Western American Literature, currently housed at Utah State University but seeking a new institutional home, regularly publishes ten or so book reviews plus three or four critical essays on the culture of the American West in each quarterly issue, to an audience focused on critical analysis of the literature and culture of the American West. No fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction is presented here.
Given these parameters, this issue is very rewarding. Reviews of the following titles, among others, appear here: Riding Shotgun into the Promised Land, a novel by John Lloyd Purdy (reviewed fairly, as a book in which “there is little that threads it together beyond the protagonist’s undeniable urge to keep moving,” by Dallin Jay Bundy, of Utah State University); Writing the Irish West: Ecologies and Traditions, an analysis by Eamonn Wall of “Western-ness” in Ireland as American theoretical approaches like ecocriticism and ecofeminism help define it (reviewed helpfully by David Mogen of Colorado State University); and No More Heroes: Narrative Perspective and Morality in Cormac McCarthy, a close reading by Lydia R. Cooper of McCarthy’s novels to underscore “the crucial role of narrative in ‘bearing witness to moral courage’” in that author’s work (reviewed thoroughly and cogently by Trenton Hickman of Brigham Young University). As an English professor in a teaching university in the middle of the American West, I find these reviews thoroughly satisfactory: scholarly, current, useful to me in summarizing and judging the value of the books in question, and indicative of the wide variety of issues surrounding the literature and culture of this region.
The three scholarly essays in this volume are similarly commendable in their academic scope. Having just read Hickman’s review of Cooper’s book on McCarthy, I dove into Alan Noble’s fine “Narrative, Being, and the Dialogic Novel: The Problem of Discourse and Language in Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing” with an already-clear sense of the language issues inherent in McCarthy criticism. Noble begins by briefly introducing explaining Bakhtin’s concept of the “polyphonic” novel, a text that “allows for several conflicting voices to coexist without a single privileged voice overtaking the work.” He summarizes Christine Chollier’s Bakhtinian criticism of McCarthy, asserting that because she focuses on internal dialogism, she “leaves room for other critics” to analyze “how individual voices [in McCarthy] are presented as valid even as they compete in the same text.”
Robert L. Jarrett, another McCarthy critic, also employs Bakhtinian terms as he explores McCarthy’s use of various languages and dialects in The Crossing to create a “heteroglot” text. But Noble extends these critics’ notions of McCarthy’s dialogism. Though it can be said that the leveling voice of The Crossing’s narrator appears to nullify the polyphony of the Spanish, priestly, and gypsy voices of the three principal storytellers whose anecdotes constitute important themes in the novel, Noble argues that the themes themselves are confirmed by the consistency of the narrator’s voice. Noble contends that the purpose of McCarthy’s novel is to explore “the belief that life is comprised of and validated through narratives such that the referential value of the stories we tell is secondary to the telling.” The narrator’s consistent translation of the characters’ stories into his Biblical, archaic style renders them all variations on that theme. Language alone constitutes meaning. Things don’t “mean” in and of themselves. Thus, the intrusion of the narrator’s voice into these stories intensifies the ontological questions the characters’ stories set up: where does meaning reside? His excellent essay demonstrates that the complex use of point of view in the novel is part and parcel of the theme. The logic is clear, the proof well-chosen. I am convinced that McCarthy criticism is a rich field for the student of the American West.
The remaining two essays in this issue of WAL present equally stimulating and persuasive material. Martha L. Viehmann’s essay “Speaking Chinook: Adaptation, Indigeneity, and Pauline Johnson’s British Columbia Stories” responds to a common objection to mixed-race, mixed-motive artists of the West as it investigates Johnson’s double life as “Mohawk Princess and Victorian Poetess.” Though Johnson “performed” her stories in late nineteenth-century London wearing a faux Indian dress, using the Chinook language, but poorly, and playing up to stereotypical expectations about Indians, Viehmann (who admits that her first impressions of Johnson were negative) takes pains to show that Johnson, like other cross-cultural artists, actually played an important role. Such mixing of traditions as she exemplified is necessary as cultures meet and adapt.
Too, Amy T. Hamilton and Tom J. Hillard’s “Before the West was West: Rethinking the Temporal Borders of Western American Literature” is fascinating, historically rich and theoretically relevant. With this issue of WAL I am convinced that criticism of the American West is far-reaching and meticulous. The journal is a deep well of scholarly concern for a thoroughly significant, multilayered, dynamic subculture of our literary landscape.