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“Might be going to have lived”: The West in the Subjunctive Mood


This essay works by a series of productive juxtapositions of historical, literary, and critical texts (rather than a straight linear argument) to evoke the elusive terrain of the literary West. He argues that literary thinking about the West operates in the “subjunctive mood” and attempts to figure the West as a space of perpetual incompleteness. It is as grammatical a place as it is physical. Working from Thoreau, who stands in, in a limited sense, for a nineteenth-century imagination of the West as the potent space on which America could “write” its civic history, toward Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1985 experimental utopia Always Coming Home, the essay gestures toward several nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers and critics, both within and without western studies, including Adrienne Rich, Susan Howe, Charles Olson, William Carlos Williams, and earthworks artist Robert Smithson. I suggest that some of the most interesting texts of the western tradition—both literary texts of the West and critical works of western studies—are informed by writers’ radical self-consciousness of their own implication within the histories and power structures they simultaneously critique. Western writers must recognize their position as both products and mediators of western history.

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