- "Remember, you're the good guy:"Hidalgo, American Identity, and Histories of the Western
The Browsing Room in the library basement provided me an escape from the often insufferable daily routine [of boarding school]. . . . I read some of the many sets of American literary classics (Cooper's The Leatherstocking Tales, Twain's travels and novels, Hawthorne and Poe Stories) with considerable excitement, since they revealed a complete, parallel world to the Anglo-Egyptian one in which I had been immersed in Cairo.—Edward Said, Out of Place: A Memoir1
In discussing American encounters with the Middle East in contemporary Hollywood cinema, critics often note how the Western has been mobilized as a means of framing these relations. Tim Semmerling's recent study, "Evil" Arabs in American Popular Film, examines movies such as The Exorcist, Black Sunday, and Three Kings for the ways these works extend the codes and conventions of the Western to produce an American orientalist discourse that help resolve threats to U.S. national identity.2 Orientalism refers to the West's tradition of representing North Africa and the Middle East as the "other." Describing the colonial practices of Britain and France, it identifies a complex body of knowledge that operates in the service of European colonial rule. While critics have demonstrated that the practice of orientalism as elaborated by the late cultural critic Edward Said in 1978 is more complicated and contested than he initially proposed, many of his [End Page 5] observations about the development of orientalist representation offer a useful starting point for understanding how cultural forms such as the Western have been extended and deployed in the United States during times of global crisis and uncertainty.3
The history of the Western in fiction and film gives us numerous instances in which the Indian enemy is figured as an Arab Other. One of the more famous examples may be found in Mark Twain's 1867 narrative of his middle eastern Holy Land tour in The Innocents Abroad, where he describes the region's inhabitants as "ill-clad and ill-conditioned savages, much like our Indians" and goes on to dismiss both groups as "dangerous . . . sons of the desert."4 In the twentieth century, literary Westerns similarly portray Arabs as one of the genre's established villains. The author of over sixty popular adventure narratives, Zane Grey frequently referenced Arabs in his writings about the American West, with one of his Anglo heroes describing a Navajo as "an Arab of the Painted Desert." In his best-selling Western, Riders of the Purple Sage, and its sequel Rainbow Trail, Grey also developed a critique of polygamy as anti-American by describing the Mormon custom as the western kin to the harems of the Middle East.5 Other writers of the Western likewise located their literary settings in new lands, and their works indicated how the genre constituted part of the larger body of adventure narratives that took place across the globe. Jack London, for instance, wrote a number of short stories and novels set in a variety of locations including the South Seas and the far north of Alaska and the Canadian Yukon. After achieving popularity for his tales of the gold rush days of 1898, London became known in the American press as the "Kipling of the Klondike."6
By examining the uses of the Western in the production of an American Orientalist discourse as well as the character types constructed by such cultural production (stereotypical "Indians" and "Arabs"), this essay contributes to a larger project in American studies that thinks beyond the narrow confines of the nation, participating in what Amy Kaplan calls an "effort to remap" the field from "broader international and transnational perspectives."7 Such projects recognize how understandings of the United States must be placed within various movements of empire that, as Kaplan argues, "both erect and unsettle the ever-shifting boundaries between the domestic and the foreign, between 'at home' and 'abroad.'"8 Although ideologies of American exceptionalism encourage scholars to think of these spaces as distinct and separate, critics such as Kaplan insist that these "domestic and foreign spaces are closer than we think" as...