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Failed Frontiersmen

Failed Frontiersmen: White Men and Myth in the Post-Sixties American Historical Romance

Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 232
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  • Book Info
    Failed Frontiersmen
    Book Description:

    InFailed Frontiersmen,James Donahue writes that one of the founding and most persistent mythologies of the United States is that of the American frontier. Looking at a selection of twentieth-century American male fiction writers-E. L. Doctorow, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Ishmael Reed, Gerald Vizenor, and Cormac McCarthy-he shows how they reevaluated the historical romance of frontier mythology in response to the social and political movements of the 1960s (particularly regarding the Vietnam War, civil rights, and the treatment of Native Americans). Although these writers focus on different moments in American history and different geographic locations, the author reveals their commonly held belief that the frontier mythology failed to deliver on its promises of cultural stability and political advancement, especially in the face of the multicultural crucible of the 1960s.

    Cultural Frames, Framing CultureAmerican Literatures Initiative

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3684-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-IV)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. V-VI)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  4. Introduction: The American Historical Frontier Romance as Vehicle for Cultural Critique
    (pp. 1-28)

    Americans have always loved stories set on the frontier. The exploits of rugged frontiersmen like Natty Bumppo, Daniel Boone, Buffalo Bill, and others have long entertained readers of dime novels and literary fiction, as well as viewers of popular television shows and movies. Such figures and their romanticized adventures form the backbone of the mythology of the American frontier that, since America’s earliest days, has formed the bedrock upon which American cultural values have been built. In the 1960s, however, many writers took this mythology to task, calling into question the textual means by which that mythology had been transmitted,...

  5. 1 Rewriting the Historical Record: The “False Documents” and Failed Frontiersmen of E. L. Doctorow and John Barth
    (pp. 29-64)

    As Richard Slotkin demonstrates inRegeneration through Violence, the myth of Daniel Boone developed in large part due to the written accounts of his life and exploits by both American and European writers. The various treatments of Daniel Boone by John Filson in the late eighteenth century serve as the starting point to Boone’s development as a key figure in the American frontier mythology. Numerous American and European authors contributed to the development of the Boone myth by adding, deleting, or changing aspects of the narrative.¹ Slotkin articulates the inseparability of literature and mythology, especially regarding the American frontier myth:...

  6. 2 “Crimes of Demarcation”: Spatial and Cultural Transgression in Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon
    (pp. 65-93)

    Along with his contemporary John Barth, Thomas Pynchon has produced dense, complex works that challenge readers and critics alike with their formal and thematic convolutions. Just as the works of both writers are now widely considered to belong to the canon of historiographic metafiction, both writers were labeled early on as “black humorists,” a critical categorization that predated postmodernism and included many who became leading postmodern writers.¹ For the purposes of the present study,The Sot-Weed Factor and Mason & Dixonread as parallel texts in many ways, despite the nearly forty years that separate their respective composition: as exemplary instances...

  7. 3 The Signifyin’ Cowboy: Ishmael Reed’s Wild Western Reimaginations
    (pp. 94-114)

    In his landmark essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Frederick Jackson Turner noted of the American frontier: “In the settlement of America we have to observe how European life entered the continent, and how America modified and developed that life…. The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought.”¹ In a now-classic case of the erasure of African Americans from the American landscape, Turner cannot see the African American contributions to the development of the American frontier. The frontier is peopled by Europeans who, once mastered by...

  8. 4 Speaking for the Mixedblood Other: “Carefully Distorted” History in Gerald Vizenor’s The Heirs of Columbus
    (pp. 115-134)

    Founded in 1968 by two members of the Minnesota Anishinaabe (Chippewa) tribe, Dennis Banks and George Mitchell, the American Indian Movement, or AIM, “was self-consciously patterned after the Black Panther Party’s community self-defense model pioneered by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale two years previously in Oakland.”¹ Chapters quickly appeared across the country, and the goals of AIM in short time moved from local (Minnesota) issues to more national concerns. AIM quickly entered the public spotlight due to its numerous acts of occupation, perhaps most famously at Alcatraz in 1969 and at the “Siege of Wounded Knee” in 1973.² This...

  9. 5 “The World Which He Inherits Bears Him False Witness”: A Reading of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Border Trilogy
    (pp. 135-164)

    With these words, Judge Holden seeks to instruct his marauding followers—those western “bad men” who have aligned themselves with the judge’s evil pursuits—about the nature of the world. The world, the judge argues, is chaotic and inherently without order; whatever order it appears to have is an order we bring to it, a story of our own composition. In other words, a mythology of our own creation. The stories we tell—the myths we develop and pass down to succeeding generations—are complicated yet fragile inventions, like a string pulled around the twists and turns of a maze...

  10. Coda: New Directions for the Mythology of the American Frontier
    (pp. 165-172)

    The temptation to close, to limit, to set boundaries in time and space repeatedly reappears throughout the works examined in this study as a means of exerting control. Additionally, academic studies themselves are bound to set limits in the course of their work: What genre? What period? What area? What manifestation of the frontier? are all questions with which I have had to grapple. By defining the borders of a place, a period, or a genre, one attempts to exert mastery over the subject. However, as I have demonstrated above, such attempts at mastery by means of clearly defined boundaries...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 173-202)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 203-218)
  13. Index
    (pp. 219-222)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 223-223)