A Companion to the Literature and Culture of the American West

By Nicolas S. Witschi | Go to book overview

9
North by Northwest: The Last
Frontier of Western Literature

Eric Heyne

Away up north and separated by a large hunk of Canada from the continental United States, Alaska is often thought of as an island of sorts. Its frequent depiction off the coast of Los Angeles on weather maps is a perversely apt expression of the general feeling that Alaska is a place apart, a mysterious hinterland, inhabited by its own uniquely large and wild fauna, and still magically in touch with the American dream of self-reliance, a Romantic rugged individualism that has elsewhere been exiled by technology and bureaucracy. Alaska is the exception that justifies American exceptionalism. How else explain the peculiar and powerful appeal of Sarah Palin except through the aura of Alaska? If she were governor of Nevada, say, would she ever have had a shot at ascending the national stage? And just as Palin is the strongest believer in her own myth, so many Alaskans are dedicated to the idea that they live in a place apart, a “last frontier” that, like Eden, one leaves only by going “Outside.”

What makes Alaska different, though, is mostly a heightened sense of many qualities that are recognizably western. Among the many important characteristics it shares with other western states are: a transient population of mixed ethnicity immigrating into areas inhabited by threatened Native communities; economies driven by resource extraction and its characteristic boom-and-bust cycles; federal control of huge tracts of land gathering hordes of tourists in a few select locations; disdain of government interference coupled with massive dependence on government subsidy; and a self image rooted in nostalgia for a nineteenth-century way of life that never really existed. There would be no denying that Alaska is western even if it didn’t contain the westernmost point of the United States (which it does). The interesting question is, how did that western culture change in moving from the “high plains” to the “far north” ? More specifically for our purposes, how does the literature of Alaska reflect both the

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