In the September High Country News, Laura Pritchett wrote that she doesn’t want to live up to some stereotyped image of the “new” western woman if it means she has to gut trout (“The Western Lit Blues”). She’s “starting to get a little worried” that westerners have lives that are more complex than the ones she sometimes sees portrayed on the printed page. “There’s more going on with life out here in the West than is often rendered in books,” she says. But the publishers—mostly in New York–“expect certain patterns” and “want stereotypes to be affirmed.” At the same time, they want a novel to reflect the “authentic” West.
In a novel, the plot is driven by one of two questions. One is, “What is the character thinking? The other is, “What happens next?” Thanks to a very complicated interplay of literary supply and demand, the nineteenth and early twentieth West produced an inordinate number of “What happens next” books. Adventure books, romance books. In 1902 Owen Wister called his own novel, The Virginian, a “colonial romance.” And the demand for horse operas and ten-penny potboilers led to books called “westerns” and “westerns” led to all this stereotyping.
Given ink enough and time, I could cite hundreds of exceptions. I’d drag Mary Austin and Wallace Stegner to the witness stand, get testimony from John Steinbeck and Leslie Silko and Mari Sandoz, take depositions from Rudolfo Anaya and Jimmy Santiago Baca as well as John Nichols, Norman Maclean, Edward Abbey and James Galvin. And even those hundreds of fine writers have not yet exhausted all the aspects of life out West.
Outside of potboiler supply and demand, why do we have “westerns” but not “easterns”? Is there some fundamental difference between John Steinbeck and Thomas Wolfe, between Frank Waters and William Faulkner? “Everyone who lives in the West,” Laura Pritchett writes, “is influenced by terrain, weather and nature.”
Writers took notice of the landscape factor long, long ago, when the term “out west” meant anywhere beyond the sunset side of the Ohio River. Every literary pundit worth their salt block has observed how landscape functions as a character in Western fiction.
Two of the brightest critics went a step further. Dr. James Folsom was a professor at CU and John R. Milton was editor of South Dakota Review. What they observed is this: Eastern writing tends to be compatible with Freudian thought, whereas Western writing “seems to lie within the sphere of Jungian influence” (Milton, The Novel of the American West).
Let me explain. It means that American fiction written about the land east of the Mississippi River (or the 90th parallel, your choice) tends to begin with a character (“Call me Ishmael”) and then turns inward to explore his/her psychological tensions, inner turmoils and mental tempests. It’s common in Eastern fiction to find out that some character feels hopeless, another one can’t work out a sexual identity, another one is pressured to become his own father and still another one gains limitless wealth and power but feels like crap. These stories can take place in the inner city, the outer banks or the middle of Middlesex, it just doesn’t matter. Any newspaper office, walk-up apartment, ghetto, seaside resort or city park is good enough because the place doesn’t have much of a function in a yarn about inner psychology.
When Western fiction became seriously literary at the beginning of the twentieth century, critics noticed that novels such as The Big Sky or Lord Grizzly or Ceremony or Bless Me, Ultima or The Man who Killed the Deer tended to begin with a character in conflict and then move outward into the environment. The environment starts acting like a character while the protagonist moves toward it and interacts with it. In numerous novels, such as Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s impressive novel Track of the Cat, the environment becomes the antagonist.
You can see the difference in Cormac McCarthy. Noticing that the main character in All the Pretty Horses has lost his father, is disillusioned by his circumstances and has only one friend who is another coming-of-age male, you are tempted to have ol’ Cormac lie down on the Freudian fainting couch and examine his feelings about his parents.
However, the personal inner stresses of these two Texas boys fade out. Their lives open into the landscape of the Mexican border country. They become mythic, archetypal figures. They act out the pattern of “separation, initiation, return” that Joseph Campbell described. The focus begins with them and reaches out into the environment and they are young warriors on a vision quest, young initiates confronting such forces of nature as greed, sex, fear and all the rest of the good stuff.
Laura Pritchett would like to see fictional characters rounding out the literary canon with more of the “vast underlying psychology” of humankind. And meanwhile she would like to be a writer who is recognized for her human insights, not as a writer who wears a Stetson and perches on the top rail rollin’ her own smokes. She might write a novel about some “tough and strong outdoorsy” New Wester who owns two kayaks, three mountain bikes, four colors of Chaco sandals and a blue Subaru, but Laura doesn’t want readers assuming that she is that character.
Owen Wister might be a model to turn to. In 1902 he was a young Easterner visiting Wyoming. He thought he’d write a book about how a snotty young schoolteacher named Molly Wood showed those Wyoming hicks a thing or two about Eastern manners. What Wister ended up with was a mythic tale of a nameless man of high morals earning his spurs and not succumbing to the frontier’s insistent pressure to become uncivilized and savage. The man they called the Virginian, Owen Wister discovered, was not only a true Westerner but a “natural aristocrat.”
Laura’s opening line is “I’m a-getting’ tired of living up to my fictional counterpart.” Wister went on to spend several more summers in Wyoming and wrote several more stories and novels about the people he found there. But I have never read anywhere that his readers expected him to live like the Virginian or like Lin McLean or any of his characters. East or West, maybe a writer just needs to be pretty good at the craft and not worry about trying to live the “authentic life.”
Whatever that is.
Dr. James Work is the editor of the textbook Prose and Poetry of the American West, past-president of the Western Literature Association, and author of eight novels set in the West.