Nicolas S. Witschi

in American Literature

ISBN: 9780199827251
Published online August 2012 | | DOI:

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Descriptions of the western usually begin by calling it a form of cheap entertainment that is mostly about cowboys and gunfighters. From this follow observations that mention its reliance on predictable plot formulas, hackneyed characters, and sentimental appeals to overly simplistic ideas of honor and of right versus wrong. And then there’s the fact that the settings for these tales are usually the apparently untrammeled, natural scenery of the 19th-century frontier American West: deserts, buttes, snowy peaks, and vast expanses of lush prairie. Eventually, such pejorative descriptions arrive at one version or another of the phrase that Montana writer William Kittredge uses in Owning It All (Graywolf Press, 1987) to describe the traditional narrative of the American West: it is a “racist, sexist, imperialist mythology of conquest” (p. 63). To some extent, all of these assertions are accurate, but only up to a point. Like any other popular genre form, the western proves, upon more careful scrutiny, to be a multivalent and deeply ambivalent form of mass culture, one that both reflects and meditates upon the questions most urgently felt by a society. The stories that westerns try to tell have everything to do with coming to terms with racial injustice, gender inequities, the power of the state, and the economic realities of an itinerant agricultural labor class. And of course they provide fertile ground for investigating the precise meaning of national identity. As for questions about “literary” quality and complexity, recent critical methodologies have not only expanded the criteria for assessing such things to include artifacts of mass market or popular appeal; they have also brought to light, with the purpose of working against it, the very means by which discursive power functions to identify and separate. As a result, the western, a genre once consigned to the margins of serious and sophisticated academic inquiry, has emerged as a vital and inescapable mode through which to understand American culture in its broadest sense.

Article.  10809 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (American)

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