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A T h o u s a n d F r o n t ie r s : A n In t r o d u c t io n t o D ia l o g u e a n d t h e A m e r ic a n W e s t R e u b e n E l l is This issue of Western American Literature is devoted to illustrat­ ing how critical reading methods drawing broadly on the notion of “dialogism,” as developed by Mikhail Bakhtin, can be applied to the study of western American literature. It suggests, I believe, the possi­ bility of a specifically western notion of dialogue, something we can make our own, shape to the place and books, see if it works. “A Thousand Frontiers,” I call it, a sense that dialogue and interaction fundamentally inform the way we use language in the West. I have to confess that I have not been overwhelmingly attracted to the word dialogue. For me, it is a screenplay writer’s word, in some sense stagy and artificial, or perhaps something we are supposed to have, meaningful dialogue. I prefer to the idea of dialogue a more homely spirit of simple conversation, over too much coffee in the Mint Club in Bonners Ferry, or on all night drives west on U.S. 50 toward Fallon. I even prefer the thing we call discussion, in classes, in the hallways of conferences. What I have read of Bakhtin and the authors of the essays printed here, however, has persuaded me to reconsider, to back off a step from my utopian ideal of good talk. They have challenged me to understand conversation in the larger and analytical sense in which they use the term dialogue. Bakhtin’s work suggests that the complex dynamics of interaction are central to the way we write and the way we read, to the way we engage with others, to the way we interact with where we live, to the very ways in which we see ourselves. His work invites us to remember that in the West there are powerful, sometimes inspiring, and sometimes horrific, reasons for noticing how human experience has been shaped by interaction and engagement, that there are good reasons as well for initiating further conversation— for listening, for inclusion, for affiliation, for healing. This idea contradicts certain clichés about the West in exciting ways. We know how literary and popular traditions have variously grafted on the West silent Indians, halt-speaking Virginians, and 118 W AL 3 3 ( 2 ) S u m m er 1 9 9 8 unintelligible Mexicans and Chinese. There goes John Wayne, silently walking out of the doorway, forever ending dialogue in The Searchers. In spite of all this, however, westerners have actually all along been quite a conversational bunch. The liveliness of talk has even spilled over into images representing the West. In the 1840s, satirical cartoons often included characters commenting on western events in speech balloons above their heads. In H. R. Robinson’s 1846 lithograph One of the Californian Bo-Hoys Taking Leave of His Gal, a young woman enjoins a young army volunteer on his way to the war: “Well Jake as you’re goin away, I’ve got three shillin so let’s go to George Brown’s in Pearl Street and get two stews and a couple of horns!” “Good bye Liz!” [the swain responds.] “Here’s my daggero ’type likeness! I’d stand treat but I haint got the ghost of a red cent left, our uniforms is so very expensive.” On the other side of the legacy of conquest, for native peoples the glyphic “winter counts” of the plains, the pictographs of the California coast, and the sand paintings and petroglyphs of the Southwest have depended on conversation and the continual rein­ forcement of story to keep their meanings alive, the intricate and daily events we nominalize as “oral culture.” We might say similar things of the corridos sung again and again along the Rio Grande, of the Canton Opera in San Francisco. These various tableaux of western conversation serve to suggest what I would...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 117-124
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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