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A Companion to the Literature and Culture of the American West by Nicolas S. Witschi (review)

From: Western American Literature
Volume 48, Number 3, Fall 2013
pp. 341-344 | 10.1353/wal.2013.0041

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The Last Bookstore. In downtown Los Angeles. 2012.

Photograph: Alexandra Mieczkowski.

Nicolas S. Witschi’s A Companion to the Literature and Culture of the American West is a landmark collection and powerful testament to the maturation of an innovative field. The beginnings of the trend that leads us to this anthology might be found nearly four decades ago in influential works such as Richard Slotkin’s Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600–1860 (1974) and Annette Kolodny’s The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters (1975). The trend was more apparent a decade later in Kolodny’s Land Before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers, 1630–1860 (1984) and the second installment of Slotkin’s trilogy, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1860–1890 (1985). By the early 1990s, the promise of this new, more critical, inclusive, gendered, and hard-edged analysis of western literary representation was increasingly evident in Slotkin’s concluding volume, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (1992) and Jane Tompkins’s controversial West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns (1992). These works appeared around the same time as the Smithsonian Institution’s “The West as America” exhibit (1990–1991) and accompanying volume (1991) and the heightened media coverage of the controversy surrounding the New Western History, which one reporter memorably dubbed “the gunfight at the politically OK corral.”

By the last fin de siècle, the long, sustained, and developing trajectory of the New Western Literature was manifest in Blake Allmendinger’s Ten Most Wanted: The New Western Literature (1998), Krista Comer’s Landscapes of the New West: Gender and Geography in Contemporary Women’s Writing (1999), Neil Campbell’s The Cultures of the American West (2000), and Michael Kowalewski’s anthology, Reading the West: New Essays on the Literature of the American West (2006). In the more recent past, the trend continues with Campbell’s The Rhizomatic West: Representing the American West in a Transnational, Global, Media Age (2008), John Beck’s Dirty Wars: Landscape, Power, and Waste in Western American Literature (2009), and other volumes, a good number of them in Nebraska’s important Postwestern Horizons series.

We might do better still to push the origins of the New Western Literature back even further to the founding of the Western Literature Association in 1965 (just a few years after the Western History Association, 1961), and should certainly not forget the important anthologies that the WLA sponsored and Thomas J. Lyon edited, including A Literary History of the American West (1987) and Updating the Literary West (1997). Or, better still, we might reconsider that more than six decades ago in the much discussed and still much misunderstood Virgin Land (1950), Henry Nash Smith cautioned that “the agrarian emphasis of … [historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s] frontier hypothesis has tended to divert attention from the problems created by industrialization” and added that “[t]he agrarian tradition has also made it difficult for Americans to think of themselves as members of a world community.” Smith was implying, of course, that the literary heritage of the American West had been moving down the same mythic, exceptionalist, and triumphalist path as the historical conceptualization of America’s frontier heritage, a path that was not just unhelpful, but one that was counterproductive given the industrial and global realities that faced the modern nation.

The New Western Literature has now arrived in all its developed and dynamic multifariousness and in this excellent new Blackwell companion (itself a companion of sorts to William Deverell’s 2004 collection of largely historiographical essays), we see a wealth of evidence (a capstone of sorts to the storehouse of scholarly riches that has been building and developing for decades) that our understanding of transnational and global Wests, as well as industrial and postindustrial and modern and postmodern Wests is facilitated by intersections of, rather than divisions between, history and literature. Indeed, the contents of Witschi’s well-edited collection should prove of fundamental interest to all serious scholars of the West in both fields. Certainly, the...

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