- Introduction: Assessing the Postwestern
Hearing strong papers, and having had long important conversations at recent Western Literature Association (WLA) meetings, provided the principal motivations behind this special issue. These formal and informal thinking sessions impressed upon me the fact of a new quality of intellectual life among our younger colleagues. I also hoped to create opportunities for younger scholars (as do many senior scholars), and early publication is an obvious positive in an era of embattled job prospects. WLA has a reputation for collegiality between younger and established scholars; I can attest to its truth from personal experience. So it came easily to imagine a special issue devoted to younger scholars’ work. My idea was instantly supported by Melody Graulich, the editor of Western American Literature. Another supporter, Cheryll Glotfelty, went so far, in a recent letter to PMLA, to urge other academic journals to follow suit and organize their own younger scholars’ special issues.1 I agree completely with Glotfelty’s recommendations. This forum has the potential to be productive not only, or even mostly, for younger scholars, but for journals’ broadest audiences. Certainly, with this project I sensed opportunity traveled in mutual directions from the start. Unofficially, it seemed a set of interventions or corrections or openings was afoot in new research and especially in the interesting combinations of secondary work making up its critical foundations. Early hunches have been proven out, I think, making this special issue not so much one “for younger scholars” but one that marks a significant occasion for the field.
A couple of definitions of “young/younger” and “West,” loose as they are, will answer questions readers are likely to ask. “Younger scholars” refers to graduate students or junior faculty. One middle-aged graduate student wrote to ask if she were “junior” and though regrettably she could not ultimately submit her work, she was tickled to learn that, for our purposes, yes, she was “younger.” Another scholar who began the process as “junior” had to withdraw his work, but happily, because he was awarded tenure. The problem of specifying “the West” is always with critics. It is a productive problem I have no wish to drive away since in its absence the oldest forms of common sense (a shoot-’em-up Old West or a pastoral romance) govern definitions and suggest, wrongly, a field of critical thought synonymous with familiar popular mythologies. For our [End Page 3] purposes here, West is defined broadly to refer to all of North America that either critically or historically has been considered West, including comparative studies of the American West that cross regional or national boundaries. Of course, much that is brilliantly western comes from the liminal spaces of elsewhere—spaghetti Westerns a take-away example. Tensions between the materiality and discursivity of place-making are complex ongoing interpretive questions that get ever more layered in an era of globalization and the transnational travel of culture. All of these Wests constitute critical relevance.
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The special issue call for papers invited any new research that also commented upon, or located itself in some relation to, field issues [End Page 4] and current theoretical debate. Since US western literary studies is not secured...