- Hell of a Vision: Regionalism and the Modern American West by Robert L. Dorman
Robert L. Dorman’s Hell of a Vision: Regionalism and the Modern American West is the most recent addition to the University of Arizona’s Modern American West series. Expanding the reach of his influential Revolt of the Provinces and shifting his lens westward, this book serves as a striking and comprehensive account of US West social and literary history since the late nineteenth century. Readers familiar with Dorman’s earlier works will recognize in this book the same hallmarks of exhaustive and nuanced scholarship drawn from a wide range of literary and nonliterary sources compiled from several disciplines. From this varied background Dorman clearly and carefully articulates the often contentious and paradoxical push-and-pull between regional and national versions of West-ness. He defines a “nationalist West, an amorphous region that has served as a kind of projection screen for American identity, yearnings, and ideals,” and a separate “localist West,” encompassing a “more diverse collection of subregions” (xii). Through the deployment of these two extremely helpful key terms Dorman frames the tension between the nation’s triumphalist need for the West to signify American exceptionalism to itself and the world and the many western subregions’ desires to proclaim their own distinct identities. Against the backdrop of these competing, strategic imaginaries Dorman examines developments in social, environmental, and literary movements as they have combined to produce the West of today.
Hell of a Vision is organized as a linear history. Successive chapters cover the formative post-frontier years, the interwar years, the Cold War years, the transformative 1960s and 1970s, and the West of the present global age. As might be expected from his earlier titles, [End Page 137] Dorman is perhaps most authoritative in those chapters dealing with the post-frontier and the interwar years, which enables him to register subtle, complex analyses. For example, Dorman’s recuperative handling of Hamlin Garland’s body of work is illuminating. Reevaluating Garland’s writing as both localist and nationalist during different periods of his career provides an opportunity for a provocative reassessment of Garland’s underread later works. Dorman is equally adept when depicting nationalist co-optation at the outset of the atomic West, situating the burgeoning military-industrial complex against the backdrop of the “unlanding” of Native Americans in the same period (118–22). Curiously, though, for literary scholars, the final chapter, “Hell of a Vision,” is the least satisfying. While Dorman ably works through the evolution of new and post-western perspectives, he falls short of imparting a sense of the heavy postmodern wash in which so much of recent western criticism is painted.
With this minor complaint in mind, though, in the face of an expanding lexicon of neologisms and complex critical interventions, Hell of a Vision achieves its goal as a platform from which scholars might access, parse, and draw connections between these denser, more specialized arguments. Encyclopedic, attractive in its directness and clarity, and extremely teachable, Hell of a Vision is bound to become a go-to sourcebook for researchers in western history, literature, and American studies.