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A. Carl Bredahl, Jr. New Ground: Western American Narrative and the Literary Canon. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1989. 195 pp. $29.95.

In his bid to expand the canon, A. Carl Bredahl, Jr. ranges westward, and the result is a study driven by the energy of opposition, a version of the old argument pitting eastern against western values. Bredahl buoyantly risks reductive either/or generalizations as he focuses on literary responses to imaginative and intellectual space.

Bredahl's insistently polar formulation is a geographical and metaphorical contrast between eastern need of enclosure and western faith in spaciousness. Whereas eastern writing is vertical, social, protective, and defensive of domination, western writing is horizontal, natural, open to experience, and assertive of freedom. Eastern writing is "canonical," whereas western writing attempts "to stretch language, subject, and form" to comprehend the values found in broad surfaces.

To define "western writing," Bredahl introduces "divided narrative," a form that mediates between traditional and innovative structures and bridges narrative gaps. As Bredahl says of its use by Austin and Anderson, "divided narrative" "reject[s] the values . . . of continuity, direction, and completion"; thus its very existence argues for liberation, and Bredahl pushes it into service: "divided narrative" not only explains the structural gaps in Winesburg, Ohio, but it also accounts [End Page 258] for the discrepancy between text and photo in Morris's The Home Place and for Mary Austin's ability to bridge individualism and communal ecology. "Divided narrative" might prove to be useful, but without essential refinement it suggests that any work incorporating structural tension is thereby anti"canonical"—and perforce "western."

Some of the best chapters in New Ground are on western standbys A. B. Guthrie, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, and Harvey Fergusson; and despite its unfortunate title ("Valuing Surface"), the chapter on Montanan Ivan Doig is excellent. Other chapters link Mary Austin and Sherwood Anderson as early exponents of divided narrative, and John Ford and Sam Peckinpah as exemplary opposites in western cinema.

Least convincing are the chapters on Hemingway and Wright Morris. Bredahl's rereading of Hemingway's Green Hills of Africa is a superb analysis of a neglected work, but it seems forced upon his thesis, as "space" is here equated with the traditional mythic goal to integrate personality through perception of natural patterns. If the chapter on Hemingway seems redundant, that on Wright Morris is unduly narrow, for Bredahl chooses to deal with the slight In Orbit while ignoring Morris's more substantial Nebraska works. Indeed, close attention to Morris as a haunted plainsman might threaten Bredahl's thesis: Morris's reiteration that there is "no place to hide" on the plains is a distinctly negative response, as are his characters' attempts to escape and rationalize space by hiding under objects—or behind cameras.

Intent on expansion, Bredahl sometimes strains his conceptual frame, then protects his case through careful selectivity; and often enclosure is reduced to mere constriction. But there are more reasons than fear for enclosing space; why, for example, might women writers do so? Bredahl's view that Bradstreet, Dickinson, and Plath employ enclosure "because of their eastern backgrounds and consequent assumptions" is suspect. Yet Bredahl's thinking is energetic and exciting, and he knows that theories are also enclosures; it is because his argument expands the range of debate that New Ground promises to generate interesting and important discussion.

Joseph J. Wydeven
Bellevue College


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pp. 258-259
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