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  • Old West, New West, Postwest, Real West
  • Nina Baym (bio)

When western American literature first showed up in eastern periodicals, it offered itself as a different kind of writing from the national norm. Similarly, students of western literature have usually been out of step with the rest of literary academia; like much of the literature they study, a kind of jaunty impertinence—simultaneously grandiose and defensive—has marked their work from the beginning. In the decades when the field emerged, the overwhelming popularity of formula westerns in print and on screen made it marginal to the study of high art. Myth study gave popular materials enough legitimacy for westernists to claim that their field deserved serious consideration, but by 1987, when the Western Literature Association brought out its Literary History of the American West (LHAW), the academic market in criticism had moved elsewhere. The preface to LHAW stated, somewhat anachronistically, that though academic appreciation of western American literature is "handicapped by association with Hollywood horse operas and stereotypical paperbacks sold in bus stations," nevertheless, the literature "includes a large body of first-rate literary art" (xvi). "First-rate literary art"—how quaint that phrase sounds now.

The editors emphasized the serious ambitions of much western writing and argued for its importance to US writing as a whole. But all authors considered at length in this tome of over 1,330 pages were Anglos, and only four were women—Mary Austin for the Far West, Katherine Anne Porter for the Southwest, and Willa Cather and Mari Sandoz for the Midwest. Most essays on individual authors appeared in sections devoted to western subregions: Far West, Southwest, Midwest, and Rocky Mountains. This structure seemingly tied literary production to regional particulars, establishing western literature as a regional product rather than a national one. The editorial rationale behind this division was that—in another quaint phrase—"literary art tends to achieve universal significance by devotion to a specific locale" (xvii). But it was not universals so much as Frederick Jackson Turner's celebration of the frontier as the true essence of the national character that propelled this volume. [End Page 814]

The timing couldn't have been worse for a book hoping to establish the academic respectability of western literary study and the literature to which it was devoted. By 1987, the concept of "literary art" was being used pejoratively by progressive scholars for objects governed by elitist aims and reactionary politics. A body of literature devoted to the Old West was multiply vulnerable to feminism, multiculturalism, nascent environmentalism, and—above all—the twinned initiatives of postmodernism and transnationalism. The year 1987 also saw the publication of historian Patricia Nelson Limerick's paradigm shifting Legacy of Conquest. Limerick summarized and synthesized a huge array of western-based historical scholarship to argue influentially that one should think of the west as conquered terrain, that the west had always been a scene of economic exploitation not democratic opportunity, that the frontier on the one hand had never existed and on the other had never closed. "Deemphasize the frontier and its supposed end, conceive of the West as a place and not a process, and Western American history has a new look" (26–7).

Limerick, however, like many other historians of the west (if not historians of all stripes), had no use for literature. She thought of it as fiction in the old sense—that is, a pack of lies. As Forrest Robinson has remarked in the pages of this journal, "contributions from the historical side are not encouraging about the prospects for substantive interdisciplinary exchange. I suspect that so long as the fact-fiction binary figures prominently in their training, regional historians will have scant incentive to consult literature and literary study" (135–6). Thus, western American literary study fell between two schools, being too devoted to the principle of the real for literary academics and not devoted enough for historians.

And in the meantime, much newly published western literature (excluding the immensely popular, traditional work of Louis L'Amour) was breaking with pioneer and cowboy stereotypes or attacking them. If, according to Richard Etulain, until the 1960s western literature consisted of traditional settler stories about hardships...


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