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E s s a y R e v i e w W o r k R e v i e w e d Handley, William R., and Nathaniel Lewis, eds. True West: Authenticity and the American West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004. 370 pages, $49.95. AUTHENTICITY, THE WEST, AND LITERATURE L e e C l a r k M i t c h e l l Perhaps nothing so reveals the recent turn made by students of western American literature as the fact that two essays in this excellent collection—True West: Authenticity and the American West— invoke epigraphs by Rainer Maria Rilke. N ot too long ago, even a single such gesture would have provoked a hoot and a holler, as if Europeans had anything to say to honest denizens of the “true West” about their native literature. Yet the question of authenticity, perhaps the most cherished of western credentials, has come under increasing scrutiny Roger Minick. WOMAN WITH SCARF AT INSPIRATION POINT, YOSEM1TE NATIONAL PARK, 1980. Dye-coupler print. 16" x 20". Courtesy of the artist. L e e C l a r k M i t c h e l l among younger scholars committed to evaluating regional writing in other than provincial terms. Keep in mind that nowhere more than the American West has an asserted fidelity to true conditions loomed quite so large, if only because the region’s mythic status has always seemed so pervasive. N o other place I know of has fostered so powerful a set of beliefs and icons, even a popular genre itself, which emerged from outsized representations of cowboys and Indians, six guns and barbed wire, pragmatism and rugged individualism, all set in a landscape whose “purple mountain’s majesty” never fails of sublime epiphany. Yet even accounting for exaggeration of the sort exemplified by Fred' erick Jackson Turner in his frontier thesis, such amplification is a tiny, highly unrepresentative part of the story for millions who have made the West their home. For forty years at least, now, novelists have joined with historians to get it right, to represent landscape more accurately and register history more authoritatively. Despising the cowboy Western as inauthentic and poorly crafted, writers such as Ivan Doig, William Kittredge, and Wallace Stegner, among others, have raised the bar for western writing even as they’ve raised a banner proclaiming the impor­ tance of Native experience to anyone who wants to write. That has had a salutary effect in encouraging a new look by regional writers at daily life in the West. But it has also given historians an undue influence on literary judgment. Literary critics are at last striking back, as signaled by True West, a broadly conceived selection of essays on various writers and topics that nonetheless shares a singular dubiety about the value of authenticity as literary or artistic standard. Editors W illiam Handley and Nathaniel Lewis have turned to thirteen other contemporary scholars (all, sig­ nificantly, literary critics rather than working historians) to help address questions that arise with any regional literature— questions that extend to photography and painting as similarly contested representations of western life. A s the editors write in broaching the issue, “More than ‘truth,’ authenticity is associated with authority and originality, and it is under those latter terms that history and representation in the American West so often meet in vexed ways.” Continuing in italicized tones, they assert: “The relation between history and representation ... is the most crucial subject for critics of the American West to engage” (3). That is a bold claim, registering how detrimental they feel the stan­ dard of authenticity has become for western writers, how thoroughly it blocks the way for a truly inventive, imaginative, magisterial regional writing, uninhibited by cautionary assumptions about what can or should be represented. W e s t e r n A m e r ic a n L it e r a t u r e S p r in g 2 0 0 5 Handley and Lewis want to open western writing up to its full potential and implicitly critique such notable practitioners as Doig, Kittredge, and Stegner for reinforcing regional standards their own...


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