- The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the American West ed. by Steven Frye
The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the American West, edited by Steven Frye, represents the broad diversity of the American West's literary tradition and helpfully identifies important and enduring issues for scholars in the field. These high-quality contributions offer readers both nuance and depth, and a number provide valuable new insights into some of the more understudied areas within the field. Representing a healthy mix of well-established and emerging scholars, the collection offers readers precisely what they will be looking for from the dependable Cambridge Companion series: an excellent overview of both the primary texts and the discussions that have shaped and will continue to shape the field in years to come.
Frye's introduction is broad-ranging but concise, providing a basic overview of the general topics and themes taken up by the contributors rather than a detailed account of the individual chapters. He positions the American West primarily as a geographical place rather than a historical process, locating it primarily within the current boundaries of the continental United States. California seems to claim its heart and center: half of the volume's essays primarily discuss texts or writers associated with that state. To the degree that the collection gestures toward transnational Wests, this occurs mostly in the chapters on the Chicana/o and Asian American Wests, indicating the significance of Mexico and the Asian Pacific in those regional and cultural literary imaginaries. While indispensable there, transnational threads and issues could have merited consideration elsewhere as well.
The volume's chapters are organized more or less chronologically, an editorial decision emphasizing the historicity of literary genres. Predictably, perhaps, Frye's western literature begins with the advent of Europeans, a well-established starting point in American literary history. The first chapter prioritizes Spanish rather than Anglo-American exploration narratives, reminding readers there were many Wests, not only the Anglo-American ones most [End Page 353] familiar to scholars in the field. M. Carmen Gomez-Galisteo's fine, well-researched essay is the best example here of how the transnational turn in western American literary studies can help us see new texts as well as older texts anew: Gomez-Galisteo shows how the conditions of literary production in Spain significantly influenced explorers' visions and descriptions, implicitly inviting us to compare these with the expectations of the West in the Anglo-American context.
Susan Kollin's strong contribution also reflects on one of the most compelling currents in scholarly interest over the past generation or so: the literature of environmental consciousness. Her essay eloquently narrates the trajectory of the tensions and transformations within the environmental movement and connects this story to theoretical insights and debates from environmental criticism. Kollin weaves these carefully into her treatment of primary texts, offering her readers particularity and substance to which they can tether the larger ideas. Gioia Woods's essay on verse in the American West, though focused almost exclusively on California poets, offers a useful overview along with a compelling and detailed discussion of the San Francisco Renaissance. Also meriting particular attention for their thoughtfully contextualized presentations of focused research are essays by Marguerite Nguyen (Asian American West) and Eric Gardner (African American West).
The Cambridge Companion toggles between these kinds of chapters and a smaller group focused on particular authors positioned as especially significant within the canon of western American literature. These include Elinore Pruitt Stewart and Hilda Rose (Cathryn Halverson), Sandra Cisneros and Helena María Viramontes (Linda Overman), Wallace Stegner (Robert Thacker), and Cormac McCarthy (Frye). While I wondered why these authors merited stand-alone chapters while any number of other—arguably more important—authors did not, each of these chapters offers a satisfying account of its subject's contributions to the literary West.
The Cambridge Companions are consistently engaging and useful without being exhaustive, and this one is no exception. The absence of a chapter on the queer West is unfortunate, however...