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 DonnĂ©e 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.