The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the American West
Edited by Steven Frye
Cambridge: University Press, 2016
Paperback. ix+255 p. ISBN 978-1107479272. £18.99/$29.99
Reviewed by Lydia R. Cooper
Creighton University (Omaha, Nebraska)
The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the American West, edited by Steven Frye, undertakes the project of providing a scholarly introduction to the major themes, identities, histories, and media of Westerns, updated for the early twenty-first century undergraduate, graduate, or emerging scholar. In his introduction, Frye lays out a concise history, not of the West itself, but of the idea of the West in “Eastern” thought and literature, from the typological “wilderness” of the Puritans to the enduring fascination with the “Wild West” in western European nations . Frye points out the Eurocentric perspective guiding these dominant images and ideas of the West, and then turns to new historical perspectives that study the American West as its own, originary location—the land of early, complex nations who left behind burial and trade route markers of their civilizations, the Spanish conquistadors, the hybrid Plains tribal nations—the Sioux, Comanche, Apache, and Kiowa—who developed horse-centric cultures . Frye then addresses the range of themes that a study of the West, as both cyclical and linear history, as a set geography and a malleable concept, fosters. He points to eco-criticism in particular as perhaps the most distinctive and significant critical approach that is significant to any study of the West, but offers ideological and methodological insights into the most pressing issues of our time.
The volume collects sixteen chapters on a range of topics central to literature of the American West, from folk traditions to film, from gender to ethnic heritages. Some of the most significant scholars working in the field of Western literature and culture are represented here as well, from the well-known names such as Lee Clark Mitchell to new names on the literary criticism scene, such as Linda Rader Overman. The bulk of the chapters are offered by established scholars whose body of work has already laid a solid foundation in the field, but there is not a notably weak chapter in this collection. While not every chapter covers new ground, they are uniformly accessibly written and informative. Several—and they will be pointed out specifically in this review—rise above the rest, offering thorough summary of the topic and pushing the discussion in provocative new directions. Finally, while the introduction does not explicitly outline the organization logic of the Companion, it is in fact so meticulously organized that it could easily be used as textbook for an undergraduate or graduate course on American Westerns, supplemented by the primary sources themselves.
The book’s first chapters lay out histories of the literatures of the West—beginning with M. Carmen Gomez-Galisteo’s reminder that the first literate texts of the “American” West are the exploration narratives, poetry, and drama of Spanish conquistadores, explorers, and missionaries . Next, John Dudley traces the folk stories and rhetorical constructions of the literary (and largely imaginary) “West.” Daniel Worden wraps up the “histories” chapters with a provocative piece on the troubled creation narratives of the West, the “gendered logic” of masculine settlement and feminine civilization and the various ethical, historical, and material “catastrophes” that mar the narratives of immigrant settlement, homesteading, and the racialization of nationalism. “The American West is still in the thrall of narratives of settlement,” Worden claims, and the patina of promise in those narratives bears a dark double, the “violent loss—lynchings, shootouts, genocide, assimilation” that comprise the material history of the West . Transitioning from Worden’s well-taken gesture toward the less-glorious historical realities of the West, the fifth chapter looks at two women homesteaders’ epistolary narratives. Not as much a study on female logics of the West as it is a focused study of these two particular authors, Elinore Pruitt Stewart and Hilda Rose, the chapter does complicate the ways in which the West becomes deictically constrained. These narratives of women from the south, northeast, and other places “und[oes] any simple binary of ‘Westerners’ writing for ‘Easterners’” .
Susan Kollin’s chapter on the troubled history of eco-criticism, as Frye’s introduction foreshadows, is perhaps one of the most important chapters in the volume. Beginning with contrasting descriptions of the creation of Glacier Bay National Park from the perspective of Tlingit writer Ernestine Hayes and of John Muir in 1879, Kollin highlights the ways in which the different conceptions of the “human place in nature” illustrate the limitations as well as the exigency of ecological writing . Tracing a complex, layered history of environmental writing about the West, its enduring legacy and critical interventions in U.S. history, Kollin points out the recurring “misanthropy” and even “racism” that plagues the Eurocentric “Deep Ecology” movement  while pointing out that “the science of climate change, research on the Anthropocene, and studies of globalization” complicate yet make necessary writing on the environment .
From eco-criticism, the Companion turns to its only chapter that does not easily fit a clear narrative trajectory—Pierre Lagayette’s fascinating look at California in the late nineteenth century. Next, the various genres of the Western are explored, first in Gioia Woods’s unexpected yet welcome chapter on the “West in modern verse,” Lee Clark Mitchell’s study of noir detective fiction, growing out of the themes and epistemologies of the Western, and Stacey Peebles’s excellent chapter on Western films, and their troubled treatment of justice and bloodshed.
From there, the Companion tackles Native American (Nicholas Monk’s chapter), Chicana/o (Rafael Pérez-Torres), Mestiza (Linda Rader Overman), Asian American (Marguerite Nguyen), and African American (Eric Gardner) Western literatures. Each of these chapters is excellent, with Nguyen’s and Gardner’s chapters offering a thorough grounding in how influential and profound the legacy of Asian and African American writing of the West, respectively, has been, and how critically understudied.
The final two chapters turn to two Western authors, Wallace Stegner and Cormac McCarthy. Stegner’s influence has left an indelible mark on the literature of the West and also its reception and legacy, and McCarthy’s brilliant contributions are poised to do the same for future generations of scholars. The Companion wraps up its trek through literatures of the West here, appropriately enough.
Overall, The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the American West offers precisely what the Companions are meant to offer—a rich compendium of contextual, historical, and thematic approaches to literatures under discussion, in this case, literatures of the American West. This book, a straightforward, usable, and accessible volume, will be indispensible for undergraduate, graduate, and emerging scholars on the topic, and advanced scholars will find the pleasures of concise and thoughtful overviews here as well.
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