America Re-Imagined, in Retrospect: Fifty Notable American Novels about the “West”: 6-8.

Capps, Benjamin. The Trail to Ogallala.  New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1964.

The Trail to Ogallala is Capps’s most acclaimed novel, receiving the Spur Award of Western Writers of America, for best western novel of 1964, the Levi Strauss Golden Saddleman Award, for best western writing of 1964, and a citation by National Association of Independent Schools as one of ten best books of 1964 for pre-college readers.  In addition, the American Booksellers Association selected it for inclusion in the White House library.

The novel focuses on one of the last great cattle drives from Texas to the Kansas railheads.  Those who are participating in the cattle drive are aware that the open range is disappearing as ranchers begin to string barbed wire across the plains and that the rails being laid along all of the old trails are making the drives unnecessary.  So there is a poignant undercurrent of anticipated nostalgia in some of the cowboys’ exhilaration at participating in the drive.  This emotional ambivalence is certainly present in the novel’s main character, Billy Scott, who is leading the cattle drive.

 

Cather, Willa.  My Antonia.  Boston: Houghton, 1918.

Willa Cather was the first “serious” novelist to make the settlement of the western United States the focal point of her work.  Her novels and short stories offered a striking alternative to the popular Western’s representation of the West as a region dominated by hard men, gun play, blood feuds, and predatory Indians and beasts.  Without minimizing the challenges posed by frontier life, Cather focused on characters whose lives were defined for the most part by cycles of repetitive and often grueling labor, by family relationships and rather limited community contacts, and by events such as marriages, births, and deaths that are typically mundanely, rather than melodramatically, celebratory or tragic.  In addition, Cather’s protagonists were female, rather than male, and immigrants, rather than native-born yeoman farmers.

My Antonia is generally regarded as Cather’s most well-executed and affecting novel.  It is narrated by Jim Burden, who has educated at an Eastern university and has pursued a successful law career in the East.  When he returns to the Nebraska community where he grew up, he reconnects with Antonia Shimerda.  When they were much younger, they had had a deep, but unconsummated and largely unexpressed romantic attraction to each other.  Yet, after Jim had gone away to the university, they had gradually lost touch.  Antonia eventually became involved with a railroad worker, who abandoned her after making her pregnant.  After dealing with the stigma of being an unwed mother, Antonia married a farmer with whom she had many more children and a generally happy, if often exhausting, life.  When Jim Burden reconnects with her, she is in some ways very different from the girl he had known, and yet in certain fundamental ways, she has managed to maintain a true sense of herself.

 

Clark, Walter Van Tilberg.  The Ox-Bow Incident.  New York: Random, 1940.

One of the novels that marked the literary reclamation of the American West, The Ox-Bow Incident bridges the genres of the Western and the novel of ideas.  Two cowboys drift into the town of Bridger’s Wells from the isolation of the winter range.  Everyone in town is strangely on edge, and when news comes that a local rancher has been murdered by rustlers, a vigilante posse is formed to run the rustlers to ground.  This posse comes across three men driving a small herd of cattle and, despite the men’s protests that they are innocent of any crimes, decide to lynch them.  Not long afterwards, word comes that the supposedly murdered rancher is, in fact, very much alive and well.

The novel is, as a cowboy might say, long on talk and relatively short on action, but it is nevertheless very suspenseful.  The efficacy and morality of mob justice is debated by a broad range of voices from among the townspeople and then among those who do join the posse.  But the major voices are those of Devlin, the newspaperman, who tries to defuse the mob mentality with well-reasoned arguments, and Major Tetley, a former Confederate officer, who uses demagoguery to incite the mob.  Initially, the novel resonated among American readers because it seemed to be an allegory about the appeal of fascism even among ostensibly free peoples.  Later, during the Civil Rights era, this tale of lynching seemed an allegory linking the stirring myths of the conquest of the West with the great national shame of slavery and racism.

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Previous Posts in This Series:

America Re-Imagined, in Retrospect: Fifty Notable American Novels about the “West”: 1-2: https://academeblog.org/2014/09/10/america-re-imagined-in-retrospect-fifty-notable-american-novels-about-the-west-1-2/

America Re-Imagined, in Retrospect: Fifty Notable American Novels about the “West”: 3-5: https://academeblog.org/2014/09/16/america-re-imagined-in-retrospect-fifty-notable-american-novels-about-the-west-3-5/

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Posts in the Previous Series:

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 1-3: https://academeblog.org/2014/05/30/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-1-3/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 4-5: https://academeblog.org/2014/05/31/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-4-5/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 6-7: https://academeblog.org/2014/06/01/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-6-7/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 8-10: https://academeblog.org/2014/06/04/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-8-10/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 11-13: https://academeblog.org/2014/06/06/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-11-13/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 14-16: https://academeblog.org/2014/06/11/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-14-16/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 17-19: https://academeblog.org/2014/06/18/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-17-19/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 20-22: https://academeblog.org/2014/06/25/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-20-22/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 23-25: https://academeblog.org/2014/07/07/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-23-25/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 26-29: https://academeblog.org/2014/07/11/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-26-29/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 30-32: https://academeblog.org/2014/07/23/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-30-32/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 33: https://academeblog.org/2014/07/29/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-33/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 34-36: https://academeblog.org/2014/08/10/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-34-36/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 37-39: https://academeblog.org/2014/08/15/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-37-39/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 40-42: https://academeblog.org/2014/08/21/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-40-42/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 43-45: https://academeblog.org/2014/08/23/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-43-45/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 46-48: https://academeblog.org/2014/08/26/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-46-48/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 49-50: https://academeblog.org/2014/08/30/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-49-50/

 

 

17 thoughts on “America Re-Imagined, in Retrospect: Fifty Notable American Novels about the “West”: 6-8.

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