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Searching for the New Western Literary Criticism
David L. Caffey. Land of Enchantment, Land of Conflict: New Mexico in English Language Fiction. College Station: Texas A&M UP, 1999. xiv + 235 pp.
Susan J. Rosowski. Birthing a Nation: Gender, Creativity, and the West in American Literature. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1999. xiii + 242 pp.
Recent works of western literary criticism seem above all concerned with making the field "new." The Western Literature Association's collection Updating the Literary West, published in 1997, is a case in point. Undertaken as a supplementary volume to Literary History of the American West that would take into account an expanded canon and fresh critical insights, Updating the Literary West includes essays on "Feminism, Women Writers and New Western Regionalism," the "Ethnic New West," "New Wests," and "New Rocky Mountain Literature," along with an introductory essay that asks "What's New in Western Lit Crit?" 1 This emphasis on newness reflects the influence of popular scholarly approaches--new historicism, new American studies, the new western history, for instance--but it also suggests western literary scholars' fears of being left behind in a field that has traditionally lacked theoretical complexity [End Page 949] and rigor. For where movements like the new western history have flourished, the "new" western literary criticism has so far garnered mostly wishful thinking and complaints, even from within its own ranks. Lee Clark Mitchell remarks that "with few exceptions, popular westerns continue to be described rather straightforwardly, as if their meaning were easily parsed in terms of landscapes and heroes, of industrialism's deathless nostalgia and scenes of quicksilver violence" (888). Writing on feminism in western literary criticism, Krista Comer laments that even as women writers have come to the forefront of western fiction in the past few decades, "the field as a whole lacks the sophistication of many other areas of feminist critical inquiry" (21). Blake Allmendinger is more blunt in the introduction to his book Ten Most Wanted: The New Western Literature (1998): to his mind, Western American Literature, the leading journal in the field, "exists in a time warp and reflects an intellectual state of stagnation" (5). For all its claims to newness, in the minds of these critics and others, western literary criticism is woefully behind the times.
Allmendinger objects to what he sees as an unhealthy fixation on such established western writers as Walter Van Tilburg Clark and Vardis Fisher, and in his book he sets out to introduce texts either ignored or never considered in the context of western literary tradition. But given the attention to "new" literatures in Updating the Literary West--to say nothing of the sheer weight of the volume--finding texts to fill an expanding western literary canon seems hardly the problem. More difficult, as Comer and Mitchell suggest, is the task of developing fresh strategies for reading those texts. As feminist literary scholars discovered in the canon-stretching eighties, it is not enough to dig up texts long buried, catalogue them, and set them in a museum display for us to admire; we also must find new ways of understanding both the texts and the mechanisms that have excluded them from view.
Two new studies illustrate the promises and the shortcomings of western literary criticism today. In Land of Enchantment, Land of Conflict: New Mexico in English Language Fiction, David L. Caffey undertakes a survey of more than a century and a half of literature about New Mexico. Susan J. Rosowski's Birthing a Nation: Gender, Creativity, and the West in American Literature spans a similar time frame but focuses on four authors--Margaret Fuller, Willa Cather, Jean Stafford, and Marilynne Robinson--in order to explore the relationship between women writers [End Page 950] and western literary tradition. Both of these studies contribute to the effort to expand the canon of western literature, to find what is "new" either by bringing little-known texts to the fore or by demonstrating how texts long ignored work within or in response to established western...