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BOOK REVIEW : Meditations on American West Literature : PROSE AND POETRY OF THE AMERICAN WEST edited by James C. Work ; University of Nebraska Press, $25 paper, 728 pages

May 24, 1991|JUDITH FREEMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The first thing one discovers, upon opening this new anthology of Western literature from the University of Nebraska Press, is what an ambitious undertaking it is. More than 700 pages long, it covers four centuries of writing from the region Teddy Roosevelt once called "the cradle of Americanism."

The "cradle" seems rather dusty and forgotten these days, except in the world of memorabilia, where vintage Western movie posters and Roy Rogers' toy ranch sets bring top dollar.

So many of its myths have been debunked that we Americans have new frontiers to define our spirit, lines drawn on distant sands. The Old West appears as exciting as a strip mall in this context, a place tamed and transformed into a recreational backdrop for fun-seekers, a big theme park where the small rancher, native animals and old-growth trees are regarded as disappearing curios.

So what can a new anthology of Western literature offer us? The experience of collective memory? An invitation to re-examine history? Entertainment of the kind only good literature can offer? The answer to all the above: Yes.

The literature represented in "Prose and Poetry of the American West" illuminates a history of myth-making. So much of this writing reminds us of the centrality of myth-making in America, how we build an aggrandized sense of character out of the "can-do" spirit of domination that pervaded early conquest and exploration, which still infects our thinking.

These myths, editor James C. Work believes, are an utterance of the whole soul of a nation and, as such, are "inexhaustible to meditation," as one writer suggests. This anthology offers the opportunity for such meditation.

Work has done a commendable job of bringing together well-known and more obscure Western authors. We find women, American Indian and Chicano writers represented. The result is a richer mix, more variety, a layered set of views, from scholarly to anecdotal.

Work has grouped the writing according to four time periods, "The Emergence Period (1540-1832)," "The Mythopoeic Period (1833-1889)," "The Neomythic Period (1890-1914)" and "The Neowestern Period (1915 to present)."

Although this sounds rather academic, the divisions are useful categories, helping to arrange separate vocal parts into a chorus of overlapping and fascinating voices, an operatic history. We are given essays as well as fiction--and letters, journals, poetry.

Excerpts from the journals of Pedro de Castaneda and Lewis and Clark remind us of the strange beauty first encountered in the West, and the writings of John Wesley Powell (so understated and vivid) and Jedidiah Smith recount the almost unimaginably perilous conditions of exploration.

Luther Standing Bear, John Neihardt and Black Elk bear witness to the stain of genocide, the incalculable losses that were suffered, and Walt Whitman sings a heroic, arch-romantic and blatantly ethnocentric song in "Pioneers, O Pioneers!"

The editor has wisely chosen wherever possible to include shorter pieces in their entirety rather than excerpt a longer work, and this makes for satisfying reading.

Among the fiction writers, there are familiar names--Bret Harte, Willa Cather, Mark Twain--as well as unfamiliar ones--H. L. Davis ("Old Man Isbell's Wife"), Mary Hunter Austin ("The Walking Woman," a haunting story set near Mojave) and Mari Sandoz ("Bone Joe and the Smoking Woman").

These latter stories have interesting, modern tones, although they were written in the early part of this century.

An essay by Thomas Hornsby Ferril from 1937 appears fresh with insight: So much of Western writing, he suggests, is "devitalized by a low-grade mysticism dictated by landscape."

It's an affliction suffered by the "widely traveled and unwaveringly British" Isabella L. Bird. Her letters from America to her sister were published in 1879 as "A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains." They include the account of her harrowing ascent of Pike's Peak with a guide named "Mountain Jim" ("Mr. Nugent, as I always scrupulously called him").

In spite of a bad case of landscape mysticism, her courage and eagerness, and the slightly erotic descriptions of her Mr. Nugent, make this letter fascinating reading.

There came a point when the West ceased to be land, or even landscape, and became environment. In his "Wilderness Letter," Wallace Stegner tackles arch-romantic myths and addresses the reality of despoliation, the fear in our souls that we might lose it all--the land, the animals, the trees. He makes a powerful plea for preservation on spiritual grounds: "One means of sanity," he writes, "is to retain a hold on the natural world, to remain, insofar as we can, good animals."

Stories by Rudolf Anaya and N. Scott Momaday and the poetry of James Welch and Jimmy Santiago Baca are among those modern works that conclude the anthology--but it is really Stegner's wise voice that reverberates long after the book has been finished. Is there still time, one wonders, and have we the moral fortitude, to reverse certain trends?

In short, the anthology is thought-provoking and filled with diverse and beautiful writing. Work has provided a strong preface and concise author introductions, all of which help make this book a valuable addition to anyone's library.

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