- Exceptionalism, Other Wests, Critical Regionalism
Somewhere, 10 or so years ago, I remember reading about the Stegners, father and son. Page Stegner, writer and spokesperson for Wallace Stegner’s literary legacy, told a story of recognizing himself to be his father’s son. He was flying home to California from the east coast and had lowered the aircraft window shades so that fellow passengers could watch a movie. When the shades came up, Page Stegner looked down onto a series of western mountain ranges and realized he could locate himself in that vastness, very precisely, by a number of geological measures. He took that skill to be a summary lesson, learned in childhood, from his exacting and famous father. His education, he realized retrospectively, added up to an extensive knowledge of geography, environment, and what the father called elsewhere The American West as Living Space (1987). Page Stegner was a man who knew exactly where he was.
Such certainty has not held true for contemporary literary studies and cultural theory, however, which has been anything but sure about questions of knowing where one is. Without mentioning Stegner, Neil Campbell’s The Rhizomatic West intervenes upon and develops this very question of placeness, working against a generation of scholarship about the literary West, which based its critical concepts on ideas about cultural belonging and identity in a region defined as arid lands west of the 98th meridian and on narratives linked to the demand of the modern state for a unifying national soul on ostensible display in the natural lands and mythologies of the West. In the manner that Sergio Leone’s masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), from Italy, produced one of the best cinematic Westerns to date, Campbell offers a transnational analysis of present-day Western literature, photographs, [End Page 159] films, and music mapped from its outsides, its borders, via Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome. Published through the Postwestern Horizon Series at the University of Nebraska Press, The Rhizomatic West is among a group of works (by Susan Kollin, William R. Handley and Nathaniel Lewis, Stephanie LeMenager, Melody Graulich and Stephen Tatum, in addition to those mentioned in this essay) published by various presses over the last decade in Western literary and cultural studies that move through the term “post”—postmodern, postregion, post-West—to reconceptualize regionalism critically so that it questions the who, what, and where of the West and speaks beyond the trope of the West as “a geography of hope” and “hope’s native home.”1
Now how to connect these considerations with the two additional books to be reviewed here? Both Wallace Stegner and the American West, by Philip L. Fradkin, and Mary Austin and the American West, by Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson, are literary biographies that succeed on the terms on which they embark. Fradkin offers fresh material on Stegner’s early life and his work as a teacher of writers and conservationist. Goodman and Dawson contribute to an underdeveloped scholarship on Austin by reading the author’s works in the context of her life. It shows Austin’s proximity to the major political figures of women’s rights and her considerable skills as an amateur botanist and ethnologist. The critical problem is that the terms these biographies succeed upon are not ones emphasizing or identifying critical departure points (and this is true even for Fradkin’s important discussion of plagiarism charges against Stegner). These biographies take for granted that their subjects—authors, their works, and lives—merit study, which means in this context that they take for granted “the West” as a coherent and unitary space.
To accept these framings without explanation, however, is difficult for contemporary scholars since readers bring a sense of regional field to their readings, which, by default, constitute critical positions needing comment. If Campbell’s and other scholars’ works illustrate “post” critical impulses...