Sunday, December 30, 2007

City Pages and the West

I have almost always lived in cities, either in the Rocky Mountain West or on the eastern seaboard. Tucson and Missoula to the left of the map. Hartford and, now, Baltimore to the right. I find much great nonfiction literature in which the eastern seaboard cities are a primary focus, even, to some extent, characters. But when it comes to literary narrative nonfiction about the urban American West, there is next to nothing. Why is that?

The answers are myriad, as you’ll find if you read Jenny Shank’s recent entry in the books section of, one of my favorite sites for news and chat about the Rocky Mountain west. A question I asked Jenny started a discussion between us on this search for nonfiction narrative literature of the American West. In the comments section on Jenny’s page, you’ll find more than a few thoughts on the subject. One thought – mine – muses on whether this lack of urban Western literature means that years after Zane Grey the American West is still romanticized in literature.

“Wait a minute,” you say. “Romanticism in Western literature died out with Buffalo Bill, Louis L’Amour, and the singing cowboys of film. Wallace Stegner helped kill it, and so did Richard Hugo, and Terry Tempest Williams and James Welch and Annie Proulx. Now we have hard core realist Western portrayals. People get mauled by grizzlies. Mine waste poisons rivers. Cowboys gets dirty. Sometimes, they even have sex on Brokeback Mountain and then get beaten to death for their troubles. That’s realism, baby. Hard core realism.”

Yes, it is. What I wonder, though, is if the return to the same settings over and over results in a general romanticism in spite of all that realism. Maybe an accumulation of so much literature about fly fishing and ranching and horses and mountains creates a new Western Romanticism. Such a romanticism is not that of Albert Bierstadt (see the attached Western portrait), nor is it the romanticism of Manifest Destiny. But it is romanticism because it suggests that experience in the West is not valuable unless it is pastoral, or rural, that experience matters in the West only if it happens in conjunction with or in proximity to landscapes or a rural place. If you imagine this statement to be false, consider this: would “Brokeback Mountain” have been as successful if it hasn’t been set in a pretty landscape with guys in cowboy hats? Would it have been so successful if it were about two macho truck drivers who met annually at a Flying J outside Casper, Wyoming? By subverting the romantic ideal of the West (the macho cowboy), the story and the film actually stoked the romantic ideal.

I suspect that until the urban West matters as much as the rural West to writers and publishers, western literature will remain romantic, no matter how far it has come since the “Riders of the Purple Sage.”


sue schrems, Ph.D. said...

You present a good argument for the “survival” of the image of the old west—the more writers try to change the popular view of the American West, the more the reader will continue to hang on to the more romanticized image of the West.

It is really the Old West vs. The New West. The New West is the more urbanized West, and everyday, a little more of the beautiful western landscape is urbanized with sprawling neighborhoods of new homes. The irony of this is that many of the folks who are moving to the West are doing so because they are looking for the Old West as depicted in western literature or the media culture of the 50s and 60s. But, these New West settlers are little aware of the debate that continues in the literary world concerning the image of the West vs. the reality of the West. This is mostly a political debate seated in the more liberal university environment of the 80s and 90s. The new scholarship attacked the western image, one best personified in John Wayne. It was the West of strong independent heroes, a place where a “man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” type man lived. The New West literature pointed out that this image of independent heroes often over powered other western characters-- Native Americans, Hispanics, Women, Blacks, in order to survive. One seminal book sums up this new line of scholarship, Patricia Limerick’s book, Legacy of Conquest. (1987) After Limerick’s book, western scholars competed aggressively to out do one another in publishing books that found all the cracks and fissures in the western romanticized image. But now, twenty years later, the image that so many readers take refuge in is still going strong as witnessed by the many western writers who continue to see the West as a wonderful backdrop for adventure.

Sue Schrems

Downs said...

I admire your conclusion very much. The writers see the West as a wonderful backdrop for adventure because it is exactly that. But I want my literary brethren to see honestly, and it seems we're missing out by having so little (if any?) narrative literary nonfiction that addresses the West where many people live -- including the writers -- while they enjoy that backdrop. Precious few Western writers live out on the range. Most still congregate around the places where shade-grown coffee can be had at cafes bumping up against indy bookstores. And that's fine. It's a wonderful life. But around that wonderful life is a host of material that's -- apparently -- waiting to be examined. Maybe that's a job for some enterprising writer. Certainly Web sites such as New West are addressing that setting journalistically. Can some young Joan Didion be too far behind?

sue schrems, Ph.D. said...

Hi Michael,

I think there has been an honest non-fiction rendering of the American West. What some might see as a lack of focus on certain western issues is really a matter of differing opinions—writers not sharing the same point of view. For example, you can look at the history of mining in the West and see what a boom it was for the growth of Capitalism, not only in the entrepreneurship involved, but also in helping to grow eastern industrialization, which ultimately benefited the wage earner. Or, you can look at mining as an industry that left environmental destruction and an industry that exploited labor. (Butte, Montana comes to mind)

I do not think that a more realistic West has been ignored in literary fiction or non-fiction. John Steinbeck left nothing for the imagination in his novels about Oklahoma and California. Oklahomans are still trying to dig out from under the negative image in the word “ Okie” as used in the Grapes of Wrath. Frank Norris certainly exposed the evils of Capitalism in the railroad industry in California in his book The Octopus. And, historian Angie Debo took up the pen to expose the corruption in the Indian Allotment system in Oklahoma in And Still the Waters Run, she also wrote a more positive view of city life in early Tulsa, Oklahoma in Prairie City. These are just a few who used the American West as a backdrop for exposing some of the economic and social ills in society.

As a western historian, I’m glad that the writing of the reality of life, past and present, has not over shadowed the writing of the mythical or romanticized West. I think there will always be writers who lament the passing of the Old West and all that the Old West symbolized. Charlie Russell captured this West in his paintings of the 1880s -1920s. Russell seemed to realize in the 1880s that the West was changing—he tried to hang on to this passing frontier and his paintings certainly helped to keep the ideal of the “mythical” West alive. But, as the 60s generation starts to fade out and the younger writers and historians start to interpret the West, Charlie Russell’s West may seem like ancient history.


SUE Schrems