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Exploding the Western

Myths of Empire on the Postmodern Frontier

By Sara L. Spurgeon

Publication Year: 2005

The frontier and Western expansionism are so quintessentially a part of American history that the literature of the West and Southwest is in some senses the least regional and the most national literature of all. The frontier—the place where cultures meet and rewrite themselves upon each other’s texts—continues to energize writers whose fiction evokes, destroys, and rebuilds the myth in ways that attract popular audiences and critics alike. Sara L. Spurgeon focuses on three writers whose works not only exemplify the kind of engagement with the theme of the frontier that modern authors make, but also show the range of cultural voices that are present in Southwestern literature: Cormac McCarthy, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Ana Castillo. Her central purposes are to consider how the differing versions of the Western “mythic” tales are being recast in a globalized world and to examine the ways in which they challenge and accommodate increasingly fluid and even dangerous racial, cultural, and international borders. In Spurgeon’s analysis, the spaces in which the works of these three writers collide offer some sharply differentiated visions but also create new and unsuspected forms, providing the most startling insights. Sometimes beautiful, sometimes tragic, the new myths are the expressions of the larger culture from which they spring, both a projection onto a troubled and troubling past and an insistent, prophetic vision of a shared future.

Published by: Texas A&M University Press

Series: Tarleton State University Southwestern Studies in the Humanities


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Title page

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pp. i-iii


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p. iv


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p. v


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p. vii


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pp. 3-18

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1. Foundation of Empire: The Sacred Hunter and the Eucharist of the Wilderness in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

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pp. 19-40

Cormac McCarthy’s Southwestern works, and Blood Meridian in particular, have been seen as both archetypal Westerns and as anti- Westerns, as myth and counter-myth, as glorifications of American imperialism and as damning indictments of it. I will argue here that McCarthy does indeed evoke archetypal myths and mythic heroes that have traditionally been used to serve the cause of American westward expansion and imperialism. That is, in part, the function of myth—to legitimate current ...

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2. "Pledged in Blood”: Truth and Redemption in Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses

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pp. 41-58

As many critics have noted, it is no coincidence that the action of All the Pretty Horses takes place exactly one hundred years after that of Blood Meridian. In many ways, Pretty Horses is the offspring of that book, an elegy for a romanticized way of life, a code of honor, a mythical world both birthed and brutally murdered in Blood Meridian. In Pretty Horses, we see the modern embodiment of the ancient myth of the sacred hunter—the sacred cowboy.

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3. "The Acts of Their Own Hands”: Borders, Otherness, and Identity in Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing

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pp. 59-72

Unlike All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing met with mixed reactions from critics. Denser, more complex, and much darker in vision (though hardly rivaling the apocalyptic horror of Blood Meridian), The Crossing continues McCarthy’s exploration of myths and their relationship to culture and identity. Blood Meridian looked at how myths shape cultures through shaping their history and providing guidelines for how cultures will view themselves and their worlds. All the Pretty Horses, in turn, ...

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4. Decolonizing Imperialism: Captivity Myths and the Postmodern World in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony

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pp. 73-101

The frontier myth, as it functions for Anglo America, can be seen as a set of hero tales modeling morally justified acts of violence meant to assert and maintain the dominance of a favored class and race. The works of Cormac McCarthy illustrate how powerfully this myth shapes the beliefs and attitudes of white Americans. In Ceremony, Leslie Marmon Silko utilizes the same mythic narrative to interrogate the ways in which the process of imperialism takes place beyond the level of laws and guns, examining how it is maintained and the impact it has in constructing the identity ...

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5. Sanctioned Narratives and the (Non)Innocent Triumph of the Savage War: Mythic Co-Dependence in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead

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pp. 102-119

In Almanac of the Dead, Leslie Marmon Silko attacks and disrupts the sanctioned narratives of American innocence and the presumption of the inevitable triumph of superior Anglo culture over the darkskinned natives of the “New World” by subverting the most common vehicle of that mythic narrative, the Western. She challenges the mythical status of America’s founding heroes and the “cherished ideas and values” that support them. Nonetheless, she depends upon the very myths she challenges. The result is a complex text, at once recognizably a Western and, simultaneously, ...

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6. Necessary Difference: The Creation of a Chicana Utopia in Ana Castillo’s So Far from God

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pp. 120-144

Like many other Western novels, So Far from God is essentially concerned with space—geographic, metaphysical, cultural, and spiritual. Previous chapters in this work have examined the myth of the frontier as it was traditionally utilized in the claiming of territory through justified violence in the quest to establish an imperial space. So Far from God imagines how the myth of the frontier may be used by the subaltern subject as well as the dominant culture(s) to shape the space thus claimed. The quest for a new Eden through the founding of a white utopia in the wilderness of ...

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pp. 145-146

Myth, Roland Barthes asserts, is a type of speech chosen by history. It has “a double function: it points out and it notifies, it makes us understand something and it imposes it on us” (117). Myth transforms history into nature, he argues, by giving historical intention a natural justification, thus making contingency appear eternal (142).


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pp. 147-153

Works Cited

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pp. 155-158


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pp. 159-168

E-ISBN-13: 9781603445924
E-ISBN-10: 1603445927
Print-ISBN-13: 9781585444229
Print-ISBN-10: 1585444227

Page Count: 184
Illustrations: Bib. Index.
Publication Year: 2005

Series Title: Tarleton State University Southwestern Studies in the Humanities
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OCLC Number: 824699069
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Exploding the Western

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Subject Headings

  • American literature -- West (U.S.) -- History and criticism.
  • West (U.S.) -- Intellectual life -- 20th century.
  • American literature -- Southwestern States -- History and criticism.
  • American literature -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • Southwestern States -- Intellectual life -- 20th century.
  • Western stories -- History and criticism.
  • Postmodernism (Literature) -- West (U.S.).
  • Frontier and pioneer life in literature.
  • Literature, Modern ‡x History and criticism.
  • Southwestern States -- In literature.
  • West (U.S.) -- In literature.
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