Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

On the Trail of Western Writing

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

On the Trail of Western Writing

Article excerpt

THROUGH 10 authors, William Bevis traces four phases of regional writing: 19th-century fiction of empire and hope; romanticizing of the West that followed its settling; "realistic revolt" in reaction to the romanticizing; and "modern" writing where the emphasis is on "making certain it goes on."

Bevis is interested in what really happened. And the best way to find out is to question what did happen. How did concepts about the West, about wilderness and civilization, about humanity's role in the world lead to what happened? His questions are not limited to the past. He wants to know how literature from the region influences our consciousness and our humanity today.

In "The Big Sky," A.B. Guthrie Jr. makes Boone Caudill embody "a European fantasy of escape from civilization, from complication, from responsibility." It is an escape from everything but ultimate individualism so extreme that, though it brings settlers into Paradise, it also brings them to Paradise Lost. The invading European culture turns all things into earnings until the buffalo are gone and most of the Indians are gone or subdued.

Nannie Alderson's "A Bride Goes West" chronicles "the beginning of the modern West," roughly dating from the demise of the buffalo. "The beef boom was a cattle rush, a mercantile, not an agrarian frontier." It meant that "European industrial culture was moving fast, destroying every way of life in its path, but where it was going, and why, and who was in charge, no one seemed to know." 52

In his section on native American culture, Bevis says that "American whites keep leaving home: ... for better opportunities in a newer land. ... The individual advances ... with little or no regard for family, society, past, or place."

By contrast, in most native American novels "The hero comes home. These `homing' plots all present tribal past as a gravity field stronger than individual will. …

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