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Modern Fiction Studies 46.3 (2000) 675-694

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Race, Labor, and the Gothic Western: Dispelling Frontier Myths in Dorothy Scarborough's The Wind

Susan Kollin *

II. Gothic Popular Forms

When we become aware of breaks in the logocentric history, of gaps in the authorized text of the past, the inscriptions of another history break through into meaning. The history of the other speaks, not from the history books, but from the landscape [. . .].

--David Mogen, Scott P. Sanders, and Joanne B. Karpinski, Frontier
Gothic: Terror and Wonder at the Frontier in American Literature

The anti-Western novel, The Wind (1925), portrays the challenges and difficulties its protagonist faces as she tries to adapt to her new role as a pioneer woman. By telling the story of Letty Mason, an 18-year-old orphan whose downwardly mobile economic circumstances force her to leave her bucolic Virginia home for life on a West Texas cattle ranch during the mid-1880s, Dorothy Scarborough dismantles myths of national identity and regional promise that have traditionally shaped Euro-American [End Page 675] narratives about the West. Her novel of frontier terror and suspense haunts the dominant narrative traditions that have shaped the region since the time of the dime novel. In doing so, it shows how the Western--with its themes of Euro-American freedom, frontier heroism, and the rightness of the national mission--can only exist by repressing larger concerns about nature, race, and empire.

Considered a minor classic of American literature, The Wind intervenes particularly in the tradition of the popular Western, with its emphasis on the heroic triumph of Anglo "civilization" over Indian "savagery" and its celebration of Euro-American advancement onto foreign soil. 1 While classic Westerns traditionally gained authority in U.S. culture by expressing ideas about the inevitability of national expansion and by celebrating notions of frontier promise and independence, anti-Westerns have often operated by disrupting the confidence of the national narrative and by examining how myths of the West function to repress the underside of American development. Unlike classic Westerns that have typically relied on the literary conventions of nineteenth-century Realism and Romanticism, anti-Westerns have often borrowed from the Gothic and the grotesque in developing their narrative strategies. In Scarborough's novel, Gothic elements enable the return of the racially repressed, allowing the author to restore to memory the buried history of the region's indigenous inhabitants while highlighting the social costs of Euro-American expansion in the region. 2 Setting the narrative in Texas just as the cattle ranching West was on the brink of economic disaster, Scarborough breaks with the classic Western, rewriting the form in order to account for elements typically obscured by the genre.

Fred Botting argues that Gothic "signifies a writing of excess." Emerging out of the shadows of eighteenth-century rationality, it disrupts the idealism of nineteenth-century Romanticism by focusing on the hidden and unspeakable social elements of the era (1). Gothic thus marks a disturbing and unsettling reappearance of the past, a narrative intervention that "shadow[s] the progress of modernity with counternarratives displaying the underside of enlightenment and humanist values" (2). In Scarborough's novel, the narrative of progress so closely associated with the western frontier is turned on its head as the political, racial, and environmental consequences of nation building are placed at center stage. The Gothic tradition in European literature that often [End Page 676] incorporates stock items such as ruined castles, terrifying landscapes, and unexplained supernatural elements are likewise transformed in Scarborough's novel; instead of employing dark medieval settings and sublime natural landscapes that both threaten and fascinate, the setting features a run-down shack on a wind-blown, semi-desert landscape, the dry and desolate West Texas plains. Anticipating the dust bowl novels appearing a decade later that tell of the trials and hardships shaping Euro-American life on the western American prairies, Scarborough's story is critical of national myths that present the region as a place of promise and hope. The novel instead foregrounds...


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