A Companion to the Literature and Culture of the American West

By Nicolas S. Witschi | Go to book overview

16
New West, Urban and Suburban
Spaces, Postwest

Krista Comer

It was likely a foolish business, this going to Oregon, but it was good to think about,
like thinking about getting out of old ways and free of old places. Like his pa had said
once, telling about coming down the Ohio in a flatboat, there wasn’t any place as pretty
as the one that lay ahead. (A.B. Guthrie, Jr. The Way West, 1949).
I dont know, said John Grady. I dont know where it [my country] is. I dont know what
happens to country. (Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses, 1992).

The above epigraph drawn from A.B. Guthrie’s novel The Way West cogently captures the nexus of associations tied up with nineteenth-century westering which would come to characterize US nationalism in the twentieth century: risk-taking (however seemingly foolish), populism, fresh starts, new ways and places, intrepid travel and mobility, an orientation toward the future and optimism. But of course Guthrie’s The Way West is not written in the nineteenth century; it is a historical novel published in the immediate period following World War II. One hundred years after colonial territorial disputes in North America are largely settled and national identity formation and its exclusions are established, The Way West recounts the classic tale of a journey of settlers traveling from Independence, Missouri, along the Oregon Trail, to disputed British territory where they stake American land claims. Judging from its commercial popularity, eventual translation into film, and critical recognition by the 1950 Pulitzer Prize, The Way West resonated broadly with postwar US readers.

Like the majority of immediate postwar narratives produced about the West including, influentially, popular cinematic westerns, The Way West did not represent the West through realist convention or style. If contemporaries like John Cheever or, a bit later, John Updike, were writing about the outlier spaces surrounding New York City and Boston in modes that critic Frederick Karl calls suburban realism (Karl 2004), it

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