- Captivating Westerns: The Middle East in the American West by Susan Kollin
Susan Kollin's highly engaging Captivating Westerns, winner of the 2016 Thomas J. Lyon Award, examines the crossover and influence between the Middle East and the American West. A nimble exploration of the ways the Western is deployed on the global stage, Kollin's study reconsiders the genre within intersecting reading strategies drawn from critical regionalism, feminist criticism, film studies, ecocriticism, and postcolonialism. In short, Kollin shows us how to read the Western in a global, twenty-first-century context, and in so doing produces provocative results about not only the transnational developments of the genre but also the ongoing political and cultural applications of its central tropes. Her reading extends recent welcome developments in western literary studies by repositioning the Western (and the West) within a global imaginary.
Many astute observers of the post-9/11 "war on terror" have commented on the rhetoric of "cowboy diplomacy" that serves to justify ongoing United States presence in the Middle East. Kollin goes well beyond noting and analyzing this: she explains its historical sources by analyzing the nineteenth-century rhetoric of American culture brokers (Twain, Roosevelt, and Remington, among others) who traveled to the Holy Land and recorded their impressions in now iconic terms. Imperial adventure narratives, set against prototypical desert landscape, featuring a horseman in the struggle between savagery and civilization, were developed as results of orientalist encounters with the "people, cultures, and landscapes of the Middle East and North Africa" (62).
Kollin interprets a broad array of texts to support her argument. In chapter 2 she provides a close reading of the Moorish traces in Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop. The "worldly travels" [End Page 103] of the church bell in the basement of the old San Miguel church become the jumping-off point for Kollin's excavation of the novel's—and the region's—global influences (67), thereby destabilizing text, region, and western literary studies. "Cather's representation of the much-traveled bell," Kollin explains, "may be read in the context of the movements and flows shaping and connecting Middle East studies with western U.S. regionalism, borderlands criticism, and American studies" (68).
In chapter 3 Kollin deftly examines how Arab influences inform other modes of cultural production; in this case, how cinematic representations of World's Fairs and Wild West shows embody the ongoing encounters between American orientalist discourse and US national identity. To make her point, she analyzes the performance of gender, nationality, and heteronormativity in the 1950 film Annie Get Your Gun and gives an excellent reading of the 2004 film Hidalgo. To address shifting racial ideologies alongside notions of citizenship and belonging, in chapter 4 she takes up the musical Western Oklahoma! (produced on Broadway in 1943) and its source material, which she argues "situate Arabs and Persians as a menacing presence in the American West" (113). After restoring the global history of the region by reminding readers of a long, sustained pattern of Syrian immigration to the United States, Kollin discusses the troublesome erasure of Native American presence in the musical, concluding, convincingly, that the Syrian peddler in Lynn Riggs's 1931 play—and the Persian peddler in the 1955 film adaptation—reveal contesting understandings of whiteness, racial contamination, and the possibilities for cultural intimacy.
Scholars and readers of western American literature and culture recognize the multiple ways the Western as genre has been used. Traditionally, it narrativizes the struggle to convert chaos into order and bring civilization to savagery through racial conflict—in short, to defend American exceptionalism. In a discussion set against John Ford's classic search-and-recovery narrative, The Searchers (1956), Kollin identifies the Western's contemporary usage in criticizing "cowboy diplomacy and unquestioned patriotism that justifies extreme means for ensuring national safety and defense" (145). For example, she reads the Academy Award–winning [End Page 104] The Hurt Locker (2008) as a film that "unsettles divisions between savagery and civilization" and questions the ability of the cowboy...