to Show Some acknowledgements to—    The Seauix we got Clare of without taking their Squars, they followed us with Squars […] two days. The Rickores we put off dureing the time we were at the Towns but 2 Handsom young Squars were Sent by a man to follow us, they Came up this evening and peresisted in their Civilities. (Moulton)

In the earlier field notes of the same date, Clark writes that guests to whom these ‘civilities’ were made were ‘despised if [the women were] not recved’, but records that ‘we Still procisted in a refusial’ (ibid).  These and similar entries are intriguingly – and perhaps purposely – vague, for while it is apparent that the enlisted men indulged in sexual encounters, there is no clear admission or denial that the Captains did likewise. 
 In Lewis and Clark Among the Indians (1984), the historian James P. Ronda writes extensively about the sexual customs of the northern plains tribes and cites a number of early Euro-American visitors to the region who documented their encounters with willing Arikara women.  During their journey, the expedition found a number of tribes who used sex as both a bartering tool and as a means of showing hospitality, but among the Arikara and neighbouring tribes, ‘women sought sex with Europeans as a way to pass the strength and skill of the outsider to their mates’ (Ronda, 1984:63).  Ambrose (1996) describes seven occasions when Native women were offered to the men of the expedition between May 1804 and the winter of 1805-06 when the party were settled at Fort Clatsop near the mouth of the Columbia River.

Once the Corps returns to the Nez Perce, on their return journey east, 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’ for the men, and is doubtful that Clark, ‘this most agreeable of captains[,] remained celibate’ (Jones, 2004:138-9).  Jones goes on to suggest that the apparent abstinence of the captains may have lapsed at this particular time as a result of their anxiety about recrossing the Bitterroot Mountains which had caused them such difficulty the previous year.  He emphasises that the party were ‘desperate to acquire more horses’ in preparation for the crossing, exchanging ‘everything they could, including buttons cut from their uniforms’ and ‘good relations’ (ibid).
          Nez Perce tribal historian Otis Halfmoon (2001) believes that it was during this six-week period, as the Corps waited for snow to melt in the mountains, that Tzi-Kal-Tza was conceived:  
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)

       Halfmoon asserts that Clark’s child[i] was viewed by the Nez Perce as a bridge between the two cultures, and that he inspired the Nez Perce to maintain good relations with the fur trappers who appeared soon after the Corps departed, and with the white settlers who later moved into the region.  Although Tzi-Kal-Tza was not the only child to have resulted from encounters between the Corps of Discovery and Native women, his birth represents a turning point in the history of the Nez Perce tribe.  Within the span of his lifetime, the Nez Perce world changed utterly.

[i] In a footnote to the May 10th, 1806 entry of the journals, Moulton also reports that a baby was conceived from York but that the child ‘did not live to maturity’. 

[i] Zoa L. Swayne’s Do Them No Harm! (2003) and Pat Decker Nipper’s Love on the Lewis and Clark Trail (2004) draw upon the journals and Nez Perce oral tradition, and focus on Clark’s purported relationship with a Nez Perce woman. Linwood Laughy’s The Fifth Generation also mentions the child which was born after the expedition’s departure in 1806.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Locating the West: a geographical, temporal and imaginative space

Until the end of the nineteenth century, the West was not situated in a static geographical location.  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 geographical East – at one time lay beyond the frontier within an unknown and unexplored western territory.  Until the latter part of the nineteenth century, the frontier retreated physically as each new wave of white settlement pushed it ever closer to the Pacific coast.  Since then, the frontier has retreated from us in time.  Consequently, the meaning of ‘the West’ has changed, and continues to change on a regular basis. 

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Western American Literature: an expansive canon

Western American Literature: an expansive canon
Western American Literature: an expansive canon

The canon of western American literature encompasses many forms: popular and literary fiction; nature writing; personal essays and memoirs; and historical studies.  It is an area of literature which is nearly as vast as the land from which it emanates.  A brief survey of the novels which fall beneath its banner confirms the diverse range of work it includes: Zane Grey’s classic of the western genre Riders of the Purple Sage (1912); Willa Cather’s depiction of the female agrarian struggle in O Pioneers!; A.B. Guthrie’s mountain man adventure Big Sky (1947); Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1939) and East of Eden (1952); and Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose (1972) are all novels which are widely studied in connection with the American West.  Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985); Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories; Barbara Kingsolver’s BeanTrees (1988); Larry McMurtry’s antiheroic, anti-western Lonesome Dove (1990)[i]; the Navajo mysteries of Tony Hillerman (1925 – 2008); and the novels and short stories of Richard Ford (b. 1944) also feature on academic syllabi.

American Indian writers have also made major contributions to the body of western literature, and since N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn (1968) won a Pulitzer Prize and sparked the ‘Native American Renaissance’ (Lincoln, 1983), many of these have been retrospectively added to academic syllabi and examined within western American literary criticism[ii].

Friday, 1 April 2011

The History and Development of Western American Literature

The origins of western American literature can be found in the written accounts of the explorers and adventurers who delved into the wilderness beyond the Mississippi River at the turn of the 19th century.  Commissioned with exploring the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase, which had doubled the size of United States territory, and finding a trade route to the Pacific, Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery set forth in the spring of 1804 into a vast unknown. Over the course of nearly two and one-half years, the six men tasked with documenting the expedition produced enough material to fill the nearly five thousand pages of Moulton’s definitive edition of the journals.  In their close observation of both the landscape through which they travelled and of the Native people they encountered, the men not only recorded the events of their explorations but ‘gave reality to the Louisiana Purchase’ (Lyon, 1999:5) itself.

In the introduction to ‘The Written Donnée of Western Literature’, James Maguire refers to the Lewis and Clark journals as the ‘headwaters of western American literature’ (1987:68).  Although the journals were not officially published until 1814, government documents and newspaper reports about the Corps of Discovery, as well as accounts by Alexander McKenzie and other contemporary explorers, ignited the public’s curiosity about the West.  These early documents, combined with visual representations of the interior landscape[i] and the tribespeople living there, fuelled the public imagination and created a demand for frontier literature.  Timothy Flint’s romantic novel Francis Berrian, or The Mexican Patriot (1826) and James Fenmore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans (1826), are the direct antecedents of the western novel and of contemporary western literature.

    While these novels brought the frontier into many affluent homes, their readership was limited by expensive production costs.  As a result of technological advances in the mid-nineteenth century, however, paperbound books could be produced for a fraction of the former price.  Prices fell still further with the innovative marketing and distribution strategies of New York publishers Erastus and Irwin Beadle, making the new ‘dime novels’ affordable to a much wider audience (Brown, 1997). 

In 1860, the Beadles published their first dime novel, Malaeska: the Indian Wife of the White Hunter, by Ann S. Stephens.  The novel was an immediate success and within the first few months of publication sold sixty-five thousand copies, convincing the Beadles of the public’s appetite for inexpensive, mass-produced adventure stories (Stanford University, 1997). 

   Although Malaeska was set in rural New York state and therefore cannot geographically be described as a western novel, it contained many of the physical and cultural challenges embodied by that genre: a wilderness landscape, isolated and industrious white settlers, and ‘a savage Indian tribe’ (Stephens, 1860).  As is the case with the traditional western novel, Malaeska was also located in the past.  Set during the first half of the eighteenth century, the world of Malaeska was vastly different to the world inhabited by its readers. 

Discussing the popularity of the early dime novels in his introduction to The Literary West, Thomas Lyon puts the public’s demand for fictional adventure down to a growing sense of physical security in a largely eastern audience, and by implication, a growing ennui: 'as civilization spread and real-life opportunities for individual heroism and decisive action dwindled and as the Indians and the wilderness presented less and less and, finally, no significant challenge, the Western prospered' (1999:6).  If adventure was not to be found in one’s own life, it could be found, vicariously, in the pages of a novel.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

A Story Writing Challenge

My copies of Award Winning Tales have just arrived in the post this morning, and I'm very pleased to see that my story 'The Difference Between Cowboys and Clowns' has made it into print.  The story was a finalist in the NYCMidnight Short Story Challenge a couple of years ago, a competition I can't recommend highly enough. 

In the challenge, participants are divided into groups, and each group is given a writing genre and a topic which must feature in the story. In the initial round of the competition, participants are given one week in which to complete a story of 2500 words. That year, my genre was 'Romantic Comedy' and my subject 'Rainbow'. Goodness, I thought, as I received my instructions (by email at midnight, NYC time).

Having a severe disinclination towards 'romance' (it's a long story - don't ask), I was less than thrilled with the genre I'd been given. And as for rainbows (deep sigh), although I really do appreciate them, all I could think of in conjunction with 'romance' were girly images of Pegasus, multi-coloured gonks and numerous other highly embarrassing motifs from an earlier and less cynical point of my life. But I'd already paid my entry fee and, skinflint that I am, couldn't back out now. The best thing, I decided, was to put it all to the back of my mind and let my subconscious stew on it a while.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Whose True Grit is Truest?

Although I consider myself politically left of centre, I've always enjoyed John Wayne's westerns. When I was growing up in 1970s America, Wayne stood for something people longed for - a simpler time when the good guys were easy to spot and the bad guys always got what they deserved. Wayne's own rightwing leanings didn't come into it.  It was a film, afterall.  Fiction.  People used to be able to leave their politics in the cinema lobby and enjoy the myth. Times change: we're all postmodernists now.

I looked forward to seeing the remake of True Grit because a) I like westerns, and b) I like the Coen brothers (at least Fargo, O Brother, and No Country). I'm afraid their True Grit, however, just didn't live up to my expectations.  The performance of Hailee Steinfeld as fourteen-year-old Mattie was quite exceptional - her earnestness was unflinching, and of all the characters it is she who has true grit. Jeff Bridges was less convincing, though he worked hard to capture the tough-as-nails on the outside, soft-as-sh*t on the inside Rooster as portrayed by Wayne. But ... (you knew it was coming), there was one point in the film, after which I was dragged right out of the West and back into Vue cinema at Gunwarf Quays: when the La Boeuf is accidentally shot by Cogburn, the bullet passes through his shoulder, entering the front of his fringed leather coat and exiting through the back. Though there was a considerable amount of blood on La Boeuf's shirt, quite remarkably, there was no stain on his coat. The exit hole was clean as a whistle. That lost it for me. Why show me a mouldy man hung up in a tree and fingers chopped off, and then show me a completely - and more importantly - unbelievably unbloodied coat?  I'm not looking for a bloodbath, just consistency.