New Ground: Western American Narrative and the Literary Canon

New Ground: Western American Narrative and the Literary Canon

New Ground: Western American Narrative and the Literary Canon

New Ground: Western American Narrative and the Literary Canon


New Ground is a compelling argument for the expansion of the American literary canon. Carl Bredahl maintains that the critical tradition too often neglects the literature of the American Midwest and West because this literature does not share eastern assumptions about space.

Bredahl first considers the defining characteristics of the established canon, mainly composed of works by eastern authors. Central to the eastern imagination, he shows, is the act of intellectually and narratively enclosing the wilderness, an act that grows out of a fundamental distrust of space. Bredahl's description extends to southern writing as well. The southern myth is Edenic, defining a beautiful world threatened by urban mentality and protected by southern gentility. Enclosure is, thus, common to northern and southern myths, and both appear to emerge out of the European longing for a spiritual haven in the New World.

In contrast, the western imagination, confronting an environment of extravagant proportions in size, weather, and configuration, had to discard assumptions of imposing self and enclosing landscape. Instead of the effort to impose and reshape came the need to reconceptualize the individual's relationship to the land. Much of western literature tells the story of this realignment. This literature, Bredahl says, has been too easily dismissed for not sharing eastern assumptions.

Bredahl provides readings of several major pieces of western narrative not often examined by -- or even familiar to -- students of American literature. He looks at the works of such authors as Mary Austin, Walter Clark, Wright Morris, and Ivan Doig in order to show how these works respond to an environment that will not tolerate enclosure. His discussion of western writers is extended by an examination of two makers of American Western films -- easterner John Ford, who takes a more traditional approach to the West, and Sam Peckinpah, a filmmaker whose imagination was conditioned by his life in the West.


Reconsideration of accepted literary assumptions has generated so much interest in recent years that articles on the debate have begun appearing in national newspapers. the New York Times has run several, one of the most recent being James Atlas's On Campus: the Battle of the Books (June 5, 1988). Academic debate in the popular press should not be surprising because the implications extend--as they properly should--far beyond the classroom. Many recognize that the discussion has significant political implications and angrily decry such reconsiderations, framing their argument in the language of God and country in order to cast aspersions on the whole endeavor. Their fears are valid; those whose interest lies in maintaining the status quo recognize that challenge to the literary establishment does more than question which books are read in college courses. It challenges fundamental assumptions of the society.

New Ground is part of the reconsideration. For the political reasons just indicated, I do not desire to see noncanonical works simply brought into the canon, an action that would only reinforce the power of those defining the canon. Rather, I would like to see the canon broken open by imaginations that violate the assumptions built into the whole idea of a canon. Reconsideration of America's accepted body of literary work usually involves focusing attention on the writings of ethnic and women writers. My interest, however, lies in western writers, an interest developed out of the sense that in the American West an imagination exists that respects surface. Beginning with respect for the surfaces of the land and moving to respect for surfaces . . .

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