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. 

     It is no surprise, then, that ‘literature of the American West’ has an equally fluid definition, and cannot be described simply by its position west of the Mississippi River.  With works set in such diverse regional locations as the Nebraska prairies (Midwest), Arizona deserts (Southwest), coastal rainforests (Northwest) and urban centres, it involves much more than the mere occupation of a space. 
     Nor can western literature be defined by the birth place of the writer whose works fall under its banner, for many of its most familiar names are not originally from that region.  Owen Wister was only ever a visitor to the West, spending no more than a few months there at any one time.  Wister, though, identified with an idea of the West as a place where one could take control of one’s life, start over again and refashion oneself into something new.  For Wister, the West was untarnished by the moral corruption which he felt was pervasive in the East.  In an early scene in The Virginian, the newly-arrived eastern narrator finds himself in a saloon in Medicine Bow:
Here were lusty horsemen ridden from the heat of the sun, and the wet of the storm, to divert themselves awhile.  Youth untamed sat here for an idle moment, spending easily its hard-earned wages.  City saloons rose into my vision, and I instantly preferred this Rocky Mountain place.  More of death it undoubtedly saw, but less of vice, than did its New York equivalents.  And death is a thing much cleaner than vice. (Wister, 1902 [2009]:31)

       From the very start, Wister can be seen to fabricate a romantic image of the West, in direct opposition to the East.  The West, in Wister’s imagination, has a natural and untamed purity which is reflected in the ‘wild and manly’ figure of the cowboy:

Daring, laughter, endurance – these were what I saw upon the countenances of the cow-boys.  And this very first day of my knowledge of them marks a date with me.  For something about them, and the idea [emphasis added] of them, smote my American heart.... In their flesh our natural passions ran tumultuous; but often in their spirit sat hidden a true nobility, and often beneath its unexpected shining their figures took a heroic stature. (ibid)

       Virginia-born Willa Cather spent all but twelve years of her life in the East, yet she too is firmly linked to literature of the West through her novels O Pioneers! (1913) and My Ántonia (1918).  In his essay on Cather, ‘“The West Authentic,” the West Divided’, William Handley examines the way that Cather, and other Easterners came to identify themselves with the West.  Referring to the essay’s epigraph by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke about the individual’s ability to retrospectively ‘compose within ourselves our true place of origin,’ Handley discusses how eastern-born writers such as Wister, Cather and Roosevelt ‘located in their experiences out west the sentimentalized source of their true identity’ (Handley, 2004:72-3), romantically ascribing an emotional sense of belonging in the West.  Similarly, many contemporary writers whose works fall within the bounds of western American literature grew up in other regions 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; Cormac McCarthy was born in Rhode Island, and spent most of his formative years in Tennessee before moving to Texas in the 1970s.
What makes these writers westernWhat makes these writers western writers, is the connections they make with the landscape in which their stories are set.      What makes these writers western writers is the connections they make with the landscape in which their stories are set.  Annie Proulx has stated that for her, character and place should reflect one another (Detrixhe, 2005), and her work clearly illustrates this in the way it focuses on marginal characters in marginal regions.  Her landscapes are often harsh, stark and lonely, as indeed are her characters.  Likewise, Cormac McCarthy uses landscape, not just as a backdrop, but as a means to reveal something deeper about his characters and plots. In Blood Meridian (McCarthy,1985), the landscape is described in hellish terms, mirroring the satanic figure of the judge and his murderous followers:
What makes these writers western
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. (McCarthy, 1985:152)

Louise Erdrich
       Many scholars, both Native and non-Native, argue that Indian writers offer a view of the natural world which is distinctly different from that portrayed by white writers.  Because Native people have often lived within a specific region for millennia, it is argued that they have a uniquely symbiotic alliance with the land.  In the Nez Perce culture, for example, the creation story ‘The Heart of the Monster’ explains not only how features of the landscape were formed but also how the Nez Perce people came into being.  The Chippewa writer Louise Erdrich argues that ‘Native American groups who inhabited a place until it became deeply and particularly known’ developed an intimate relationship with the landscape, which non-Native inhabitants cannot possess (Erdrich, 1985). 
       Since the 1960s, and the emergence of the environmental movement, Native Americans have frequently been portrayed as being the natural custodians of the environment, possessing ‘sacred knowledge’ which allows them to act as protectors of ‘Mother Earth’.  In the introduction to Listening to the Land (2008), Lee Schweninger chronicles the debate in the environmental ethic argument about the Indian regard for nature.  Schweninger cites writers on the subject of Indian history and culture, such as Calvin Martin, J. Baird Callicott and David Lewis, who support the claim that Native Americans traditionally felt a sense of respect and responsibility for the natural world, and quotes Callicott as saying that ‘the world view typical of American Indian peoples has included and supported an environmental ethic’ (2008:4).  Tom Regan and David Waller, however, claim that the evidence supporting this argument is ambiguous, and that portraying Indians as environmentalists is damaging in that it ‘trivializes American Indian cultures’ (ibid) by reducing them to a stereotype, and ignores contemporary concerns about poverty and cultural appropriation.  Anthropologist Shepard Krech III and geochronologist Paul Martin go even further, and refute claims that the indigenous people of North America ever held a sense of guardianship, arguing that Pleistocene hunters contributed to the extinction and near extinction of many animal species.  Most controversially of all, Sam Gill claims that a belief in ‘Mother Earth’, closely associated with Native American spirituality, is not a traditional concept at all, but arose from the appropriation of European imagery by the Shawnee leader Tecumseh in the early nineteenth century.  Gill claims that this metaphorical language was then picked up by other Native Americans, by way of expressing their relationship to the environment, and spread to subsequent generations by ethnographers (Schweninger, 2008:5). 
       Whether or not this relationship is seen as historically based, however, is beside the point.  That so many Native American writers speak about having a relationship with the landscape, today, and represent this relationship in their work, indicates the strength of feeling which surrounds this topic. 
       As we’ve seen, western literature by both Native and Euro-American writers, is deeply embedded in a specific regional location.  The writer’s knowledge of the environment, and their relationship with it, enables him or her to depict landscapes which are far more than mere backdrops.  In western fiction, the specific landscape in which a story is set is essential to the plot; the western story cannot be lifted out of its own location and transplanted elsewhere without destroying its integrity. 
       Landscape, however, is just one element which distinguishes western fiction from other forms of literature.  Historical subject matter, whether used as the basis for historical western fiction or as a reference point providing context for stories set in the present day, is seldom absent.  Historical events such as the Lewis and Clark expedition continue to provide writers with rich and tantalizing sources of material.

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