Textual Authenticity and the Contemporary West: John McPhee's Rising from the Plains

By Millard, Kenneth | Mosaic (Winnipeg), September 2014 | Go to article overview

Textual Authenticity and the Contemporary West: John McPhee's Rising from the Plains


Millard, Kenneth, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


A critical study of John McPhee's Rising from the Plains in the context of recent debates about the status of regional studies in a postmodern culture, this essay asks what it means to be authentically Western in a latetwentieth-century culture comprising simulacra.

In a recent interview about the American West entitled "Last Posts from a Vanishing Frontier," Larry McMurtry, asked about the Coen Brothers film True Grit, argued that True Grit was not really a western, on the grounds that "It's set in Arkansas. Arkansas is in the south" (9). Coincidentally perhaps, McMurtry's scrupulous concern for regional specificity and the sovereign importance of geographical location is a significant interest of Charles Portis's original novel True Grit. In the novel, the coming-of-age of Mattie Ross is coterminous with the coming-of-age of the nation, and that is partly characterized by the passing of the frontier. Mattie tells us that a simple country store that she visits on her journey through the territory "is now part of the modern little city of McAlester, Oklahoma" (154). The historical retrospective of True Grit looks back to a time before all borders and boundaries were set, but even in the late nineteenth century a sense of place could be misleading: Mattie vanquishes the auctioneer Stonehill, and he complains about Fort Smith, Arkansas: "I should never have come here. They told me this town was to be the Pittsburgh of the Southwest" (33); and later, "I was told this city was to be the Chicago of the Southwest" (77). Pittsburgh, Chicago: the transplanting of these cities to Arkansas is further evidence of the potential duplicity of a sense of place; this anxiety is endemic to True Grit, a novel with a particular interest in shifting lines of demarcation, whether they are geographical, historical, or ethical.

In fact, a sense of foundational "place" has always been shifting in the American West, and such changes raise important questions about the current theoretical positions of Western studies. What degree of ethical responsibility do writers and critics have to put proper things in their proper places, and how confident can we be, in a postmodern culture, about what proper places are? In a book significantly entitled All Over The Map, Edward Ayers argues that "from its very beginning, people have believed that the South, defined against an earlier South that was somehow more authentic, more real, more unified and distinct, was not only disappearing but declining" (69). Robert Brinkmeyer in Remapping Southern Literature argues that James Dickey's famously Appalachian novel Deliverance should not be understood principally as Southern because "though Dickey's novel is obviously not a western in terms of its setting, its fundamental plot patterns and thematic concerns make it a classic narrative of the frontier" (34). Similarly, Lee Clark Mitchell credits Nabokov's Lolita with "one of the most brilliant evocations of the West in the past half-century" (qtd. in Kollin 109), even though Nabokov was not American, let alone a Westerner. An important issue here is whether westerns have to take place in the West, or whether the literary genre has aesthetic conventions that can be transplanted to the South, or beyond. Does such transplantation fundamentally remove the genre from its foundational region, and can there be anything truly authentic about our conception of the West once it is so deracinated?

Such questions have characterized much recent thinking about what has come to be known as "post-regionalism" in a global economy where the locally authentic is sometimes deeply informed by cultural processes that are in fact wholly counterfeit, in a process sometimes termed "glocalization" (a designation that is integral to the analyses of global cultures conducted by critics such as Robbie Robertson, Benjamin Barber, and Arjun Appadurai). By these arguments, the "real" West is composed partly of images and narratives that we might know to be phony or ersatz, but which contribute to our sense of its putative authenticity nevertheless. …

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