America Re-Imagined, in Retrospect: Fifty Notable American Novels about the “West”: 9-11.

 

Clark, Walter van Tilburg.  The Track of the Cat.  New York: Random House, 1949.

Walter van Tilburg Clark had one of the more puzzling careers in recent American letters.  His first novel, The Ox-Bow Incident, was widely praised, and its successful adaptation to film brought even more attention to it.  His second novel, The City of Trembling Leaves (1945), is a thick, largely autobiographical, coming of age story that did nothing to damage his reputation, even if it did not much enhance it.  Then, with The Track of the Cat, he produced a Western version of the prototypically American, allegorical quest depicted in Melville’s Moby Dick.  Very different from The Ox-Bow Incident, The Track of the Cat seemed to confirm that Clark was not a one-book wonder but genuinely a major new voice in American fiction.  When his stories, published throughout the 1940s in many major periodicals, were soon afterwards collected in The Watchful Gods and Other Stories (1950), no one suspected that the collection would mark the end of his productive career.

Like The Ox-Bow Incident, The Track of the Cat is set in the ranch country of northern Nevada.  A mountain lion is preying on the cattle on the Bridges’ ranch, and, in turn, the Bridges’ brothers—Arthur, Curt, and Harold—set off to kill it.  After Arthur and Curt have died in the effort, Harold finally manages to kill the lion, with the assistance of the Indian, Joe Sam.  The hunting story is layered with myths, dreams, and hallucinations that give it complex, symbolic levels of meaning.  The characters, human and animal, are vivid on a literal level, but they clearly are meant to have both universal and distinctly American archetypal associations.

 

Cooper, James Fenimore.  The Prairie.  1827.

Any discussion of the frontier in American literature or of the Western as a genre must begin with a discussion of James Fenimore Cooper’s work.  One of his best novels, The Prairie focuses on the last years in the life of his recurring protagonist, Leatherstocking.  As the settlers have streamed into the woodlands east of the Mississippi, the old frontiersman has moved out onto the edge of the great prairies west of the river.

Leatherstocking’s solitude is broken by the appearance of a small wagon train carrying the Bush clan westward.  Already wanted for murder, the head of the clan has kidnapped a genteel young woman who he hopes will bring a sizable ransom.  When a raiding party of Sioux drives off the Bushes’ horses and threatens them, Leatherstocking leads them to a butte where they can hold off any further attack.  These events delay the Bushes long enough to allow the new husband of the kidnapped young woman to catch up with the Bushes and eventually to rescue her, with the help of Natty Bumpo and several others who have come on the scene.  The Bushes ally themselves with the Sioux, the Indians who had initially attacked them, and to defeat them, Leatherstocking arranges the help of the Pawnees, the Sioux’s traditional enemies.

 

Cushman, Dan.  Silver Mountain.  New York: Appleton, 1957.

A native and lifelong resident of Montana, Dan Cushman began his career as a novelist by producing paperback originals in the action-adventure genre.  These novels were set in the exotic corners of the world across a broad range of time periods.  Along the way, Cushman developed  a rollicking Western series about a legendary outlaw of the mining country named Comanche John.  The success of these novels inspired him to focus on historical novels on subjects related to the economic development of Montana and the political shenanigans that accompanied it.

For Silver Mountain, Cushman received the Spur Award for the best historical novel from the Western Writers of America.   Cushman was praised not only for the historical accuracy of his depiction of the transformation of silver mining from a chaotic “rush” to an organized industry, but also for his narrative success in making the history seem immediate.  As in most of his fictions, Cushman is interested in how sudden wealth, whether legitimately or illicitly acquired, affects different personalities.

For decades, Cushman was best known for Stay Away, Joe, a darkly comic tale of reservation life, focusing on a charming rogue.  Among reservation Indians, it was for many years one of the most popular reads.  But Native American writers, in particular James Welch, began to condemn the novel as a patronizing and exploitative depiction of the corrosive effects of reservation life. Its film adaptation into a trite but popular vehicle for Elvis Presley had kept it in the popular consciousness for several decades, but that superficial impression of the novel eventually seemed to substantiate the claims that it was exploitative.

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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/

America Re-Imagined, in Retrospect: Fifty Notable American Novels about the “West”: 6-8: https://academeblog.org/2014/09/20/america-re-imagined-in-retrospect-fifty-notable-american-novels-about-the-west-6-8/

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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”: 9-11.

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