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].

A century before Momaday, John Rollin Ridge (1827-1867), a mixed-blood Cherokee, became the first American Indian to publish a novel with The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit (1854).  Though the novel featured conflicts between Euro-American settlers and Mexicans, rather than Native Americans, the story paralleled much of Ridge’s own family’s experience of racism and displacement (Owens, 1992:32-40).  Forty-five years later, Simon Pokagon, a Potawatomi Indian, is credited with writing the second Native American novel, Queen of the Woods (1899)[iii], and in 1927, Cogewea, the Half-Blood: A Depiction of the Great Montana Cattle Range, by Mourning Dove (1888-1936), became the first novel to be published by an American Indian woman[iv] (Owens, 1992:40).  The 1930s saw the publication of two novels by Indian writers, Sundown (1934) by John Joseph Mathews and The Surrounded (1936) by D’Arcy McNickle.  In all, nine novels by Native Americans were published prior to Momaday’s House Made of Dawn (Owens, 1992:24).  Today, the works of many Native American writers including James Welch, Gerald Vizenor, Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, Louis Owens, Paula Gunn Allen, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, Linda Hogan, Simon Ortiz and Sherman Alexie feature prominently in anthologies of western literature, western criticism, and in anthologies for the separate field of Native American literature.

There are a number of characteristics common to most western fiction: explorations of historical subject matter and a heightened awareness of landscape are almost always present to some degree.  Themes of identity are another major concern.  In The Virginian, Wister was eager to define a Western regional identity that was opposed to what he saw as the degraded values of the East, and since then, Western writers have carried on this tradition, identifying themselves as different to and separate from their Eastern counterparts and removed from the national orthodoxy.

Questions of identity are especially pronounced in the works of Native Americans, many of whom were either themselves subjected to the assimilationist practices of federal boarding schools or are the descendents of those who were.  In his autobiography, My People the Sioux, Luther Standing Bear describes how, upon arrival at the Carlisle Indian School, 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 (1928:133-135).  An emotional conflict, pulling the protagonist between the traditional world of his ancestors and the modern white world, features heavily in the work of Native American writers.  This conflict is further compounded by issues of mixed ancestry: until recently, Native writers have been almost exclusively of mixed American Indian and Euro-American descent, and Native fiction frequently centres on the search for identity of a ‘mixed-blood’[v] protagonist.

   Sundown (1934), by the Oxford educated writer John Joseph Mathews, himself one-eighth Osage, tells the story of mixed-blood Chal Windzer.  After leaving the reservation to attend university, Chal comes to believe that white society is superior to that of his own people.  Though he denies his tribal heritage and attempts to imitate the white men with whom he associates, he finds that he is never truly accepted by or at home in the white world, and like most mixed-blood characters, he is forever torn between two opposing cultures. 

'Indianness' and mixed-blood identity dominate the novels and short stories of the Spokane writer Sherman Alexie, and throughout his work he poses questions about what it is to be Indian: is one Indian by simple fact of ancestry; can one truly be Indian if he does not speak the language of his forefathers or practice traditional beliefs; can one be a ‘real’ Indian away from the reservation?  In his first novel, Reservation Blues (1996), Alexie describes the internal and external conflicts which the mixed-blood Indian faces on the reservation and in the white world.  In one scene, the Indian woman known as ‘Chess’ is disturbed by the sight of a white woman with an Indian child and wants to tell the woman that:

…the child was always going to be halfway.  He's always going to be half Indian...and that will make him half crazy.  Half of him will always want to tear the other half apart.  It's war.  Chess wanted to tell her that her baby was always going to be half Indian, no matter what she did to make it white. (Alexie, 1996:283) 

Chess wants to protect the child, but more than that she wants to protect the tribe from the growing number of ‘quarter-bloods and eighth-bloods [who] get all the Indian jobs, all the Indian chances, because they look white’ (ibid).  Mixed-bloods are viewed both as victim and villain, undesirable and damaging to the tribe.
Western American literature includes many genres and sub-genres, but like all regional literatures, location is at its heart.  The West, however, as a physical space within the North American continent has numerous borders and numerous definitions.

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 western
What makes these writers western
What 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:

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)

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.

[i] Michael Kowalewski refers to the New York Magazine television critic John Leonard’s assessment of the television adaptation of Lonesome Dove as being an anti-Western because of McMurtry’s refusal to conform to the heroic tradition of a romanticised West (Reading the West: New Essays on the Literature of the American West p. 3).
[ii] William Apess, a mixed-blood orphan of Pequot descent published his autobiography Son of the Forest in 1829, and Luther Standing Bear, a mixed-blood Lakota from the Pine Ridge Reservation published two volumes of memoirs, My People the Sioux (1928) and Land of the Spotted Eagle (1933).
[iii] Louis Owens points out that ‘[a]ccording to James A. Clifton, Queen of the Woods was most likely written by the wife of Cyrus Engle, Pokagon’s attorney, agent, publisher, and advisor’ (Owens, p. 259).
[iv] Suzanne Lundquist’s Native American Literatures (2004) is one of the few critical studies to include S. Alice Callahan’s novel Wynema: a child of the forest (1891) in a survey of Native American fiction.
[v] The term ‘mixed-blood’ is most often used to describe persons of mixed Native American and Euro-American ancestry.  In the United States, ‘mixed-blood’ is considered to be a neutral description and is not generally viewed as an epithet in the way that ‘half-blood’ and ‘half-breed’ frequently are.

No comments: