Vital Signs

A View From the Top of the Ridge

On the Literature of the American West

For the last several weeks, working at a leisurely pace, I have been reading through the new and extremely ambitious Columbia Literary History of the United States. This is a huge work, one which has many merits and aspires to be inclusive. Indeed, it is a conscious attempt to practice the "new literary history"—a generous mix of interpretive strategies. But in one respect it offers nothing more than a slight modification of the familiar tendency of the Northeast to confuse itself with the rest of the country—to take its own peculiar taste too seriously. For in the 1,263 pages of this history nothing is said about the literature of the American West. All that we find to break such silence is a chapter on Mexican-American writers (included for the sake of ethnic diversity) and a little praise for the Kiowa poet and novelist M. Scott Momaday, with the brief comment that the West is "not a region" but rather an expectation, "all future and mobility."

Such a turning away from a corpus of serious literature, distinguished both by subject and by relation to a specific scene, is difficult to explain. That is, unless we remember the arrogance of the New York cultural establishment: a blindness found even beyond the Metropolis in its academic outposts, in the accounts of fashionable historians and critics who reluctantly acknowledge the regional...

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