On the Literature of the American West

For the last several weeks, working at a leisurely pace, I have been reading through the new and extremely ambitious Columbia Literary History of the United States. This is a huge work, one which has many merits and aspires to be inclusive. Indeed, it is a conscious attempt to practice the “new literary history”—a generous mix of interpretive strategies. But in one respect it offers nothing more than a slight modification of the familiar tendency of the Northeast to confuse itself with the rest of the country—to take its own peculiar taste too seriously. For in the 1,263 pages of this history nothing is said about the literature of the American West. All that we find to break such silence is a chapter on Mexican-American writers (included for the sake of ethnic diversity) and a little praise for the Kiowa poet and novelist M. Scott Momaday, with the brief comment that the West is “not a region” but rather an expectation, “all future and mobility.”

Such a turning away from a corpus of serious literature, distinguished both by subject and by relation to a specific scene, is difficult to explain. That is, unless we remember the arrogance of the New York cultural establishment: a blindness found even beyond the Metropolis in its academic outposts, in the accounts of fashionable historians and critics who reluctantly acknowledge the regional particularity of a Southern literature or the distinctive inheritance of three hundred years’ worth of New England authors, but doubt that anything Western should command their attention.

This omission functions as if to say that there is something wrong with the Western milieu itself, that it is essentially melodramatic or vulgar, suitable only to cinematic, stylized treatment and not a context for serious imaginative creation as defined in most literate communities. However, the scholars who have assembled the Columbia Literary History do nothing in explaining the cultural record of the United States that their predecessors have not done before them—going back even to the beginnings, to narratives of early exploration and settlement that evade or distort these experiences by seeing them through European eyes. For a literature of pure and unmixed possibility, one that assumes as axiomatic the significance of individual human free agency, while at the same time unfolding its characteristic action within a framework that posits the force and value of nature as a reality independent of man, has always been a literature that made the inheritors of the European Enlightenment very uneasy. Spokesmen for either the highly refined or the deracinated versions of the “Republic of Letters” do not easily perceive the essentially American events, those that embody the archetype of going outward and then returning: a pattern of hard pastoral, which includes in homecoming a distillation of the truth-to-self experienced while far away. The explanation for this estrangement of interpreters from their subject, of Cambridge, Morningside Heights, and New Haven from Durango, Cheyenne, and Salt Lake City, is an appropriate point of departure for any contemporary commentary on Western American literature.

The prime difficulty in commenting upon the literature of westering, out of a background in other British and American writing, is that a corporate myth informs most of the works that locate their central action either in a European setting or in the American settlements east of the frontier. Western American literature contains no such corporate myth, no sense of collective purpose beyond a desire to continue in the Western setting.

New England as such had no beckoning West, only a dark forest to be cut down and subdued, according to a mythos derived from the Old Testament and summarized in Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” The New England sense of mission rests on a myth of covenant and of a special relation to the Deity. The region’s sense of itself as a “second Israel,” of its redemptive errand into the wilderness by means of which human history might be transformed, of the zealous labors of God’s elect, has been well and thoroughly described in a body of distinguished scholarship, beginning with the studies of Samuel Eliot Morison and Perry Miller, and reaching fulfillment in the most recent writings of Edmund Morgan, Ernest Lee Tuveson, and Sacvan Bercovitch.

The Southern corporate myth is another matter—one I have attempted to describe in the opening chapters of my Generations of the Faithful Heart. For the South was an England transplanted, not a Protestant Zion—a relocation and modification on these shores of a beloved but mortal inheritance, not an attempt to leap backward or forward into “sacred time.” Southern writers (from The Proceedings of the English Colonic in Virginia and Michael Drayton to Donald Davidson and Allen Tate) often specify their commitment to this version of the American enterprise with allusions to Vergil’s vision of Rome as a second Troy. The myth of the middle colonies, of Philadelphia, Trenton, and New York—a premise or ground epitomized in the genial figure (and Autobiography) of Benjamin Franklin, and in the stories of that busy young fellow, Horatio Alger—also has its collective characteristics; it fosters these as an inherited “way,” even though that habitus implies in its essence a vision of unrestrained private ambition. It envisages a world held together by trade, sustained by commercial law—and by the kind of amity that is generated by mutually profitable commercial exchange. This is the dream of Adam Smith and of the Scottish Enlightenment, broadly understood—though Federalists/Whigs/Republicans may give to it a slightly more mercantilist, centralizing flavor.

The point to be made out of these alternative American models is that the characteristic action of westering (which is now subsumed in the literature of our Western states) is distinctive, because it is accomplished without the support of any such inclusive image of group purpose. Though it may presuppose recollections and expectations of a corporate framework, of a Dixie to go home to “when the work’s all done next fall” (as in the old cowboy ballad), or of a desire to create and embody such a place, one that will leave truculent Western integrity intact yet still locate for the wanderer a place of repose, the journey in the literature of the West is not (except with the Mormons) undertaken in order to nourish such an ambitious matrix. In spirit. Western American literature affirms a measure of civilization as an end in itself, but refuses to attach to that commitment a larger telos, one that would require an attempt to “conquer” or subdue the setting within which such enclaves of civilization are contained.

From Ticonderoga (Kenneth Roberts), Cooperstown (James Fenimore Cooper), Watauga Old Fields (Caroline Gordon), and the Natchez Trace (Madison Jones, Robert Penn Warren), the setting of the literature of the frontier has drifted beyond settled boundaries to the Ohio of Conrad Richter, to St. Joseph and the anchor of Parkman’s Oregon Trail, and to the open spaces of North Dakota described in Theodore Roosevelt’s Ranch Life and remembered in the writing of The Winning of the West. Through all of this unfolding, the setting shifted but the subject did not change. And when finally connected to the deserts, plains, and mountains of what is now the West, when a little “domesticated” by settlement of the last empty spaces, by the coming of a “bride” to Yellow Sky (as in Crane’s classic story). Western literature did not give up the identity it had achieved as a chronicle of men and women finding their way outside what Leo Marx has called “the cultivated garden.”

Internalizing the sense of sacred space, of search and encounter in and with wilderness (wild places and wild men), preserving in memory a heritage of westering that resolves finally into many different genres, affirming the value of individual choice and of a certain peace with providential things not to be remade, the makers of this literature have found a path of their own. They tell of local inhabitation without any loss of the capacity for self-rejuvenation just beyond the limits; of a civil life on a dramatic scale, a life that is conducted with a zest no longer possible in the crowded places where such memories no longer function in individual experience.

This is, of course, a broad synthetic statement about a considerable volume of American writing, one that can be disputed. But it is generally supported by the fiction of the major Western novelists, by some poetry, prose pastoral, Plutarchian biography, oldfashioned “narrative history,” and a special sort of travel literature. I make my case here out of the handiwork of the novelists because their achievement is at the center of any Western canon we might devise: because they have been so numerous, so closely related and successful. Furthermore, I focus on the fiction of the West as it stands and not on the literature of the moving frontier.

A good place to begin is with A.B. Guthrie of Montana and his novels of early exploration and settlement. Guthrie has written a series of six novels that, when taken together (as he expects them to be), constitute a history of his state from the coming of the white man to the foothills of the Tetons through the late 1950’s. The most famous of these books treat of the earliest inhabitation of (by mountain men/trappers) and travel into his home country by assorted hunters and settlers—of lonely wanderings in search of beaver and of wagon trains going on through the mountains to the Pacific coast. In the first three novels in this series the tone is lofty, hieratic, and spacious, as befits the chronicles of a heroic age. The Big Sky (1947), The Way West (1949), and Fair Land, Fair Land (1982) make up the Dick Summers trilogy and tell the story of those great “loners” who come to know the wilderness as one would learn a holy book. Their names and stories keep alive in memory the sense of the numinous that had, in the first place, inspired them to search “high and deep” into the hidden places “up the Missouri.” Summers is less the mad prophet than some of the mountain men, less committed to that absolute, uncircumstanced freedom that is possible only in what political philosophers speak of as “a state of nature.” However, though he likes a little “society,” like Vardis Fisher’s Sam Minard in Mountain Man (1965), Frederick Manfred’s Hugh Glass in Lord Grizzly (1954), and J. Frank Dobie’s Ben Lilly in The Ben Lilly Legend (1950), he is difficult to imagine in town.

Summers at times has property—more than a gun, traps, a horse, and a buffalo knife. For a while he farms in Missouri. Later he offers his energy and skill to lead a company along the Oregon Trail. But finally he cannot live at ease among the “civilizers,” seeking instead for a refuge among the Shoshone and neighboring tribes. There he remarries, gets a son, and is killed by soldiers—amidst what remains of “clear air and bright waters,” the unchanged handiwork of God. Summers’ antitype is the self-made primitive Boone Caudill who is, despite the more admirable side-effects of his absolute liberty, all restlessness and violence. Summers embodies a principle not so extreme—nothing more than a reaction to the beauty of the untouched West and to the destructive, herdlike ways of his own people. Even so, the books in the Dick Summers trilogy project an uneasy attitude toward corporate life, except of the most uncomplicated variety. That uneasiness is only partially modified in Guthrie’s three novels of Montana settlement.

These Thousand Hills (1956), Arfive (1971), and The Last Valley (1975) are concerned with the history of the “cattle kingdom” in that part of the Big Sky Country on the high plains, just below the front range of the Rockies. Even more than that of the cowboy, fictional images of ranchers and stockmen are at the heart of what we can say about the literature of the American West. Their relation to a given natural order is easy and respectful, balanced and tentative. Yet though they rest lightly upon the land (unless their herds are too large), glory in their own self-sufficiency, and accept the costs of a gamble with contingency, these cattlemen create a kind of society. As a culture, they live out of what is “given” without attempting to control more than a little of it. And they have no patience with the remote and arbitrary powers of the state: powers that would interfere with their “private business”—their individual transactions with nature. The test and exhilarating discipline of hard pastoral are part of their self-definition; but they also “lie in possession” of significant holdings and are stewards of a garden (or meadow) with boundaries. Moreover, they make a tradition out of the virtues they attempt to practice—one that resists the modern manipulative and Promethean spirit much more effectively than do the champions of splendid isolation. These Thousand Hills treats the beginnings of the most familiar West, “the day of the cattlemen” as described in Ernest S. Osgood’s old book of that title, the transition from open range to fencing, with the pushing back to “beyond the wire” and “over the ridge” of the wild creatures and people who lack an adequate sense of “what is thine and mine.” Lot Evans moves from feckless youth as a cowboy to being a paragon and political protector of the order he helps to create. But he accomplishes this by acknowledging what he has been. There is no better image of this part of American history—except in J. Evetts Haley’s magisterial biography, Charles Goodnight: Cowman and Plainsman (1936).

Arfive and The Last Valley are closely related novels of Montana in modern times—a place where progress and its characteristic strategies have been overdone. Fresh memories of the “old order of things” and the close proximity of still surviving wilderness put these mistakes quickly in perspective. In this most recent Montana, nature takes revenge on those who abuse her. Man’s estate in the context of Creation is, Guthrie reaffirms, that The Arkatvsas. An of a tenant by sufferance, or steward for a nonresident proprietor, not a master. The instruments of this reaffirmation are Tom Ewing, a rancher who keeps “development” at an ironic distance; Benton “Prof” Collingsworth, the local high-school principal; and their younger friend, Ben Tate, who publishes the local newspaper. Together they deny the premise that “progress leaves no retreat.”

Which is what can most readily be said about the protagonist in many other Western novels that treat of the place of the cattlemen in a world impatient with the disciplines, pieties, and restrictions of his way of life: Conrad Richter’s Sea of Grass (1937), Harvey Fergusson’s Grant of Kingdom (1950), Larry McMurtry’s Horseman, Pass By (1961) and Leaving Cheyenne (1963), Ben Capps’ Sam Chance (1965), and Elmer Kelton’s The Time It Never Rained (1973). The thrust of this literature is elegiac. Often it laments what is passing, as do its counterparts in the fiction of the Western solitary: of Natty Bumpo as cowboy, lawman, gunslinger, prospector/scout, or their equivalent. The great positive instance of this subspecies is the hero of Jack Schaefer’s Shane (1949). But there are also many negative versions of the same model, overreachers or supermen like Guthrie’s explosive Boone Caudill. Nature’s revenge against presumptions committed in violation of her authority has, in Western American literature, its most powerful rendering in Walter Van Tilberg Clark’s evocative The Track of the Cat (1949).

In this book the three Bridges brothers, with their elderly parents, have a ranch in the Washoe Valley of Nevada where, with the coming of winter, they and their cattle are terrorized by a mysterious mountain lion which attacks both man and beast for the mere joy of killing. The brothers are in no way alike. Arthur, the eldest, dreams pastoral dreams of natural benevolence. Curt, who holds Arthur in contempt, acts out of an unmitigated will to power and plans to use the ranch as a way to get money to go to San Francisco. He has no piety for the given order of Creation. Neither does he admit to any fear of the invisible and ubiquitous “black painter” conjured up by the old Indian, Joe Sam, a fixture on the ranch. In his own skill, nerve, and intellect Curt finds security. The lion kills the passive Arthur, and a dream of the lion, the fear of the power it represents, destroys the self-isolated Curt. In hunting it alone he had refused to recognize that, as Arthur once told him, “nature . . . comes back on you in time.” With the help of Joe Sam, Harold, the youngest and most sensible of the clan, kills the offending lion and buries his brothers. The novel ends with promise of a future as Harold prepares to marry and acknowledges it was not the real “black painter” that he shot, that “we’ll never get that one Harold knows that the genius loci, the resident spirit of his valley, cannot be subdued. He will not drift off in poetic reverie like Arthur or imagine like Curt that he can deal with the mystery of Being on his own, absolutely, whenever he wishes.

An examination of radical independence that is altogether different from what appears in The Track of the Cat is rendered in Edward Abbey’s The Brave Cowboy (1956). The book is rightfully subtitled An Old Tale in a New Time. In it there is no tolerance for the spirit of domination that is reshaping the West, which (in the language of Clark’s Arthur Bridges) lives only for “burning and butchering and cutting down and plowing under.” Jack Burns, Abbey’s hero, is an anachronism: a loyal, stubborn, cheerful throwback to a time when character and personal rectitude were everything and the nearest federal marshal was found a hundred miles away. Jack Burns gets into trouble trying to free a draft-resisting friend from jail. Failing in that efFort, he escapes on his own, to be pursued by a posse through a wilderness where he is as much at home as he is out of place in the haunts of men. Jack has no objection to private property or ranchers, to moderate forms of social and economic order, or indeed any real quarrel with ordinary law enforcement. But he refuses to be merely a number on one of a thousand official lists. He is not judged by nature or troubled by visions of a totem “which is as good . . . as any to mean the end of things.” Instead he is crushed by modernity, hit by a truck on a rain-slick highway because his mare has been frightened by the glare of the headlights and the roar of many engines. The high sheriff of Bernal County, New Mexico, couldn’t catch and bend Jack Burns. Larger and more impersonal agencies bring him down, though not until Edward Abbey has given us an uncomfortable reminder of how much like other American places Jack’s New Mexico has become. But not entirely, not so long as any of his kind survive to remind us of “the lost America our forefathers knew.”

I might usefully extend this discussion of characteristic Western writing, especially if I examined closely the lyric celebration of the natural order of things (or complaint at its violation) that is embodied in the conservationist or naturalist writings of so many gifted Western authors. There is Abbey’s Desert Solitaire (1968), Wallace Stegner’s Wolf Willow (1962), Joseph Wood Krutch’s The Voice of the Desert (1954), J. Frank Dobie’s The Longhorns (1941) and The Mustangs (1952), Roy Bedichek’s Adventures with a Texas Naturalist (1947), and John Graves’ Goodbye to a River (1960) and From a Limestone Ledge (1980). I am also tempted to add commentary on Mari Sandoz’s Old Jules (1935) or John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks (1932); or to make a place for remarks on the significant fiction about the American Indian written by his white countrymen. But to do so would only blur the focus, not change the argument concerning Western American literature that I have offered.

Given the evidence gathered monumentally in A Literary History of the American West (a volume of 1,353 pages published last year by the Texas Christian University Press), that this literature already exists and has become, on its own terms, a national treasure, what then is likely to be added to this homogenous and self-contained literary canon? To begin, future contributions will not be, I believe, much more urban in spirit than the works that presently have a place within it. Therefore I suspect that they will not issue from or be concerned with California or the coastal West, which is, though closely related, another country. Moreover, except for its unwillingness to treat the modern city as more than a necessary evil, this is not a tradition of artistic alienation. Instead, as I said earlier, it is a literature of memory, one that will continue to react to wilderness and wild creatures-nearby—will thus continue, or dissolve and disappear into postures understood and appreciated by the authors of the Columbia Literary History. But though nature in its most dramatic mode is informative’ of Western literature, though the Western writer when he contemplates the landscape does not dream of “cultivated gardens,” he will not under the pressure of modern industrial civilization revert to confusing the “New Eden” of his most hopeful vision with the merely primitive. For his individualism contains in its memory of westering a critique of its own potential excesses. Looking down from his post of observation, from the top of the ridge where the “high country” begins, the great peaks towering above and the plains spread out below him, with his enemies visible as small figures marching in search of their quarry, the Western artist is like Abbey’s Jack Burns. But in practicing his craft upon his subject, he will, I suspect, prefer to make a stand instead of retiring into the “timber,” or some other country of the mind. If we wait and watch his performance, we should enjoy the “ruckus” that is bound to occur.