On the Trail of Western Writing

THROUGH 10 authors, William Bevis traces four phases of regional writing: 19th-century fiction of empire and hope; romanticizing of the West that followed its settling; ``realistic revolt'' in reaction to the romanticizing; and ``modern'' writing where the emphasis is on ``making certain it goes on.'' Bevis is interested in what really happened. And the best way to find out is to question what did happen. How did concepts about the West, about wilderness and civilization, about humanity's role in the world lead to what happened? His questions are not limited to the past. He wants to know how literature from the region influences our consciousness and our humanity today.

In ``The Big Sky,'' A.B. Guthrie Jr. makes Boone Caudill embody ``a European fantasy of escape from civilization, from complication, from responsibility.'' It is an escape from everything but ultimate individualism so extreme that, though it brings settlers into Paradise, it also brings them to Paradise Lost. The invading European culture turns all things into earnings until the buffalo are gone and most of the Indians are gone or subdued.

Nannie Alderson's ``A Bride Goes West'' chronicles ``the beginning of the modern West,'' roughly dating from the demise of the buffalo. ``The beef boom was a cattle rush, a mercantile, not an agrarian frontier.'' It meant that ``European industrial culture was moving fast, destroying every way of life in its path, but where it was going, and why, and who was in charge, no one seemed to know.'' 52

In his section on native American culture, Bevis says that ``American whites keep leaving home: ... for better opportunities in a newer land. ... The individual advances ... with little or no regard for family, society, past, or place.''

By contrast, in most native American novels ``The hero comes home. These `homing' plots all present tribal past as a gravity field stronger than individual will. These novels suggest that `identity' ... is not a matter of finding `one's self,' but of finding a `self' that is transpersonal. To be separated from that transpersonal time and space is to lose identity. These novels ... suggest ... a tribal rather than individual definition of being. ... [with] three components: society, past, and place.''93-98

Bevis presents the difference in concepts that allowed the invading culture to attack nature.

When the earth, the water, all the animals, the past, all individuals, even knowledge, are all part of the tribe, and the individual is meaningful only in the context of the tribe, individual action without consideration for all possible consequences is impossible. ``Such aspirations toward tribal reintegration ... constitute a profound and articulate continuing critique of modern European culture ... . '' 105

Indeed. Understanding the difference in concepts could lead to the expansion of consciousness in the industrial culture to incorporate some of the Indians' wisdom, so that we can improve our own lives and our relationship to everything around us.

The comparison of Caudill Boone, the ultimate individual, with the plots and characters of the Indian novels is telling. Bevis's understanding of both approaches is acute, well explained, and probably the most important point in an important book.

But don't read it just because it is important. Read it because it is well written and entertaining as well as educational. Bevis does not stop on this dark point of the failure of European thoughts and ethics but goes on to say, despite everything that hasn't been done right in the West and despite the recurring theme, ``It's all gone now,'' 6 that it isn't all gone. There's a lot left. With everything we know now, we can save it.

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