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R I C H A R D A S T R O Oregon State University The Big Sky and the Limits Of Wilderness Fiction A decade ago, John Milton, Editor of the South Dakota Review, conducted a symposium on the Western novel in which he asked such accomplished Western writers as Frank Waters, Frederick Manfred, Walter Van Tilburg Clark and Vardis Fisher whether the subject matter and/or regional setting of Western fiction poses any special problems for the Western novelist. Some of the answers Milton received were to be expected: that Eastern and urban critics cannot understand Western and non-urban fiction and so treat it lightly or ignore it altogether, and that the formula Western has undermined serious Western writing and has made it a little suspect with sophisticated readers and critics. But the most important response to the question from these writers was that in those historical novels which record the great conflicts between civilization and wilderness, between primitivism and progress, there is simply no room for the kind of thorough-going exploration of the inward aspects of human personality through which complete char­ acterizations are generally achieved. As novelist Michael Straight has observed about the characters in his own writing, “I could not spend much of my time hidden under their beds.”1 Frederick Manfred has pointed to the importance of setting in Western fiction by insisting that “it’s place that writes your books.”" And Manfred is, of course, correct to a point. But even a cursory glance at the classics of British and American fiction reminds one that great novels are not written about places, but about people; that as Frank Waters so succinctly notes, “characterization is the test of all novels 1Michael Straight in an interview with John Milton, reprinted from the Autumn, 1964 issue of the South Dakota Review in Taylor’s The Literature of the American West, p. 28. ^Frederick Manfred in conversation with Richard Astro, October 13, 1973. 106 Western American Literature wherever their settings are laid. Great literature does not rely upon action, the intricacies of plot structure, the manipulations of events. It depends upon the unfoldment of character.”3 And, Waters laments, “few Western novels meet the test.” It has been far easier to depend upon the built-in drama of Indian depredations, cattle and sheep wars, battles over water rights and mining claims, of pushing through railroads, and damming wild rivers. Stock characters easily manipulated are sufficient: the Trapper, Trader, and Mountain Man, the Settler, the dashing Dragoon, the renegade Mormon, the Cattle King, the Prospector, the Outlaw, and above all, the savage Redskin.4 There are, of course, characters in Western novels who do “meet the test.” There is, for example, Waters’ own Martiniano in The Man Who Killed the Deer or Kesey’s Hank Stamper in Sometimes a Great Notion. But these are contemporary “Westerners,” by definition pro­ tected from the kind of stock characterizations which constitute the formula Western. But even in the best Western wilderness novels, there are effectively drawn characters who escape the stereotypes. And it is here that we must turn to A. B. Guthrie’s Boone Caudill in The Big Sky who, far from being an “epic knight in buckskin,”5 is a real-life figure whose behavior as a mountain man fully reflects Guthrie’s knowl­ edge of and adherence to the facts of frontier history. And yet, while a genuine character who is neither sentimentalized nor unrealistically intellectualized, Caudill is deprived in a way which is peculiar to the Western wilderness novel; his shortcomings as a man explain the inherent limitations of this kind of fiction. Put broadly, the American West is space, and Boone Caudill is an Adam who lives in the Edenic expanse of total possibility which is space and which is somehow outside of that more complex area of existence we call time. Caudill becomes a victim of his landscape; the isolated man in a neutral and indifferent universe. He is driven from 3Frank Waters in an interview with John Milton, reprinted from the Autumn, 1964 issue of the South Dakota Review in Taylor’s The Literature of the American West, p. 28. *Ibid., pp...


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