- New Wests and Post-Wests: Literature and Film of the American West ed. by Paul Varner
In his preface, Paul Varner describes this essay collection as an “eclectic array of new scholarship ranging freely over the New Wests and Post Wests” (viii). The free-range scholarship contained in this collection certainly is eclectic—a potpourri of film reviews, thematic plot and character summaries, comparative textual studies, and historical discussions along with sophisticated theory-driven analyses of texts and films; unfortunately, it is also uneven. Further, despite the promise of the collection’s title and Varner’s claim that the collection breaks new ground based on recent reconstructions of New West and Post West, it disappoints as a well-edited and coherent volume. Nevertheless, many of the individual essays have much to recommend them, starting with the lead essay by Neil Campbell, “Defining Post-Western Cinema: John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948),” which opens with a superb discussion of “postwestern” cinema, one that grounds both his essay and the others that follow in the critical history of the term. Campbell’s theory-driven discussion of the film is rich and textured, with incisive analysis interwoven with crucial references to theoretical, critical, and historical sources in a model scholarly conversation. His bibliography constitutes an excellent reading list on postwestern studies.
Similarly theory-driven, Salwa Karoui-Elounelli’s lengthy essay “Mutilating the Western; Re-Inventing the West: Robert Coover’s [End Page 113] Ghost Town and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Gardens in the Dunes” combines metafictional and ecocritical perspectives in demonstrating how these novels, in using the Western tradition to revisit the notion of “Americanness,” create a fictive space in which to reimagine that tradition (125). She adroitly navigates the twists and turns of such an intriguing theoretical combination to produce insightful readings of both novels, arguing persuasively that “ecocriticism involves the same risks of supporting the existing (capitalist) order and promoting a politically conservative vision, as does the literary self-reflexivity of postmodern metafiction” (135). Focusing her metafictional lens primarily on Coover and her ecocritical lens primarily on Silko, she demonstrates the analogous effect these novels both have on the tradition, namely a “similar deconstruction of the ideological force of the Western” (158). While deconstruction may be more desedimentation than mutilation, let’s not quibble over the provocative title to such an original essay.
Varner’s own literary history contribution, “The Beat West of Edward Dorn,” provides a clear synopsis of Dorn’s poetic career, including his education at Black Mountain College and association with poets Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Robert Creeley; his connection with the Greenwich Village and San Francisco Beat scene; his critical reputation among scholars; and his poetry, most importantly Gunslinger, which Varner calls a “postmodern Beat Western” (119). Varner insists that “Dorn is a poet of the Beat West” in which space is “vast and non-temporal . . . newly constructed . . . yet still Western, and still actual” (119). After his brief analysis of the poem—featuring protagonist Gunslinger/Slinger/Zlinger as well as a horse named Claude Lévi-Strauss, a poet-singer named Martin Heidegger, and Howard Hughes as himself—he calls Gunslinger a “major poem of the Beat Generation” (122). Varner’s authoritative expertise on the Western and the Beat movement adds additional weight to this assessment.
Stephen Cook’s engaging film review “Into the Wild: Chris McCandless and His Search for a ‘Yonder’” makes a strong analysis and critique of director Sean Penn’s “monomythic vision-quest, an epic story of a . . . dreamer who pursues a personal Manifest Destiny: transformation promised by a ‘yonder’ located in the American West” (45). Cook frames his review within the context of McCandless’s [End Page 114] actual journey to Alaska and subsequent death; Jon Krakauer’s treatment of the story in “Death of an Innocent” and Into the Wild; reader responses to Krakauer’s narratives; and the posthumous hero worship of McCandless, including the enshrinement of McCandless’s “Magic Bus” as a pilgrimage...