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S T E P H E N T A T U M University of Utah Closing and Opening Western American Fiction: The Reader in The Brave Cowboy And what are you, reader, but a LooseFish and a Fast-Fish, too? —Moby-Dick, Chapter 89 When the arroyo turned he rode up out of it and across the lava rock again, through scattered patches of rabbit-brush and tumble­ weed, until he came eventually to a barbed-wire fence, gleaming new wire stretched with vibrant tautness between steel stakes driven into sand and rock, reinforced between stakes with wire stays. The man looked for a gate but could see only the fence itself extended north and south to a pair of vanishing points, an unbroken thin stiff line of geometric exactitude scored with a bizarre, mechanical pre­ cision over the face of the rolling earth. He dismounted, taking a pair of fencing pliers from one of the saddlebags, and pushed his way through banked-up tumbleweeds to the fence. He cut the wire — the twisted steel resisting the bit of his pliers for a moment, then yielding with a soft sudden grunt to spring apart in coiled tension, touching the ground only lightly with its barbed points — and returned to the mare, remounted, and rode through the open­ ing, followed by a few stirring tumbleweeds. Readers of western American fiction will probably recognize this passage from Edward Abbey’s The Brave Cowboy, and thus will identify the anonymous fencecutter as Jack Burns, the novel’s major character, riding towards an urbanized river valley to rescue a friend jailed for draft resistance.1 Appearing in the novel’s opening chapter, this passage de­ mands special attention, for its strategic oppositions objectify the novel’s concern with the conflict between the values associated with wilderness and urbanized landscapes and with the disparity between moral right and 188 Western American Literature civil justice. “The thin stiff line of geometric exactitude scored with a bizarre, mechanical precision” represents a human perspective based on symmetry, private property, and logical causation. The “face of the rolling earth” discloses another perspective, a fluid vision of dynamic indetermin­ acy hostile to sharp edges, firm boundaries, the primacy of empirical thought. Within the paragraph’s tumbleweed boundaries, the intersection of stake and lava rock and pliers and fence prefigures the collision of values on the novel’s larger levels of episode, chapter, and section.2 Such observationsgrasp the novel’sbasic concerns. However, I believe the crucial problem now is not what the words and images mean, but how they are presented so as to establish their authority and guide the reader to interpretation.3In short, we should consider this representative passage’s form and its effects on the readers who process it. I say “representative passage” mainly because this prose proceeds along lines similar to those of most western American fiction concerned at least minimally with verisimil­ itude : the prose offers a succession of discrete visual details and physical actions in a straightforward chronological sequence; its texture is marked stylistically by frequent repetition of words and phrases, particularly in sentence openers or in main clauses; its chief purpose appears mainly to be informative, which means that in some hands the prose resembles expository writing detailing a process or a catalogue of items. Such prose in The Brave Cowboy or in several other western American novels is offered in what we might call a technique of enumeration.4 However it is used or labelled, my point is that such repetition and accumulation of details provoke key questions. What do we as readers do with this type of prose texture? Is there anything about this form which makes us stay with the text? Or, do we find ourselves skimming over such details and closing the passage to interpretation? Does this technique allow us to consider how real the author’s realism is? I should like to address these questions by using passages from The Brave Cowboy, mainly because Abbey’s novel is a widely-read and taught work in western American literature courses and because this novel demonstrates the necessity for what I shall call “strong” reading. My specific procedure will be...


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