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  • “A New American Adam?” White Western Masculinity and American Indians in Dan O’Brien’s Buffalo for the Broken Heart: Restoring Life to a Black Hills Ranch
  • Peter L. Bayers (bio)

In his creative nonfiction memoir Buffalo for the Broken Heart: Restoring Life to a Black Hills Ranch (2001) Dan O’Brien critiques the enduring legacy of the frontier myth on the environment of the Great Plains as it is embodied by the two central figures of the myth, the white yeoman farmer and the hunter. According to O’Brien one legacy of the yeoman myth—that the West can be improved to be an agrarian paradise—has wreaked havoc on the environment as white male farmers have imposed their will upon a land that cannot sustain their demands. Cattle ranchers inherited this ethos. As O’Brien points out, in attempting to impose their will upon the land, both farmers and ranchers have sought to embody a masculine independence propagated by the frontier myth, with the rancher exemplifying a particularly rugged version of masculinity, given the lineage that links him to the cowboy and his predecessor, the hunter. According to O’Brien a central irony of these versions of the masculine hero is that on the Great Plains they undermine the individualism they purportedly attempt to foster and continuously regenerate, leading to economic, moral, and spiritual ruin. To challenge this ethos, however, O’Brien also draws upon the structure of the frontier myth in that he follows the classic trope of “the American Adam,” which is to say that the farmer and hunter immerse themselves in nature, “regressing” to a state of innocence through which they regenerate their masculine self-definition.1 However, unlike the ethos embedded in the classic myth, in which the hero’s innocence is short-lived, as he eventually dominates and [End Page 375] wreaks havoc upon the natural environment, O’Brien seeks to upend the material legacy of this trope and restore a “natural” innocence by placing the American bison, or buffalo, at the center of his western memoir. Through his relationship with the buffalo O’Brien attempts to regenerate an alternative definition of western white masculinity by rejecting rugged individualism in favor of a reimagined masculine ethos predicated on a reciprocal relationship with the natural environment. But in invoking the buffalo as a means to reimagine western white masculinity, O’Brien inherits the legacy of another central structure on which the mythic hunter’s identity has been shaped—that of the hunter who as Adamic hero is defined in and against “the Indian” for his personal and national redemption. As such, in his laudable goal to reimagine white masculinity of the American West, O’Brien inadvertently replicates a settler-colonial structure that in effect elides the United States’ genocidal history and its legacy.

O’Brien’s narrative echoes what is now the familiar work of New Western historians—notably Patricia Nelson Limerick, Richard White, and Donald Worster—who have overturned the triumphalist narrative of the American West, particularly as reflected by Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis.” Whereas Turner described the movement west as a progressive arc in which rugged American democratic individualism was forged against an adversarial “frontier” wilderness, New Western historians have argued that at root Turner’s thesis is little more than mythic romance. In their materialist critiques of western history these historians point out that rather than a fertile ground for the promotion of American democratic individualism, the West and its history are rife with examples of exploitation based on class, race, and gender, as well as the exploitation of the natural environment and the violent subjugation of Indigenous peoples.2 Dan Moos has argued that although “these historians try to undo the mythic West through the conscious rejection of its terms . . . they disregard the reality of the myth itself. New Western Historians have overturned the triumphalist narrative, but they have also lost sight of the enduring cultural power of a myth that continues to circulate, even when emptied of its content” (11). In this vein Susan Lee Johnson has argued that given the challenges to the traditional masculine ethos over the [End Page 376] twentieth century by different ethnicities...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 375-397
Launched on MUSE
2015-02-15
Open Access
No
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