- "I Think a Look at the West Would Do You Good"Queer Visibility and Mythological Refuge in The Price of Salt
Patricia Highsmith's 1952 novel The Price of Salt, ignored by critics for decades because of its pulp novel status, recently reemerged into American popular culture after screenwriter Phyllis Nagy adapted the book for director Todd Haynes's 2015 film Carol. This text occupies a unique position in queer literatures since it was the first lesbian novel that did not end in tragedy or conversion to heteronormative ideologies. Despite this text's newly elevated status, few academic critiques have appeared thus far; however, a handful of thoughtful, heteronormativity-exploding critics with popular media platforms have recently lauded the film and the book for rejecting tragedy or conversion to rigid heterosexuality. These critics, clearly starved for lesbian works with positive, uplifting endings, completely ignore the mythological, ideological, and topographical roles of the American West in both book and film. But Carol's decision to flee westward has enormous mythological and cultural implications.
When New York and New Jersey become psychically suffocating terrain, Carol and Therese might have fled to Europe, to an isolated cottage in New England, or any number of locales. While Therese is very working class, her wealthy lover Carol could easily have afforded their extended exile anywhere. Yet they head to the intermountain American West, where the promise of open space and freedom beckons; but at the same time they risk becoming hypervisible against the backdrop of the region's hyperheteronormative culture and iconography.1 The rural, intermountain West's primary icon is, of course, the cowboy, a figure who, as Beth Loffreda puts it, [End Page 373] is "irrefutably the apotheosis of American masculinity in all of its heterosexual splendor" (170). Highsmith's selection of the West as a setting, then, is an interesting choice indeed, for here, at the height of the mid-twentieth century's obsession with genre Westerns (and long before Annie Proulx queered the cowboy), Highsmith's character Carol insists that the West is the only possible site of refuge. The West has long been contested ideologically as well as geographically, and fittingly, in Highsmith's novel, we see a clash between the West in Carol's imagination and the West that ultimately lands Carol in electroshock conversion therapy. The term "West" is a slippery signifier in The Price of Salt, and Highsmith critiques the notion of a queer West as a site of open space, reinvention, and refuge.
"The West" is arguably the most loaded term in the American cultural imaginary, and while Western Americanist scholars emphasize the rhizomatic nature(s) of the West, my focus for the purposes of this essay involves the still-prevalent settler colonial mythologies and fantasies that dominated mid-twentieth-century television, film, and literature, since it was this iteration of the West that so deeply informed Highsmith and her character Carol. Highsmith's West came courtesy of nineteenth-and twentieth-century cultural staples including Johns Ford and Wayne, authors Owen Wister and Theodore Roosevelt, painters Frederic Remington and Charlie Russell, and the infamous historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who argued in his 1893 Frontier Thesis that "this perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character" (qtd. in Taylor 4).2 The frontier, Turner claims, shapes American identity, and Highsmith indicates that this frontier ideology, coupled with the simulacra of genre Westerns (replicated in countless twentieth century cultural works) is the West she has in mind, as we see in the road trip planning scene. Here Carol twins Wyoming with America, for she asks Therese, "have you ever been to Wyoming?" and when Therese tells her that she has not, Carol proclaims, "it's time you saw America" (117). While Highsmith's project might not involve an overt queering of the West's iconography, as did Proulx's, Carol [End Page 374] and Therese are up against a lot of durable mythologies and cultural constructs, and the rural West is a curious safety valve for their illicit love. Wyoming figures prominently on their...