- Gender and the Cultural Preoccupations of the American West
This special issue examines the novel as a tool of political engagement through which women writers have challenged prevalent notions of the American West as masculine, anti-modern, and untouched. These pervasive master narratives present unique challenges to scholars attempting to uncover and recover women’s writing that resists or undermines popular and pervasive notions of the American West. Even thirty years after Annette Kolodny’s foundational study, The Land Before Her (1984), more recent work by Nina Baym, Krista Comer, Melody Graulich, Cathryn Halverson, and Victoria Lamont has shown there is considerable work to be done to account for women writers’ engagement with the West as an imaginative and political space.
And for good reason. The preoccupation with the American West as the frontier and promise of Anglo-American supremacy has given rise to the scholarly preoccupations of legitimacy and reinvention. Scholars seeking to study and recover literature that resists longstanding notions of the American West are therefore faced with the unique challenge of establishing the legitimacy of their subjects of study, as well as the expectation to “reinvent” the scholarly landscape. For example, Annette Kolodny, whose feminist and ecocritical interventions in western literary studies are now considered central to the field, faced critiques early in her career that, in Victoria Lamont’s words, “dismissed her feminist work as ‘faddish’ and ‘not really literature’” (“Big Books Wanted” 312). Critical works such as Kolodny’s The Lay of the Land (1975) and The Land Before Her (1984), Jane Tompkins’s West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns (1992), Krista Comer’s Landscapes of the New West: Gender and Geography in Contemporary Women’s Writing (1999), and Melody Graulich’s important editorial interventions advancing the field and reintroducing works by Mary Austin and others challenged existing critical paradigms, thus [End Page 299] necessitating new ways to frame and approach western literary studies. Since then works such as Susan J. Rosowski’s Birthing a Nation: Gender, Creativity, and the West in American Literature (1999), Nicolas Witschi’s Companion to the Literature and Culture of the American West (2011), Cathryn Halverson’s Playing House in the American West (2013), and Victoria Lamont’s Westerns: A Women’s History (2016) have risen to the challenge of restructuring critical inquiry through investigation and recovery of women’s voices in the American West.
As these studies have shown, scholars of gender and the West are obligated to do a lot of critical heavy lifting. Alongside the preoccupation with proving scholarly value, a second preoccupation with which scholars of women writers and the West must contend is the need to discover or declare a “new” or “post” West approach to scholarship. This trend is largely the result of longstanding, problematic constructions of the West in the American cultural imaginary, and the concomitant papering over of the truths of settler colonialism and imperialism, beginning with white settlement and crystalizing in Frederick Jackson Turner’s formulation of the frontier as a formative idea in the American character. Our critical awareness that Turner’s “frontier thesis” is fundamentally wrong because of its simultaneous erasure of and racism toward indigenous peoples, and the rethinking that the new western criticism ushered in as a result, has filtered through to a desire in western studies to rethink our critical viewpoints in a continual search to finally get it right.
Critical regionalist approaches have mitigated the necessity to reinvent the field by presenting frameworks to demystify the ways that constructions of region and geographic boundaries limit western literary studies. Krista Comer rethinks nationalist, white, and masculinist constructions of the American West by applying a feminist and postmodernist lens to reveal the ways that women have remapped traditional spatial fields in Landscapes of the New West. In Writing Out of Place: Regionalism, Women, and American Literary Culture (2003), Judith Fetterley and Marjorie Pryse demonstrate the ways that a regional focus can expose the mythologies that generic conventions of realism perpetuate (4). In “Literature and Regional Production” (2005), Hsuan Hsu overturns the logic of chronological, linear progression in his analysis of regional literature and the ways that “regional...