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Title:Countering the Frontier: Early Western American Fiction and the Geography of Desire
Author(s):Ramirez, Karen Elizabeth
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Baym, Nina
Department / Program:English
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):History, United States
Abstract:This dissertation considers how major works of early western American fiction known for popularizing a mythicized, frontier American West also complicate and challenge the nationalistic desire for that very frontier geography. I use the concept of desire, theorized as a force that allows for the coexistence of seemingly contradictory objectives, as a framework for examining how Bret Harte's stories, Owen Wister's The Virginian, Helen Hunt Jackson's Ramona, and Willa Cather's early Nebraska novels juxtapose representations of western physical and cultural geography as frontier with representations of other desires that counter this mapping by portraying the terrain as populated, culturally diverse, and marked by human activity. My Introduction traces the frontier myth's development, its association with the late-nineteenth-century American West, and the history of the literary criticism that helped solidify the idea of frontier literature. Turning to the fiction, I show how Harte's California is culturally diverse and how he wittily deflates frontier mythology and challenges cultural assumptions about women and people of color underwritten by the myth. I show that Wister's Virginian is as much an Eastern, entrepreneurial negotiator as a cowboy individualist and suggest that Wister appropriates a rugged-West ideal to counter democratic individualism and demonstrate how the West allows "naturally" superior people to rise. I read Jackson's Ramona as a protest against the frontier ideology behind American Indian policy and show how Ramona questions divisions between supposed "primitive" and "civilized" people by presenting California as populated with settled, complex cultures. In conclusion, I show how Cather maps the western terrain through an inventory of human interventions on the land that non-preferentially interweave a frontier-minded, appropriative vision of the land with a more communitarian, ecological vision; Cather thereby exposes the frontier myth as one mapping of the West, one desired geography. Through these readings, I suggest that early western American fiction provides a dialogic narrative that is multidirectional and sometimes subversive---a narrative that reveals the permeability inherent in any spatial or literary categories and that draws study of early western fiction into dialog with recent revisionist studies of more contemporary "new western" regionalism.
Issue Date:2003
Description:353 p.
Thesis (Ph.D.)--University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2003.
Other Identifier(s):(MiAaPQ)AAI3101952
Date Available in IDEALS:2015-09-25
Date Deposited:2003

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