In our previous issue, we announced that the University of Northern Colorado is The CEA Critic’s new home, and its location in Greeley, a city named after the nineteenth-century newspaper editor (who is at least attributed as saying, famously, “Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country”), makes the topic of the West especially resonant for us because Greeley embodies so many of the West’s complexities. The city enjoys a beautiful vista of the state’s majestic Rocky Mountains, but it is located on the flat plains extending eastward to Kansas. The university derives a certain pride from its literary connection to James Michener (after whom the school’s library is named), but the city’s largest employment centers on the less-rarified meat-packing industry. When in Greeley, one has no choice but to encounter the West on a daily basis, and it is in this light that we have selected “The West” as the topic for this issue of The CEA Critic.
This special issue reflects on the West as at once a concrete, physical “place” and an abstract, rhetorical “space.” Formulating the West in this way is hardly original to us, and the resulting dualities—suggested by our view from Greeley—are fairly obvious. The West is a place of the natural sublime, but it is also one of barren isolation. It is a space of dazzling economic opportunity, but it also lays traps of folly and ruin. It is a place and space of rich ethnic diversity, but it is also fosters social divisions and prejudice. Taken overall, the West is a distinctly local place, but it also provides a narrative space that continues to host a national story, shaping a national character out of the country’s disparate parts. To one side of this effect, Kiowa poet N. Scott Momaday has called the West “a dream. . . . It is a landscape that has to be seen to be believed, and may have to be believed in order to be seen” (qtd. in Ives and Burns xvii). On the other side, the West, as Newsweek pronounced on its cover of a 1989 issue featuring a critique of California, can all but implode as the “American Dream, American Nightmare.” In the articles that follow, we shall explore the various ways in which western dreams collide.
To no surprise, the West’s various dualities have generated a rich tradition of commentary. Most famously, Frederick Jackson Turner, in concluding his address at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, celebrated in the American pioneer
That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that [End Page 75] masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal the buoyancy and exuberance which comes from freedom. . . .(37)
The nation of pioneers, Turner argued, was at a point of moving from a frontier—to use the terminology here—of place to space, and almost all subsequent historians of the West have at least considered Turner’s thesis that the pioneer spirit must prevail. Gerald Nash, for instance, comments in his Creating the West (1991), “Whether or not the frontier disappeared in 1890 was really incidental. In a sense it was only a symbolic rite of passage, signaling the transition from an Anglo-Saxon agrarian society to a multi-cultural state. With that change came the new problems of an industrial nation” (5). Industrialized nations quickly become nations of the world, and, taken from a certain point of view, the American West may be called America’s more enduring export.
Of course, dovetailing the opinions of cultural historians are popular and literary narratives. The “Wild West” has been a part of American cinema from the very start, then moving across film history in the likes of John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), Fred Zinneman’s High Noon (1952), George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), George P. Cosmatos’s Tombstone (1993), and Quentin Tarantino’s Django...