Women and Western American Literature

Women and Western American Literature

Women and Western American Literature

Women and Western American Literature

Excerpt

The idea for this collection of essays grew naturally from our awareness that women have been -- and still are -- largely excluded from discussions of literature of the American West. This is a serious concern in itself, but it becomes especially so in view of the West's enormous influence in shaping American thought. Frederick Jackson Turner's essay on the American frontier remains the starting point for discussions of the American character. Affirming Turner's premise, if not his conclusions, scholars agree "as America's most formative myth-subject the West has altered the presumptions of Americans about their place in both the political world and the moral universe." In literature, this myth of the West has taken various forms. It is seen in the traditional western formula which glorifies violence and conquest as "the imposition of a Lockean scheme of property, labor and law on a wilderness originally controlled by a people with an opposing scheme" (pp. 127-8); and it is seen in the concept of a heroic that indiscriminately glorifies male endeavor: "A male character in American literature may be a hero in almost any circumstance; all he has to do is struggle, see things as they really are, and benefit from his knowledge."

Assumptions such as these provoke reappraisals. Following World War II, a broadened global perspective led to the counterculture of the Fifties and the anti-politics of the Sixties, with their "widespread refusal to believe in our foreign policies, domestic programs, traditional leadership, customs-past" (p. 129). Changes in western literature followed, for "inevitably, the debunking of the past led to the central myth of the Western Hero and Western Settlement. The Old West had to go. How could we believe in the right of anti-social gunslingers to shoot down opponents in the townstreets once we began to believe that America was an international gunman whose victims were crying out against her" (p. 129). And inevitably, Western heroes assumed new forms: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Wild Bunch . . .

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