The Western Landscape in Cormac McCarthy and Wallace Stegner: Myths of the Frontier

The Western Landscape in Cormac McCarthy and Wallace Stegner: Myths of the Frontier

The Western Landscape in Cormac McCarthy and Wallace Stegner: Myths of the Frontier

The Western Landscape in Cormac McCarthy and Wallace Stegner: Myths of the Frontier

Synopsis

The western American landscape has always had great significance in American thinking, requiring an unlikely union between frontier mythology and the reality of a fragile western environment. Additionally it has borne the burden of being a gendered space, seen by some as the traditional "virgin land" of the explorers and pioneers, subject to masculine desires, and by others as a masculine space in which the feminine is neither desired nor appreciated. Both Wallace Stegner and Cormac McCarthy focus on this landscape and environment; its spiritual, narrative, symbolic, imaginative, and ideological force is central to their work. In this study, McGilchrist shows how their various treatments of these issues relate to the social climates (pre- and post-Vietnam era) in which they were written, and how despite historical discontinuities, both Stegner and McCarthy reveal a similar unease about the effects of the myth of the frontier on American thought and life. The gendering of the landscape is revealed as indicative of the attempts to deny the failure of the myth, and to force the often numinous western landscape into parameters which will never contain it. Stegner's pre-Vietnam sensibility allows the natural world to emerge tentatively triumphant from the ruins of frontier mythology, whereas McCarthy's conclusions suggest a darker future for the West in particular and America in general. However, McGilchrist suggests that the conclusion of McCarthy's Border Trilogy, upon which her arguments regarding McCarthy are largely based, offers a gleam of hope in its final conclusion of acceptance of the feminine.

Excerpt

In the second half of the twentieth century, the United States went through its most traumatic upheavals since the American Civil War. America’s assumed role as the protector of the free world against what was perceived as inexorably encroaching Communist domination was, after the Second World War, a belief almost as deeply felt as the doctrine of Manifest Destiny had been a century before, and for many of the same reasons. The dream of the endless frontier of the nineteenth century had been transformed into the concept of worldwide propagation of “the American way” with remarkably little ideological difficulty. However, just as there were always those who questioned the tenets of Manifest Destiny, so too there were those who questioned the idea that American global hegemony was unquestionably benign. Crucially, it was the period of the Vietnam War, the 1960s and early 1970s, the culmination of the Cold War, which woke up large numbers of ordinary Americans to the reality that American policy was not always right, or heroic, or very much good for anyone who was not a white American, and that in fact it never had been. Accepted history, always questioned within the academy, was re-examined on all fronts. Along with the widespread civil unrest caused by the war, the civil rights movement precipitated an extensive reappraisal of the legacy of slavery, and created a new awareness of racial inequalities throughout American history. Additionally the women’s movement gained momentum during this period, calling into question many accepted views of American domestic life. It was a turbulent period indeed, and on either side of it may be placed the two authors I am examining in this book, Wallace Stegner and Cormac McCarthy.

My purpose is to examine Wallace Stegner’s works and the western works of Cormac McCarthy in terms of their approaches to western American landscape and nature. Stegner and McCarthy at first glance may not seem an obvious pairing. Stegner’s fiction concentrates on character development, self-awareness, personal loss, and the search for sanctuary in a world seen as hostile, both physically and metaphorically. The action of his novels happens mainly in domestic settings, and relationships between men and women are the cornerstone of all his major . . .

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