- Narrating the American West: New Forms of Historical Memory
This insightful study by Jordana Finnegan offers a literary and historical critique of various western narratives, beginning with an inquiry into western conventions of autobiography, colonial history, and revisionism—all with the aim of considering how differing narrative approaches to re/memory and storytelling can "complicate associations of western writing with antimodern realism and isolationist assumptions" (8). Finnegan's postmodern and postcolonial readings of New Western narratives range from examining documents in the ongoing legal battle between members of the Western Shoshone Indian Nation and the BLM to analyzing well-known literary texts by such western luminaries as William Kittredge, Annick Smith, Gretel Ehrlich, Leslie Marmon Silko, Simon Ortiz, Sandra Cisneros, and Janet Campbell Hale. Much of her text breaks down revisionist impulses and assumptions in New Western narratives penned by white Americans through paired readings of those texts alongside works by Native American or Chicana writers, revealing how some narratives can continue to erase uncomfortable colonial histories and reproduce the very myths they purport to challenge or subvert.
Finnegan is especially interested in exploring "the relationship between narrative form and the contrasting versions of selfhood" imagined by New Western authors, arguing that memoirs by Ehrlich, Kittredge, and Smith rearticulate both conventional forms of autobiography and stereotypical stories of innocent Euroamericans making themselves new natives in the western landscape, often by effacing/replacing the actual Natives who are their neighbors (153). Non-Euroamerican writers, on the other hand, are presented as producing more collective forms of identity and often fragmented versions of selfhood that Finnegan argues blur the lines between personal and public histories, individual and cultural values, and historical and literary narratives. Finnegan's discussion of Janet Campbell Hale is especially strong, providing compelling insights into work by a Native author without deep tribal or reservation ties in her background.
While much of Finnegan's discussion covers ground already explored by numerous scholars of Native American, Chicana/o, and other minority literatures, her analysis is particularly astute in deconstructing the texts of Ehrlich and Smith and the critiques of masculinity and private property in Kittredge's Hole in the Sky (1992). Finnegan claims that in Ehrlich's [End Page 79] The Solace of Open Spaces (1984) the insertion of a female subject into "both the masculine space of Wyoming sheep ranches and the masculine domain of autobiography" nonetheless reproduces a stereotypical racial dominance the text attempts to disguise through presenting a historical account of the geography of Wyoming that "blends seamlessly into a naturalized process of (peaceful) Euroamerican settlement" (16, 18). The emotional and physical violence of Kittredge's memoir precludes it from any description of peacefulness, and yet, Finnegan argues, the critique of western Euroamerican masculinity in Hole in the Sky rests on an underlying romanticization of classic notions of western manhood personified especially by the ranch hands Kittredge worships as a boy and Kittredge's own shame at never quite living up to their manly ideals.
Finnegan's discussion of all of these western texts in a postmodern context and her insights about regionalism, narrative structure, and autobiography make this volume an important contribution to the study of western American literature.