In August 1990, George Bush announced that America was “drawing a line in the sand” of the Saudi Arabian desert. With those words, the President recalled a list of individuals reaching back to Christopher Columbus who have defined “America” by the act, whether physical or verbal, of inscribing the American land. Definition is, by common understanding, a verbal act: we look to Webster’s, for example, to understand “landscape” or “America.” And given the European cultural attitude toward ownership of land, we move smoothly from verbal to physical inscription, drawing boundary lines on the map, continually trying to “fix” or make permanent an ever-changing Western frontier.
I emphasize the inherited cultural attitude evidenced in Bush’s remark because assumptions about land, frontier, and environment transplanted from the Old to the “New” World have substantially determined how Americans saw—and continue to see—themselves and their role in America. Mission, enterprise, and divine plan became the 19th century’s “manifest destiny,” and the North American continent continued to function as the setting for that destiny. From this perspective, land was a tool; valuable not so much for itself but for what it facilitated.
Attitudes inherited from Europe, however, composed only a part of what rapidly became a Western story of interacting tensions. The perception of land as a commodity, whether for financial or for spiritual profit, eventually had to encounter the actuality of living on, and with, the land. In an essay entitled “Landscape, History, and the Pueblo Imagination,” Leslie Silko, a woman of native American descent, calls attention to fundamental differences between the Anglo-Saxon and the Native American understanding of the word “landscape.” “So long as the human consciousness remains within the hills, canyons, cliffs, and the plants, clouds, and the sky, the term landscape, as it has entered the English language, is misleading. [The dictionary description of] ‘a portion of territory the eye can comprehend in a single view’ does not correctly describe the relationship between the human being and his or her surroundings. This assumes the viewer is somehow outside or separate from the territory he or she surveys. Viewers are as much a part of the landscape as the boulders they stand on.”
A Public Broadcasting production in 1988, “The American Adventure,” began by asking why the Jamestown settlers did not simply become Englishmen recreating England. The program went on to describe a new nation emerging, but did not do much to answer its own question. From an evolutionary perspective, a new nation did emerge, because that is what life does; it evolves, continually expressing itself in what the 20th-century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called “novelty.” Though many settlers in both Jamestown and Massachusetts Bay tried very hard to be transplanted Englishmen, they could not simply reproduce old world values.
Few human beings, however, whether at Jamestown in 1607 or Prague in 1990, comfortably embrace novelty. Not surprisingly, therefore, one of the predominant images or cliches in American mythology is that of “circling the wagons,” an act of resistance to novelty. Even before the Puritans landed in the New World, John Winthrop was verbally anticipating this action. Aboard the Arbella, in a speech entitled “A Model of Christian Charity,” Winthrop described his vision of what the colony should be: “as a City upon a Hill”—a statement that Ronald Reagan used during his presidency. Winthrop’s words suggest the effort of the Anglo-Saxon mind to separate itself from the environment and to discover underlying principles in natural and human nature. “We shall be as a City upon a Hill,” with its echoes of Augustine’s “City of Cod,” emphasizes the city as a beacon, even as an entrenched castle, and gives no indication of a concern for the relationship of the city to the hill; the actual physical environment is simply not central to the essential idea.
From the beginning, then, the American “West” has been a land inscribed. One would have to look long and hard to find evidence of an explorer or settler who moved westward looking for a genuinely “new” world. In announcing that he had sailed “from Spain to the Indies,” Columbus geographically defined the “new” quite literally in terms of the “old,” and those who followed continued his lead: consequently, we have names like St. Augustine, New Amsterdam, New Canaan, Boston, and New York. The “new” world had to be converted: the West became the East, and gardens were brought forth from a “wilderness”—a word which Roderick Nash has defined etymologically as “the place of wild beasts” and therefore a world of terror, the home of satanic forces needing to be transformed or exterminated.
While seeking a “New” World, the original settlers and later the immigrants arrived with most of their preserved “Old” World assumptions intact. They could assert the element of the “new” in a name like New England, but the “old” was established as their point of reference: it was still New England. Settlers sought the potential of free land, but distrusted “wilderness.” We should not be surprised, therefore, to find that the attitude to the “Western frontier,” while acknowledging wilderness as a source of possibility, nevertheless predicated an ever-shifting “line in the sand,” a world beyond the confines of civilization and one needing to be tamed and converted to a civilized state. Lines had to be drawn—fences erected, swamps drained, and forests cleared—to say nothing of the clearing away of earner pigeons, buffalo, and the native humans.
Instances of “lines in the sand” are readily apparent in American history and literature. William Byrd’s 1725 survey line between North Carolina and Virginia was drawn presumably to protect civilization from the sloth and lascivious behavior of those individuals associated with the Dismal Swamp in particular and the wilderness in general. Mary Rowlandson’s constant quoting of the Bible in her 1675 Narrative serves to maintain the sense of a divine narrative within which she could define and thus comprehend her captivity; Ahab’s oceanographic charts allow him to draw the lines of the white whale’s wake upon the watery expanse; and the tracks carved into the prairies by the passing of settlers’ wagons figure prominently in a narrative like Gather’s My Antonia. The rails of the transcontinental railroad cut buffalo migration patterns. Common in each instance, perhaps because it grows out of assumptions of “bastions against barbarism,” is the stance of the inscriber at a remove from his environment; the fragility of the inscribed surface; and the subsequent involvement of the inscriber with the world inscribed (Ahab dragged down into the ocean by the same lines with which he has attached himself to the whale being perhaps the most vivid instance).
As settlers sought new land in the West, they continued to provide instances of their distrust of environment, their rejection of surfaces, and their inscription of landscapes with physical and verbal lines intended to defend against the encroaching wilderness; the West, then, has from the beginning been simultaneously idealized for what it might become and rejected for what it is. Consequently, from the hands of those who created the popular Western, we get either one version or the other of the narrative: The Virginian, Riders of the Purple Sage, and Shane present a West drawn by those who choose to see the world beyond the frontier as something akin to a land of Oz. On the other hand, encouraged to “Go West” into the land of opportunity, settlers frequently regarded the journey as one between centers of civilization across landscape at best barren, at worst savage. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that among the most frequent images in popular Western narrative is that of the fort, the embodiment of both physical and mental inscription. John Ford’s movies and Louis L’Amour’s novels build upon this pattern and topography. In Ford’s Stagecoach, we watch a fragile four-wheeled box, the construct of a threatened civilization, pulled (by horses originally imported from Europe; it has no power of its own) through land held by attacking Apaches toward the appropriately named town of Lordsburg.
John Ford’s eye does not embrace the land; his interest in the American West is almost entirely in terms of the threat to what he sees as the national story of mission. Defended fortresses in the form of forts and towns dominate his work, as do highly conventional social occasions—dances, for example, or meals. Even when he goes out of his way to call attention to the world outside the fort, Ford chooses to cast the “other” in such non-native American actors as Sal Mineo and Henry Brandon; we cannot even speak of these “Indians” as marginalized, for the casting evidences that “Indians” do not exist visually for Ford, any more than they do verbally. To whatever extent we recognize John Ford as a representative 20th-century artist, his movies indicate an eye for the abstract “model” and a literal inability to see the world outside the circled wagons.
The two themes—the edenic and the satanic—are corollary manifestations of the same mental stance, approaching the West as though it were “a City upon a Hill.” No reader, then, of some of the best Western American narrative should be surprised by its themes of disillusionment and horror. Willa Gather, Man Sandoz, and Ole Rolvaag write of immigrant experience so conditioned by illusion that despair is the inevitable outcome. Mark Twain’s Roughing It, Larry McMurtry’s Horseman, Pass By, and E.L. Doctorow’s Welcome to Hard Times detail the experience of an Eastern culture entering new territory. Acts of violence characterize many of these stories.
Scholars like Annette Kolodny, Patricia Limerick, and Richard Slotkin have examined traditional attitudes toward the land and its people and found those attitudes characterized by what one of the most prolific Western writers, Frank Waters, in The Earp Brothers of Tombstone, describes as fear of the unknown. “Within the confines of this triumphant saga of conquest we are beginning to discern today the subjective and tragical history of a people who failed to comprehend the forces that drove them. . . . As the fear and tension kept mounting within them, they struck out at everything, the land and its people, with a blind compulsion to dominate and destroy.” The resulting destruction made possible the reassertion of Eastern values. The frequently recurring image of the fort is an imposition against the shifting sands that threaten to obliterate the lines that have been drawn in them. In the resulting confrontation, those inside the fort can only survive by destroying or silencing what is outside it, which they perceive to be the enemy.
The result of these narrative crosscurrents—the sense of mission together with the experience of living in the land—is a body of important Western narrative. And we might keep in mind that the theme of individuals drawn from a world of stable assumptions and moving into a new physical environment that challenges the stability of those assumptions makes an “American” story synonymous with the “Western” story. In narratives by Western American writers—whether from European, Native American, or Chicano backgrounds—the reader discovers the interactions of contradictory but not mutually exclusive forces. This is not the either-or story of the popular Western.
Western narratives of horror are the result of imaginations that see themselves—and therefore define themselves as—separate from the land. From this perspective, one may read James Pike’s early 19th-century journals and Vardis Fisher’s novel Mountain Man as horrific narratives of encounter both with savage conditions and savage mentalities that feel free to impose themselves and their values on worlds they know little or nothing about. Other imaginations work through relationship rather than through separation. Writers like Mary Austin, Ivan Doig, Wallace Stegner, Wright Morris, John Nichols, Marilynne Robinson, and Harvey Fergusson reject an exclusive story generated by lines drawn to protect the values of an imported culture. These writers incorporate a story of mission with a commitment to a physical environment; the resulting narratives value inclusivity rather than exclusivity. Lines drawn in the sand become footpaths that connect human beings, rather than walls that protect an inner group.
Mary Austin, an early 20th-century writer, in her influential The Land of Little Rain, uses her title to work against the Anglo-Saxon word “desert” and the perceived Anglo-Saxon penchant for definition. Austin describes this penchant as the “desire for perpetuity” expressed by verbally walling in land that has been literally or metaphorically cleared. The individual who sees himself as distinct from the land can then imagine controlling, walling out, or defining what is essentially separate from himself. This imagination, according to Austin, confronts and seeks to impose itself upon the land. Naming so imposes, and naming a lake or a mountain after oneself is an effort to give permanence to human transience. In contrast, she says, “I confess to a great liking for the Indian fashion of name-giving: every man known by that phrase which best expresses him to who so names him. Thus he may be Mighty-Hunter, or Man-Afraid-of-a-Bear, according as he is called by friend or enemy, and Scar-Face to those who knew him by the eye’s grasp only.” This practice of naming derives from the perception of a fluid world where identities are relational and communal rather than tied to a single fixed image or verbal sound. The Indian, from Austin’s perspective, values a world of common involvement. “By the time she wrote The Land of Little Rain,” says Melody Graulich, Austin “had begun to follow the ‘trails’ in the desert and to understand the patterns of life in the region. Despite her feeling of being a loner and her interest in isolated wanderers, her ecological perspective extended to her study of local cultures as she attempted to understand the interrelations between humans, nature, and culture.”
Austin was a Southwestern writer, and Southwestern narrative generally has been sensitive to the prominence of the neighborly relationship between Mexico and the United States. Central to this writing is the image of borders, but less as lines of demarcation than as’ points of transition. This imagination—in Fergusson or Rudolfo Anaya or Scott Momaday or Tony Hillerman—sees change as fundamental to ongoing processes that in turn provide strength and stability, even in a world constantly threatening to slip away. The Grand Canyon, for example, is continually being broken down by forces of erosion. Sheets of fractured rock, precariously balanced boulders, and fields of pebbles testify to the dynamics altering the face of the canyon, and these proofs of the unending forces of change take place within a framework of almost incomprehensible size and power. The very existence of the canyon—the thought of the energies that created it and the time frame within which they occurred, the marked delineations upon the rock escarpments that exhibit graphic evidence of the history of the planet—staggers the human imagination. When the Anasazi found shelter within the canyon’s cliffs a thousand years ago, they must have been as much comforted by its strength as awed by its imperturbability.
Southwestern writing takes its characteristics from these interacting worlds at whose core is the reality of change. In a physical environment of such seeming stability, the idea of an individual “drawing a line in the sand” is almost too naive to merit further contemplation. Tony Hillerman, for example, one of those Western writers whose work has captured the attention of Eastern readers, builds his detective fiction around the intrusion of the academic mind seeking to profit by digging in the Southwestern sands for the inscriptions of the people who once lived there and established a connection with the earth.
Of course, all writing is an act of inscription. The difference between John Winthrop, however, and a Westerner like Austin or Ivan Doig is that the Westerner seeks lines (language) that include rather than exclude the natural environment as well as other human beings; Doig’s biography Winter Brothers and Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose seem to me particularly fine examples of the use of lines that work to include. Granted that writing inscribes, how the individual imagination uses those lines to reach out, rather than to push away, must be of interest to anyone looking at Western narrative. The already-noted difference between “desert” and “land of little rain” is the difference between prescriptive and descriptive lines; “desert” labels a particular spot as essentially dead, “land of little rain” allows for the possibility of life functioning within a spartan environment. In other words, even though writing draws lines, not all inscriptions grow out of cultural assumptions that seek to demark and exclude. Other assumptions can value the power of language to unite, to function as umbilical cords rather than as cuts of a knife. In these terms, the work of contemporary Chicano and Native American writers is characteristic of what many Western writers are doing.
I began with illustrations of 17th-century inscription that worked to protect mission by means of exclusion. I would like to conclude by looking briefly at an instance of contemporary Western inscription that works toward inclusion. One can turn to numerous instances of Western narrative in which imposed lines function destructively—roads upon which people are killed in Edward Abbey’s The Brave Cowboy and James Welch’s Winter in the Blood; fences in which cattle get caught in Leslie Silko’s Ceremony. In contrast, there is the image of braiding in Michael Dorris’ A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, where individual lives and family relationships work like strands of a woman’s braided hair. One striking instance of lines working to connect is presented by the Chicano writer Sheila Ortiz Taylor in her 1982 novel Faultline.
The title of Faultline claims the attention of anyone interested in inscription. The dedication alone banishes any idea of exclusion: “For my family, in all the best senses of that word.” Like Dorris’ image of braided hair, the word “family” is inclusive, and its meaning is reinforced by the implications of family extending beyond blood or marriage. Structurally, the novel seeks to discover that “family” by its expanding sequence of new voices.
The narrator was born on the San Andreas Fault, a fact which initially explains the title. But lines of “fault” extend far beyond the San Andreas. The narrator’s is the first voice, and she opens with a chapter entitled “A Word From the Defendant,” as though words were going to be used to establish lines of defense. But in this narrative, it is the very idea of lines of fault (geologic and moral) that are open to scrutiny: “Mrs. Renninger’s professional opinion ran along the lines of fault, and nobody saw things that way anymore, at least she thought they didn’t, and that anyway the more she tried to figure where the fault lay the less she understood what the question was.”
Whether because she is born on the San Andreas Fault or because she is a lesbian as well as a mother, the narrator is forced to confront the normative concept of “fault” throughout her life. But this book, in its sheer zest for living and its perceived joy in human relationship, delightfully tears away normative proscription. Here is the opening, immediately following the announced “Word From the Defendant”:
I realize that my three hundred rabbits are the most serious piece of material evidence against me. People will think only an unstable mind could not only produce but sustain that kind of absurdity. Yet absurdity is really just an event out of context, like a beached whale. So the three hundred rabbits, you might say, are really the natural outcome of a context, one so intricate that describing it might only confirm me as a lunatic. To an inattentive mind. But I am going to ask something more of you. I am asking you to keep your eye on the rabbit without forgetting the silk top hat from which the rabbit must eventually emerge. Real magic, after all, is the relationship—whether of love or of hate, I leave to you—between the rabbit and the hat. You are wondering how I came to have three hundred rabbits. It began, of course, with two.
Any reader’s expectations for a word from the defendant that will acknowledge guilt or fault receives a sudden jolt. More is going to be asked of us. Instead of drawing lines of defense between her values and those of the jury, this speaker draws us in; we find ourselves welcomed by the pleasant, intelligent, imaginative voice. We were not prepared for the narrative shift from fault to rabbits, including us as “attentive” minds and establishing a context that focuses on relationship rather than sleight of hand (real magic, after all, is a relationship). Even the syntax provides a double negative in the second sentence, forcing one to reread to establish relationships within the sentence. Such breaking of preconceived boundaries is unsettling, but the promise in these opening words is of a voice which relishes pleasure and relationship.
No city built on an abstract hill here; the rabbit warren under Arden Benbow’s property mirrors the warren of interrelating voices and attentive readers built by the narrative. “Earthquakes,” a geologist explains in the novel, “are dynamic reactions against prolonged inactivity.” Many people, he says, “like to think the earth is a finished product, while there’s really no such thing. Earthquakes remind us.” In a cultural environment trained to regard its survival as being dependent upon lines drawn in the sand, earthquakes are nevertheless inevitable; earthquakes are the result of ongoing change intruding upon a world of perceived permanence. Chicano writers, Native American, and Western American writers generally—to mention only those who are the subject of this essay—have been forced into “prolonged inactivity” by such lines of demarcation. A book like Faultline plays with the inevitable interaction of those conflicting perceptions.
What I find striking in the literary and cultural environment of the last twenty years is the extent to which previously excluded voices are making themselves heard. Quite obviously, that would not be happening were there not as well an audience willing to listen. I do not attribute this tendency both to speak and to listen to some kind of “political correctness,” but to the fact, as I have tried to show, that American narrative from its earliest roots struggled with the effort to integrate a sense of mission and a relationship to the land. No single narrative embodies the result, but each contributes to the movement and change. The present essay has been shaped to suggest a larger narrative at work in America, one which runs between the narrative inscription of the early Puritan settlers, which excludes despite its desire to establish contact, and a novelistic one like Sheila Ortiz Taylor’s, which welcomes outside voices and sees earthquakes as demonstrations of underlying energy rather than as shocks to a fixed reality.
Invariably, the “American” story is “Western.” A few years ago, in a book entitled New Ground: Western American Narrative and the Literary Canon, I sought to differentiate between “Western” and “Eastern” narrative. I continue to be fascinated by the literature of the American West, but, contrary to the binary, sectional emphasis I gave to that work, the narrative I describe here takes its characteristics from lines of inclusivity. If a line drawn in the sand in order to establish a “City upon a Hill” were the entire story, then the dangers of political, economic, and social exclusivity would be consistently with us. But Western writers—Silko by her interest in the “relationship between the human being and his or her surroundings,” Mary Austin and Louise Erdrich by their “tracks” connecting human beings, Doig by his reaching back to an individual life of common interests in the past, and Taylor by her rejection of lines that discriminate—remind us that the “city” does not simply sit upon a hill. It has a relationship to the hill, and takes many of its fundamental characteristics from the topography of the hill, such as land formation, elevation, climate, and geologic structure. “Drawing a line in the sand” has multiple meanings and implications, and at its best. Western American writing takes advantage of all that inherent potential.
Leave a Reply