Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

"What's 'Western' about Morris's the Field of Vision," My Students Ask

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

"What's 'Western' about Morris's the Field of Vision," My Students Ask

Article excerpt

UNDERLYING NUMEROUS contemporary discussions of American narrative is the perception of "America" as a word spoken by multiple cultures, multiple tongues--and "American narrative" a story generated by those multiple voices. Only from a particular perspective is American narrative a telling from a central "city upon a hill." Not narrowly defined by a group of northern Europeans who followed their dreams to the shores of the new world and there struggled to encamp for the next four hundred years, "American narrative" has always moved West in the sense of continually exploring new narrative territories.

Such territories demonstrate that far from being a literature of orphans, American narrative values relationship. In spite of the culture's mythology, the individual solely committed to "self" is ill-equipped to handle relationships and the multiple roles he or she consequently must be able to play. Rappacini, for example, in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Rappacini's Daughter" does not know how to be a father, and the horror realized by Edith in "Maypole of Merrymount" is the direct result of the fact that she is about to become a "wife." Scratchy Wilson, the gunman in Stephen Crane's "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky," cannot comprehend the word "married." And the "horror" confronted by Edgar Allan Poe's narrators results from their failures in relationships--"Liegia," "Tell Tale Heart," and "Black Cat" being particularly obvious examples, while the narrator in "The Raven" faces the fact that he has lost his partner and must live now alone.

Many of my undergraduates, however, have been trained by their cultural mythology to value the story of individual selves--an Ahab or Huck or Isabel Archer--and find depressing stories in which such figures do not succeed. The last scene in Crane's "Open Boat," for example, troubles them because of the death of Billie, the powerful oiler who works so hard to save the fragile boat. These undergraduates may understand the intellectual arguments underlying Albert Einstein's relativity theory and Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle [emphases mine], yet they are not equipped to see ideas of uncertainty and relativity applied to their own mythology.

If my undergraduates resist the diminishing "self," many of my graduate students, sensitive to questions raised by contemporary gender studies and deconstruction, have a different kind of problem, yet they, too, are locked into traditional "American" stereotypes: "Why," they ask, "do we have to read Walter Clark's Ox-Bow Incident?" and "What's western' about Wright Morris's Field of Vision?" Common to the questions of both undergraduates and graduates is the power of the culture's mythology of the self-sufficient individual.

Here are some of my students' comments regarding Clark's novel:

   "Last week I found Silko's Ceremony the best book I had read this
   semester as well as the most provocative. This week's Ox-Bow
   Incident may not have been the worst text that I read this semester
   but is without a doubt the most offensive."

   "A more assuredly 'manly' text than even Wister's Virginian, its
   narrator is not only blatantly sexist but racist as well. In a land
   where God is dead what is needed is a man.... Male courage and pride
   is the ultimate achievement."

The strong feeling fascinates me in these comments. Upset by what they perceive as challenge to gender/cultural myth, they fail to see the real power and therefore the real threat of these myths in the action occurring in The Ox-Bow Incident.

By reacting to what they label "western," these readers package and target their frustration. A macho clay pigeon is set up and shot at, and the easy hit makes it possible for the shooter to walk away feeling clean, superior to the imagined powers of the myth. Such a reaction of assumed enlightened awareness, however, is an illusion, and in that illusion lies the real danger of" the myth. …

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