- The West of the Story
The shambolic mock epic that goes by the title the War in Iraq is replete with bitter historical allusions. Among the most resonant, and in retrospect gloomily foreboding, was the fact that the advance of the American forces on Baghdad was spearheaded by the 3rd squadron of the 7th Cavalry Regiment. As on that brilliant June morning in 1876, Custer’s storied troop was again riding gloriously into the unknown, ready to teach the savages a lesson they would not forget. Who can doubt that when the steadfast man from Texas and his trusty Wyoming sidekick envisaged the battle in the desert that would bring democracy to a harsh and lawless land, they were doing so in imaginations forged in the glow of a hundred Westerns? It is the movies, after all, that teach us that any mission, even the winning of the West, can be accomplished in an hour and a half and that everything is over when the lights come on again. Though nostalgic devotees have been mourning the closing of the frontier for over a century now, the Old West isn’t dead; it isn’t even old.
But if the Western has lost none of its pristine potency over politicians and policy makers, the image of the West for writers and historians underwent some major revision in the later part of the [End Page 862] twentieth century. Beginning in the sixties, the Western novel, long the unchallenged territory of the pulp specialist, was increasingly staked out by literary sodbusters with more serious ambitions—such as Larry McMurtry, Thomas Berger, and above all Cormac McCarthy—who viewed the monochromatic legends of tall strangers and strong women with considerably more skepticism. Simultaneously, the historiography of the settlement of the United States west of the Mississippi, long dominated by the shadows of Turner’s frontier thesis, was radically altered by the writings of a new generation of historians like Patricia Nelson Limerick, William Cronon, and Donald Worster. The New Western History undertook to rewrite the traditional monologic narrative of the western settlement, replacing the heroic epic of civilization’s progress with a multitude of tragic, ironic, and sometimes comic stories—foregrounding the brutal extermination of native peoples, the mindless environmental destruction, and the marginalization of non-European groups that were an integral part of that history.
Both Sara L. Spurgeon’s Exploding the Western: Myths of Empire on the Postmodern Frontier and Georg Guillemin’s The Pastoral Vision of Cormac McCarthy at once emerge from and respond to this revisionist movement. Each is strongly indebted to the themes of the New Western History. Just as scholars like Sarah Deutsch have argued that the West is better understood as a site of ethnic and racial interaction rather than a theater for the performance of Anglocentric agons, so Spurgeon is concerned to identify “modern frontier myths [that are] mixed and hybridized, the often-troubled offspring of parents from multiple cultures and races coexisting in an uneasy intimacy” (5). And as environmental historians like Cronon have focused on the natural landscape not just as background, but as a central part of the Western story, so for Guillemin, the ultimate purpose of McCarthy’s writing is to celebrate a posthumanist “biocentric land ethic of ecopastoralism” (144). Both are partially successful in their aims: Spurgeon’s interpretations are fair but somewhat predictable, whereas the reader is likely to finish Guillemin’s study intrigued, if not entirely convinced.
Spurgeon deals with three authors, Cormac McCarthy, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Ana Castillo. Her goals: to “trace the development of various forms of the frontier myth,” “to interrogate how the differing versions of these mythic tales and the genres in which they appear are being revisioned in a globalized world,” and “to examine the ways in which they challenge and accommodate increasingly fluid and dangerous racial, cultural, and international borders” (3). To be sure, the concept...