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J O H N A. B A R S N E S S Boise State College A New Life The Frontier Myth in Perspective When Levin, the hero of Bernard Malamud’s A New Life, arrives a Jew from the East at his new teaching job in Marathon, Cascadia (read Corvallis, Oregon), three hundred years of romantic illusions about the frontier come to focus in these Western groves of academe. For Levin, firmly enmeshed in the romantic belief that a new life will be his as a result of the beneficent influences of this Emersonian landscape, is impelled (as are the deluded citizens of the West into which he arrives) to act upon his belief in the frontier myth in spite of the apparent differences between that belief and the reality which surrounds him. Hired as an English instructor at Cascadia College (a thin disguise, it is said, for Oregon State University, where Malamud once taught), Levin descends upon campus and town in the firm expectation that here he will find both personal and academic freedom. Both presump­ tions, it would seem, are based not only on Levin’s sense of a failed past but also on his painfully American faith that a new life in the West will cure all. It is, of course, the same romantic dream that impelled the Leatherstocking eventually to the Rocky Moun­ tains, Daniel Boone into Kentucky, and the forty-niners into Oregon a hundred years before Levin. And it is just as unreal. The Rousseauistic belief in nature which was Leatherstocking’s, the faith in the Garden which was Boone’s, the notion of a clean break with history that was the heritage of all American emigrants, had always ignored the hard core of evidence that nature did not automatically provide the good life nor intuitively compel virtue, the obvious historic continuity of culture as it was carried over the mountains to the West. “The West”—that dream of virtue 298 Western American Literature cradled in Nature and practised by heroes—is as impossible of realization in Levin as it has been in any other pioneer. Like all emigrants before him, he has brought not only the baggage of his Thoreauvian preconceptions with him (including a copy of Western Birds, Trees, and Flowers) to this tragicomic venture, but his old life as well. Before he has time to become involved in community or colleges, Levin announces himself: “One always hopes that a new place will inspire change—in one’s life.” (p. 17)1 The awk­ ward formality of the phrasing stems from the conversation in which it occurs—an introductory, exploratory one with his su­ perior’s wife, on his first evening in town. It is obvious even to Levin that this initiatory sample of Western life, with its rumpled version of family life, its duplication of stereotyped social overtures, bears no resemblance to his ideal dream of the West. But in spite of that he continues to assume the attitudes of the Byronic boy— bearded, eager, implicitly if not explicitly innocent, hopeful of the peace that mountains bring, given to walking in the rain to calm himself, soon to seduce, out of romantic passion, in the forest, the woman to whom he is talking. Placing Levin in Cascadia is a device for summarizing the identity of worlds—the one from which he thinks he is escaping, the one into which he thinks he is fleeing. That, of course, is the essential dilemma of the West, as well as the point at which it symbolizes the fate of mankind—to long for the paradise of the past, to convince oneself that somewhere (never here) it is preserved, and to seek it (in American terms, at least) in the wilderness—or where the wilderness should be. Quite apart from—or because of—Levin’s hang-ups, it is this recognition which raises A New Life above the level of other novels dealing with either the historical or the contemporary West. It has too often been the role of the observer to believe in paradise—and to trans­ late it imaginatively either in terms of the heroic American defi­ nition, the wilderness-frontier, or...


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pp. 297-302
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