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T h e G a t e , L a g u n a , N e w M e x i c o , b y L a u r a G i l p i n , 1 9 2 4© 1979, A m on C a r t e r M u seu m , F o r t W o r th , T e x a s G i f t o f t h e E s t a t e o f L a u r a G ilp in S T E P H E N T A T U M University o f Utah Topographies of Transition in Western American Literature I. Crossing the Country Itself He said that anyway it was not so much a question of a correct map but of any map at all. He said that in that country were fires and earthquakes and floods and that one needed to know the country itself and not simply the landmarks therein. Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing (1994) So an old man says to the brothers Parham, jovenes stopping in an alameda in a northern Chihuahua village to ascertain the way to yet another village, one said to be in another country than the one they are presently passing through, “that country” where they also have been told resides the horse broker who has sold their father’s stolen horse, Keno. To this point in the novel the young brothers have not been portrayed as thinking very much about the possible slippage between any “landmarks” graphed on a map and a true knowledge of “the country” lying within or represented by the map’s coordinates. But for readers of literature about the geographical West and Southwest of the United States, Cormac McCarthy’s use of carto­ graphic metaphors in his novels both rehearses and, in significant ways, revises the central questions about place itself and about humans placing themselves in or being placed by a specific place. I find that the kinds of questions raised by McCarthy’s prose radiate outward in the following manner: what is the relationship between toponymy, the nomenclature of place names themselves, and topography, the graphing of the features of a place onto a page—the act that, as J. Hillis Miller suggests, turns the open “world” into a marked, bordered, and enclosed “earth”?1 If it is truly possible, as the brothers Parham are told at this juncture, “to know the country itself,” then exactly how does someone arrive at 312 Western American Literature such knowledge when maps of “landmarks” are best regarded as unreliable guides (184-85)? Furthermore, if the “country” itself, as the above passage would have it, results from the intersection of landmarks, place names, and geographical features with the stories told about such things by the humans who live and die and are always in transit across its surface, then how should one attempt to live and be in it as a result of such knowledge? Whether such questions are raised implicitly or explicitly, in McCarthy’s fiction particularly or in western American writing gen­ erally, their accumulating trajectory moves me to attend to (1) the spoken and unspoken hunger of memory and desire which motivates the actual and imaginative explorations both of one’s own country and also of that country hovering over there just beyond the visible distance, that country where surely there are, have been, and continue to be fires, earthquakes, and floods—that country where, as the Ry Cooder song “Across the Borderline” would have it, there are streets paved in gold, beckoning endlessly to those seekers whose countless footprints in the sand testify to the truth of longing and the fact of dis­ appointment rather than the satisfaction of desire; and (2) how “knowing the country itself” ineluctably entails ethical matters con­ cerning how one lives and for what one lives. As McCarthy’s various novels about the southwestern borderlands insist, knowledge of self is inseparable from a knowledge of the body’s location in place. And such knowledge of self, body, and place is inseparable from a knowl­ edge of the full panoply of human history which has occurred and...


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