- Masculinities in Literature of the American West by Lydia R. Cooper
With Masculinities in the Literature of the American West, Lydia R. Cooper contributes to the growing number of studies engaged in understanding how western literature (in terms of the genre as well as geography) has wrestled with the social construction and presentation of masculinity. While there are a great many moments of insight in this volume, there are also a number of issues that detract from the overall argument, making this an uneven work in its execution. [End Page 105]
Eschewing an organization based on either author or chronology, the book employs a thematic format that successfully highlights the various manifestations of masculinity engaged by the works under study. That is, instead of analyzing Cormac McCarthy's or James Welch's treatment of masculinity, or charting a progression over time, Cooper pairs off destructive representations of masculinity with positive ones in her chapters. As a result—most successfully in the first chapter, where the male-driven sexual violence in McCarthy's Blood Meridian sets the reader up for the ways Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony "provides a nuanced challenge to the traditional male cowboy hero" (47–48)—Cooper smartly draws attention to the texts themselves, allowing for novel insights from her comparative approach. Other pairings—Ron Hansen's critique of the celebrity outlaw in Desperadoes and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford followed by the "reverse captivity narratives" (18) of James Welch (The Heartsong of Charging Elk) and Leslie Marmon Silko (Gardens in the Dunes); McCarthy's exploration of unredemptive masculinity in No Country for Old Men followed by Welch's community-affirming presentation of masculinity in Fools Crow—will no doubt help readers note previously unacknowledged aspects of these works.
At times, these new insights are presented by means of what may be the book's greatest strength, its use of stylistics (an approach that, sadly, seems to be falling out of favor) to provide a detailed analysis of the authors' language in the novels. Not only are these novelists all acknowledged masters of style, but they also—as Cooper at times deftly demonstrates—critique the tropes of "cowboy masculinity" on formal as well as thematic levels. To give but one example, in the final chapter Cooper's extended analysis of Welch's use of perspectival and stylistic shifts in Fools Crow bolsters her examination of the ways Welch redeploys the generic devices of the Western in his construction of Fools Crow as a positive, community-focused masculine figure. Unfortunately, such stylistic analysis does not always serve such purposes and at times distracts from the analysis of masculinity in these works, as is sometimes the case in her examination of language in Ron Hansen's novels.
However, the book's chief limitation is its almost exclusive focus on the male body as the site for reading masculinity, the sole exception [End Page 106] being Cooper's analysis of the character Indigo from Silko's Gardens in the Dunes. Regarding this analysis (which only comprises one half of one chapter), this reviewer finds a reading of Indigo's performance of masculinity—based on Silko's use of a "'muscular' direct discourse" (111) employed widely throughout the novel—unconvincing. Further, this approach, heavily favoring an analysis of the male body, also leads the author at times to either overgeneralize her characterizations of society at large, or to conflate biological sex with socially constructed gender. An example of the first issue can be found in Cooper's simplified rendering of Pikuni society as represented in Fools Crow, where she claims that "men inhabit the public sphere" while "women are relegated to the domestic sphere" (158). This ignores a major aspect of the long and detailed build-up to the Sun Dance ceremony, and Heavy Shield Woman's integral—and publicly celebrated—leadership role as Sacred Vow Woman. An example of the second issue, drawn from the same chapter, can be seen in her claim that Pikuni society "leans heavily toward the male gender...