"If I am native to anything": Settler Colonial Studies and Western American Literature
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"If I am native to anything"
Settler Colonial Studies and Western American Literature

In "The Problem of the West" Frederick Jackson Turner simultaneously recognizes and negates the possibility of western regionalism:

The problem of the West is nothing less than the problem of American development. . . . The West, at bottom, is a form of society rather than an area. It is the term applied to the region whose social conditions result from the application of older institutions and ideas to the transforming influences of free land.

("The Problem" 61)

Turner signals the importance of what he calls western "sectionalism" but then claims that it is impossible to parse out the problem of the West from the problem of the United States. The West, Turner argues, is the superstructural production of the frontier, the site that, before its closure, defined the American character and the unique nature of American development. For a writer to imagine a geographically defined West is, Turner argues, to "proclaim the writer a provincial" (61). For Turner the West is less a region than a "form of life" produced by the frontier history of the nation. In the postfrontier era, the West is the conceptual site where a nation "thrown back upon itself" will work out its contradictions (75).

Turner's frontier was at once metaphysical and materialist, a spatiotemporal site produced by the collision of European ideas with a perceived wilderness both sublime and prosaic. As William Cronon reminds us, the "free" in Turner's "free land" was more about land that was available at no monetary cost to homesteaders than it was about "freedom" in the abstract (82–83). For Turner, "the problem of the West" was the problem of maintaining American [End Page 1] exceptionalism in an era when the palliative effects of wilderness on the "American character" and the ameliorative effects of free land on American social conflicts would no longer be nourished by the open frontier.

The field of western American literary studies emerged in the 1960s and '70s as a regionalist critique that imagined a western ethics of place against the Turnerian consensus that then dominated American studies. Working in tandem with historical critiques that were recasting the frontier as a site of imperial, patriarchal, and ecological violence, the critique offered by western literary regionalism hinged on an effort to decouple the frontier from the West. By imagining a regional identification that would work in opposition to the logic of Turner's frontier, this critique has reimagined the West as a potential emancipatory place for the staging of environmentalist, feminist, queer, and antiracist challenges to American political and cultural norms (Comer 161).

This tradition of place-based (and often bioregional) western literary studies met a challenge from a new generation of critics beginning in the 1990s. The "postwestern" critics, informed by poststructuralist theory, followed Turner to the extent that they understand the West more as a "form of society" than as a definable geographical space. Rejecting the place-centered critique as inflected with lingering patriarchal and nationalist politics, the postwestern critics worked to extricate "westness" as a social construct from the nationalist constraints that Turner imagined. In postwestern critique, there is no "authentic" frontier or "true" West, whether critical or celebratory, to which we have recourse to explain "westness." "Westness" is reconceived as something between (in post-western critique's more Baudrillardean mode) the totalizing simulacrum of the "hyperreal West" or (in its more Deleuzean mode) a transnational form of potentiality.1

Postwestern scholarship has, however, curiously hedged in its commitment to the poststructuralist bent of its critique of place-based scholarship. In a 2005 roundup review of several influential works of postwestern literary scholarship, Nina Baym notes a curious ambivalence about the postmodernist and poststructuralist thought that put the "post" in "postwestern": [End Page 2]

[W]hether they offer an uncomplicated materialism or an advanced postmodernism, [these works] insist, sometimes against their own inclinations, that western stories have some connection to places that really exist. To the extent that postmodernism denies the category of the real altogether, [these works] cannot follow; they are western. All of them can be thought about therefore as...