A Companion to the Literature and Culture of the American West

By Nicolas S. Witschi | Go to book overview

23
The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far from
the Tree: Western American
Literature and Environmental
Literary Criticism

Hal Crimmel

Critics of western American literature have always been sensitive to questions of place and the human relationship to nature, while the more recent advent of ecocriticism has more specifically addressed those concerns. This essay seeks to explore the roots of the relationship between western American literature and ecocriticism, and trace the ongoing evolution of the interrelationship between the two.

Our first step is to attempt a definition of western literature. Though the task is complicated by the tremendous expansion of its horizons over the years, the standard definition of western American literature is still relevant: all literature written about places west of the 100th meridian, the oft-cited line beyond which agriculture is impossible without irrigation. This standard definition also encompasses topics traditionally considered “western” such as those dealing with open spaces, ranching, mining, agriculture, and wild lands – in short, the elements of the “Old” West. Or, as Kathleen A. Boardman describes it, “Traditionally the West has represented the frontier, the self-reliant white male hero, the myth of virgin land and the fresh start, the safety valve for illiterates and misfits, the last gasp of the American Dream and the backwater of the American mainstream” (1997: 45).

Four decades ago, this definition seemed unproblematic. Even if the canon of western American literature and history was in fact more diverse than mainstream definitions reflected, the wave of poststructuralist-driven criticism that would open the canon and its criticism was still some distance away, though the ideas had certainly been lapping at the coasts for some time. Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl,” for example, was performed in 1955 in San Francisco. But its anti-capitalist agenda and explicit descriptions of homosexual behavior were not topics that mainstream America was ready to accept as American, let alone “western.” The space of the West was still

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