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Imagining the West

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By:M.E. Bradford | November 05, 2018
Bradford_Review

"The curious have observed that the progress of humane
literature (like the sun) is from the East to the West. . ."

—Nathaniel Ames

As both a reality and an interpretive problem, the American West has retained its long-established hold on the attention of our scholars. And the same is true of Western American literature: evidence of the West as imaginative subject, state of mind, and setting for the handiwork of the artist, which exists already in a considerable corpus and continues in some quantity to be produced. In such circumstances, what we must be ready to seek are the grounds for this ongoing corporate fascination with lands west of Omaha, Topeka, Oklahoma City, and Ft. Worth and east of the High Sierras—the "real West" of mountain, desert, and forest lands. What, we must inquire, sets the West apart from other contexts for searching out patterns in the American past, calling forth the ingenuity and engaging the spirit of its sons and daughters as does no other region? And what does its emergence in our collective self-consciousness as both place and possibility signify for any account of our works, our goals, our purposes, and our achievements as a society? The flood of books about the West obliges us to answer such questions even more than seemed necessary before the archetypal, generic West began to recede into memory and the shadows of a distant past. For we cherish our recollections of the West as internal experience even if we have never seen it with our own eyes, imagine what it was first like when Americans came there, even if our families had no part in the great migration in that direction or in its aftermath.

At the level of immediate encounters, the West presumes the experience of a "given" nature in its most stubborn forms: of realities that existed prior to our conception of them and will survive after our adventures with the providential are at an end. The Western writer in some measure grounds his creativity in remembrance of such confrontation, or in his impressions of characters thus grounded. Place is a character in any story that he knows. In Wolf Willow (1962), his wonderful evocation of life as a boy on the prairie of Saskatchewan, Wallace Stegner begins his version of this perennial act of imaginative recovery by calling up the overwhelming smell of trees along the Frenchman River—trees that give to his narrative its tide. Working outward from this core of weighted recollection, he remembers the boy who had known this smell, finds him hidden away in his mature consciousness where his survival guarantees that the cosmopolitan author and man of letters will always know "where I came from," however puzzled he may be about the meaning of his existence.

So many Western writers have memories of this sort that the standard history of their achievements, A Literary History of the American West, includes separate essays on extended lyric celebration of some feature of the Western natural scene, along with sections of larger chapters on how this impulse mixes readily with other elements in the imaginative creations of Western essayists, novelists, and poets. These writers make (in comparison with other parts of our nation's literature) a plethora of books on this theme, presuming still a nature that is powerful in its own right and capable of enforcing its claims on our attention because they agree with Stegner that wilderness "was the challenge against which the character of our people was formed." And for these writers, the frontier experience, even if only as a memory, still signifies. In such a context the whole person is engaged, not just the discursive reason. The challenge is not so much a matter of historic trends or social forces as it is the possibility of principled action proceeding from individual choice. The assumption is that character counts even though human beings must be recognized for the elemental creatures that they are, with no sentimentality expended on the fact that they "are in constant rebellion against the facts of existence"—like the hero. Bo Mason, in Stegner's most important novel, The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943).

One may readily acquire some sense of the special relation of Western accounts of life in the wilderness with the serious fiction written in or about the region by reading a good sample of the more than one hundred titles already published for the Western Writers Series at Boise State University, an exceptional melange of pamphlets dealing with all kinds of Western literature. Evidence of the species of direct experience unmediated by preconception to be expected as part of the background of Western American literature shows up in the work of Frank Waters, Edward Abbey, Jack Schaefer, Mari Sandoz, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, H.L. Davis, Stegner, and many others. Even from the brief discussion in the Boise State pamphlets considered as a series, it is apparent that this literature could not exist without reserving a significant place for such an ingredient. Which keeps almost all of this writing, even if opinionated and garrulous, from being doctrinaire. For imagining the West is an activity full of surprises, mysteries, and unsettled questions—like a journey into territory for which there are only a few maps, and none of them dependable.

Although in Western American literature the central negotiation with nature is private and individual, it leads back to a recognition of the need for human society, for a common life and empathy with our own kind who share with us the problematical situation with which we all contend. An instance of this close balance between personal effort and social bond is in Frederick Manfred's Lord Grizzly (1954).

In this carefully researched novel about the famous mountain man, Hugh Glass, the protagonist is mauled by a great bear and left for dead on the plains. Filled with anger at being deserted by his hunting companions, Hugh struggles through unrelenting pain some two hundred miles, back to Ft. Kiowa and shelter. As his ordeal begins he is consumed with hatred for those who have abandoned him. But he has a dream of another bear that follows him—a benign, almost playful presence—through the badlands toward the company of man. In the process Glass comes to see a cowardly pattern of desertion and isolation caused by his own life and forgives his "boys" for what they have done out of fear. The new man who returns from the wilderness is no longer the hunter who would dominate and roam. Hugh's strength to forgive is still an individual strength—though in part a strength to find God's shadow or representative hidden behind the particulars of an immediate event. The intensity of that experience is a precondition of the mountain man's quasi-biblical interpretation of his own adventure; and the Christian heritage in the book is suggested mostly by narratives, not abstract propositions—especially the old story of Jacob, the angel, and their contest. Only this time there are two bears instead of an angel.

But as important as direct experience absorbed without preconception is for the writer of Western literature, the West as imaginative space and possibility is an even more important notion for the interpretation of this corpus. To quote Wallace Stegner once more, this time from The Sound of Mountain Water (1969), wilderness is "the geography of hope." And the continued existence of wilderness as a significant feature of the American West helps to sustain our corporate recollection of westering, of how the old America found itself in that labor—and found also a set of paradigms for living. These forms for response to challenge have continued to be useful to the inheritors, even though they have not heard the sound of mountain water, smelled the wolf willow tree, or wrestled with the bear.

One further observation. New Englanders. Southerners, and the commercially minded Americans of the Middle States, as I have argued before, brought a filter with them as they extended westward civilizations that they knew and loved. In blocking them off from direct transactions with the West, these overlays also inhibit their apprehension of the majesty of nature: that which is numinous and wholly other. Writers concerned with the mountain West are not often thus constrained. They understand what Wordsworth meant by "that beauty which hath terror in it," which brings to us both awe and exaltation. The West as ground for religious experience, a land resilient in resisting intruders and not easily subjected to our will, is not to be underplayed, though it fosters religion of a very Protestant kind, with each man a church of his own as he contemplates what God hath wrought.

For reasons detailed in my account of how we go about imagining the West, I do not expect to see any great falling off in the volume, intensity, or artistic value of Western writing in the foreseeable future. For even though it is evident that Hollywood and the major television networks do not so much depend on Western materials as was once the case, it is also true that that shift has more to do with the intellectual and political bias of those who generate these entertainments than with the attitude of the nation toward serious treatments of life as lived in the Western setting or under the terms prescribed for usage by the Western imagination. Moreover, the academic industry of interpreting the West as history or literature is on its way toward achieving some definitive shape. In the process, a distinctive culture is coming toward self-consciousness of a variety it had not previously known.

In examining the evidence supporting these remarks, I should acknowledge the contributions of the Western American Literature Association and of the Western and Southwestern Historical societies. Journals like Western American Literature, South Dakota Review, Southwestern Review, Prairie Schooner, and Southwest American Literature watch attentively the flow of publications that deal with westering and wilderness or the enterprise of knowing what these words mean. The University of Nebraska Press has accepted as its role keeping in print the classic texts of Western American literature. In this work they have been frequently supported by the presses of the University of Texas at El Paso, Texas Christian University, Southern Methodist University, Utah State, and the University of New Mexico. The new press at the University of North Texas has also made an ambitious beginning. With the history of the American West, the University of Oklahoma Press has, over a period of almost fifty years, assumed a special responsibility. And the Western Writers Series, with titles ranging from Richard Etulain's Owen Wister through Dorys Crow Grover's John Graves, will, when completed, be a basic introduction to the writers who constitute this field. What began in spontaneity has been translated into art. What had its origin in unplanned encounter has matured with reflection into an understanding of hidden connections, which together struggle toward making up the ground for a literary tradition. This process as it emerges should be an encouragement to those who do not believe that the United States and its cultural development are a finished business. For as concerns the operation of the imagination in dealing with the American West, the evidence is altogether to the contrary. 

 

[Western Writers Series, Edited by Wayne Chatterton and James H. Maguire, 101 titles to date (Boise: Boise State University)]

From the November 1991 issue of Chronicles.
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