Failed Frontiersmen: White Men and Myth in the Post-Sixties American Historical Romance
by James J. Donahue
University of Virginia Press
Published February, 2015
As a kid growing up in 1970s Sydney I made an accidental study of American culture by consuming untold hours of American television shows in between the odd local program (mostly Skippy repeats and Cop Shop). Weekends were not for the beach or the park but for bathing in the cathode rays of the beloved box as sunlight streamed through window slats and the songbirds twittered. (As I later assumed they did; I couldn’t hear them back then over the blare of the tube.) Not too much exposure, mind you, to contract the ‘Tubal abuse’ Thomas Pynchon saw ravaging the suburban landscape of Reaganite America, or, for that matter, the jaded irony David Foster Wallace feared had all but inured us to this sort of postmodern critique of mediatised culture. But enough to demonstrate to my students, in the lectures and tutorials decades hence, the generation gap yawning beneath each pop culture reference I would ever make in the bid to unriddle the literary one that still crouches sphinx-like between us.
Sundays were not the same without some offering from the golden years of Hollywood: sword and sandal epics, musicals, comedies, crime and costume dramas, disaster films and westerns, all introduced by the superlative laden voice of Bill Collins, whose bottomless knowledge of the catalogue and heavy framed spectacles suggested he must have watched them all, twice. The weekday gloom was lifted by sitcoms and serials like Happy Days and M*A*S*H, not to mention endless reruns of The Brady Bunch, Bonanza, and Daniel Boone, starring the coonskin-capped Fess Parker. At the appointed hour, I would chant the show’s theme song with my brother and sisters, which lodged in our brains like an advertising jingle. ‘Daniel Boone was a man, yes a BIIIIIG MAN!’ Something rhyming with oak tree next, then ‘The rippin’-est, roarin’-est, fightin’-est man / The frontier ever knew.’ I recall a bear lurking somewhere in the lyrics, as well as a knife, a gun, and varieties of animal taming and freedom fighting. The Daniel Boone I recall was more family man than pioneer, a consoling father figure who kept danger at bay and imparted laconic life lessons to his son Israel. Tough, resourceful, smart, handsome, reliable, likeable, Fess Parker’s Boone was a model of post-war masculinity, a man’s man, in the honorific term of the time.
It was not until the mid-1980s that I cast a more critical eye over the stock of cowboys-and-indians clichés filed away in my memory on all those lazy weekends, of which Daniel Boone was a just a sample. I was moved to do so not by the history textbook languishing in my schoolbag but by further bouts of television, this time screenings of Little Big Man (1970), Soldier Blue (1970), and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). While I didn’t realise it at the time, these revisionist westerns drew a share of their emotional energy from the civil unrest of the High Sixties (1967–1974) and the dismay over America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. In the final scene of Josey Wales, the outlaw hero (Clint Eastwood) is confronted at the bar Santa Rio by Captain Fletcher (John Vernon) with two Texas Rangers in tow. Rather than expose his alias to the Rangers, Fletcher makes it known that the notorious outlaw Josey Wales has escaped over the Mexican border, giving up the manhunt with the words ‘the war is over’. To a number of commentators, the film’s closing line — ‘I guess we all died a little in that damn war’ — referred to the Vietnam War, hinting at a series parallels between the post-Civil War community represented in the film and post-Vietnam America.
The enduring popularity of the western continues to provide filmmakers with a vehicle to critically address current socio-political concerns without sacrificing broad audience appeal. But that appeal is rooted in something deeper than escapism. As the mythic space of the American imagination, the frontier has never closed. It remains the place where America conceives its identity, its values, and its destiny. The effects of frontier mythology can be felt in the social and political fabric of everyday life. They recur in American foreign policy and immigration policy, for example, whenever the ‘clash of cultures’ is conceived in frontier imagery. The circle-the-wagons trope that keeps cropping up in American political discourse, though it wildly misrepresents the norm of peaceful interactions between white and Native American cultures along the overland trails in the mid-nineteenth century, continues to frame American attitudes to foreign cultures. The frontier line marked not just the westward movement of territorial expansion but a racial and cultural line that still keeps cultures and peoples apart.
The heroes of traditional frontier myth are white men engaged in a series of violent masculinity rites — the pioneer, the settler, the cowboy, the gunslinger — in which women and other races serve as either helpers, props or victims. The attempt to reimagine the frontier as more than just the rites of passage of white masculinity is evident in Django Unchained (2013), Quentin Tarantino’s blaxploitation pic. Django Unchained carves out a space for black self-making in this traditional mythology, and not just by weaponising the slave character. Django (Jamie Foxx) succeeds by the standards of white frontier masculinity, coming out on top despite the obstacles put in his way. The film makes clear which side of the colour line savagery sits in the figure of Calvin Candi (Leonardo DiCaprio), the slave owner we meet drooling over the death sport of Mandigo fighting. With the exception of Dr Schultz (Christoph Waltz), the German bounty hunter who liberates Django, Tarantino’s white characters arouse little more than derision. When Schultz can no longer conceal his horror at Candi’s vicious murder of a slave, who is torn apart by attack dogs, he points to a portrait of the slave owner’s favorite author, Alexander Dumas, and suggests the contempt in which the famous Frenchman — with his black heritage — would hold the likes of Candi. If America has lost touch with the humanising impulses in its European heritage, runs the suggestion, then it might still re-appropriate them for the better.
It has been argued that Django Unchained merely paints a black face on the violent white hero of traditional frontier mythology, but critics of the film, notably Spike Lee, miss the mark when they accuse Tarantino of insensitivity to America’s slave heritage. Lee objected to the spaghetti-western treatment of Holocaust material, but the figure of the black cowboy was not as unusual a sight in the American West as Lee seems to think. It has been estimated that one in four cowboys between 1860 and 1910 were black, with many more Mexicans making up the numbers. And while we can consign Mandigo fighting — for which there is no extant evidence — to the annals of Hollywood history, the effect of Tarantino’s film is to unsettle the audience’s received view of frontier history. The uproar over the film is another reminder that when it comes to frontier tales the historical record cannot be untangled from myth.
No post-war American writer has grasped this entanglement of history and myth better than John Barth in The Sot-Weed Factor (1960), a rollicking frontier tale where historical and fictional characters rub shoulders and historical documents are questioned in the light of invented ones. (It’s anyone’s guess where the planning process for Steven Soderbergh’s twelve-hour adaptation of Barth’s 800-page novel is up to – but here’s hoping Soderbergh fares better than Terry Southern and Aram Avakian, who adapted Barth’s previous novel, The End of the Road , with mixed success in 1970.) Barth’s comic epic follows the adventures of Ebenezer Cooke, indecisive poetaster and naïve son of a Maryland plantation owner, and his tutor, the orphan and spymaster Henry Burlingame III. Along with a host of minor characters, Cooke and Burlingame comically defy the traditional criteria of frontier masculinity represented by Daniel Boone. They are the ‘failed frontiersmen’, in the title of James J. Donahue’s illuminating monograph, who fall so ingloriously short of the ideal as to pile ridicule on it. The racism and sexism lurking in the ideal are in this way exposed to the judgment of post-war multicultural society, and the frontier is reimagined in ways that explore possibilities for social inclusion.
Critical engagement with traditional frontier mythology is especially noticeable in the work of the post-war male writers at the centre of Donahue’s study: John Barth, E. L. Doctorow, Thomas Pynchon, Ishmael Reed and Gerald Vizenor. Mindful of the limited scope of his study, Donahue acknowledges the shadow frontier mythology casts over sexual identity and gender politics, as explored by female writers such as E. Annie Proulx, whose short story from Close Range: Wyoming Stories (1999) was adapted by Ang Lee as Brokeback Mountain (2005). He offers his study as part of a wider and ongoing revision of the mythology that has no end in sight. The authors at the centre of Donahue’s book dramatise the failure of the traditional frontier myth at the textual level on which its authority is based.
In The Sot-Weed Factor, which provides Donahue with the clearest demonstration of his thesis, Cooke and Burlingame each discover the unreliable (and forgeable) nature of historical documents. Burlingame’s search for his family identity leads him to the discovery of two lost documents, A Secret Historie of the Voiage Up the Bay of Chesapeake (a fragment of the earliest recorded history of the colonies: Captain John Smith’s 1624 Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles) and The Privie Journall of Sir Henry Burlingame, in which Sir Henry, a portly member of Smith’s expedition, retells the famous voyage up the Chesapeake in 1608 in less heroic terms than those passed down by the historical record. Smith’s account of capture by chief Powhatan and rescue by the princess Pocahontas, though it has passed into the annals of American history, is all of a piece with the Daniel Boone mythology. Its authority is thrown into doubt by Sir Henry’s journal, which suggests Smith’s account is ‘a marvellous romance’ and ‘not so wondrous heroic after all’. The heroic tale legitimising white conquest is undercut in Sir Henry’s bawdy version of first contact; or as Donahue has it,
the ‘truth’ of the myths we inherit, if such truth is to be found at all, lies buried within the history that has been passed down to us.
Barth’s invented documents embolden our scepticism regarding the authority of the historical record. Burlingame retells his discoveries to Cooke as part of his tutelage, but Cooke, enthralled by the New World myth and the chance to immortalise it in verse, is a slow learner. His new status as Poet Laureate of Maryland turns out to be fraudulent, as does the Marylandiad he is commissioned to write, in which he idealises the colony and its inhabitants before clapping eyes on either. His reflections on the ‘salvage’ races are equally fraudulent and serve to foster our scepticism of settlers’ supposed knowledge of the native inhabitants. Cooke’s unfinished heroic epic, of a piece with frontier mythology, is abandoned in light of his travails in the colony, a dry-eyed experience of his fellow colonists he sets down in the Hudibratsics of ‘The Sot-Weed Factor’.
Cooke and his poem are in fact historical, though we know more about the poem than the man. Barth retells Cooke’s tale as a way of telling ours, criticising the frontier myth for its racism and sexism on the one hand, and transforming it in light of the democratic values of social inclusion on the other. Myths can’t be purged from the historical record, only rewritten.
Donahue sees the demonstration of this dual failure of the frontier ideal — on the level of character authenticity and on the level of historical / documentary authenticity — as the twin ingredients of key works of the post-war American fiction we lazily label postmodern. The Sot-Weed Factor has long been considered the first in a series of works heralding the end of realism and the rebirth of fiction in the reflexive forms of counterrealism: parody, fabulism, metafiction. Barth’s postmodernism – the amorphous term he did his best to beat into shape in a famous essay in The Atlantic – put noses out of joint by suggesting that realism had done its dash. The suggestion that novels could only live on in these apocalyptic times as post-novels, and authors as post-authors, struck those persisting with realist modes as either highfalutin or morally dangerous, and probably both. The charge of aesthetic narcissism — or political resignation — was left to hang over Barth.
One of the virtues of Donahue’s study is to show how Barth anticipated and addressed the social concerns of the High Sixties by rewriting the conventional terms of America’s frontier mythology. His suggestion that Barth’s counterrealism was a turn towards, and not away from, the political storms of the period marks some progress in the tired debates around postmodernism – the term we all love to hate but can’t quite dispense with. To his credit, Donahue barely mentions the p-word. Because he shifts the ground from periodisation to genre, he doesn’t have to. Barth’s search for new narrative modes led him through the history of the novel to its origins in the parody of the romance: Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. The model for The Sot-Weed Factor is the eighteenth-century English comic novel — itself so many drafts of Cervantes’ great novel — and specifically Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, but its frontier setting places it squarely in the American romance tradition of James Fenimore Cooper and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
The political goals of E. L. Doctorow’s Welcome to Hard Times (1960), Ishmael Reed’s Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969), and Gerald Vizenor’s The Heirs of Columbus (1991) – the other post-war novels in Donahue’s study – are easy enough to identify. But those of The Sot-Weed Factor, with its bawdy sendup of the Pocahontas story, Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (1997), with its talking dog and mechanical duck, and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985), with enough scenes of mindless carnage stuffed into its pages to make Tarantino blanch, hardly leap off the page.
They come into view when we change the lens from postmodernism to genre. The periodising bent of postmodernism theory can’t do without the fiction of a radical break in history. Linda Hutcheon’s term ‘historiographic metafiction’ required such a ‘rupture’. It is through the ultimately implausible idea that reflexivity, playfulness and scepticism are unique to the present historical moment that Hutcheon draws together the concerns of a generation of writers, now in their eighties. The constellation of authors Donahue traces can still be made out with Hutcheon’s concept, just not as clearly; for it suits some (Barth) better than others (McCarthy), and it cuts them all off from the American romance tradition of Cooper and Hawthorne. Donahue offers a compelling case for viewing them not as postmodern historical novels (or historiographic metafictions), but as American historical frontier romances.
The romance is the medium of American mythology and American cultural values. It is better suited than realism to the mythic space of the American imaginary, notes Donahue, because of its ability to imagine alternative histories that disturb the present. When critically engaged, the romance is a vehicle of cultural critique:
The romance, as opposed to the novel, is not bound to historical fidelity, or even the normal operations of the world in which we live. If the novel is the vehicle for realism, the romance is the vehicle for imagination, for the world not as it is but as it could be (or, in the case of the Historical Romance, as it could have been.) As long as it has been the romance that has served as the vehicle for American cultural values by engaging the mythology of the American frontier and disseminating the values of that mythology to the reading public, it is only fitting that contemporary authors have participated in the tradition of the romance and penned works that critique that very mythology.
The persistence of frontier mythology in the American psyche has been the subject of a number of studies. In Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600–1860 (1973), the first of an acclaimed three-volume study, Richard Slotkin charts the growth of America’s frontier mythology in three stages. Donahue isolates the following passage:
The original ideological task of the Myth was to explain and justify the establishment of the American colonies; but as the colonies expanded and developed the Myth was called on to account for our rapid economic growth, our emergence as a powerful nation-state, and our distinctively American approach to the socially and culturally disruptive process of modernization.
Donahue adds his study to Slotkin’s schema as the fourth or re-evaluative stage of frontier mythology. The utopia of universal participation in American life promised by the myth did not come about, turning the uncritical transmission of the myth into a history of lies. The re-evaluation of the American myth as a largely destructive force, especially in light of the political movements of the High Sixties, is the key feature of the American historical frontier romance.
The nearly 40 years between The Sot-Weed Factor and Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon cannot hide their kinship. Both 800-page novels take Maryland as their frontier setting and symbol of colonialism, offer fictionalised versions of historical figures, use false documents to challenge textual authority and confuse readers’ mythical assumptions about early America. The political engagement with the countercultural movements of the High Sixties that is apparent in Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) and Vineland (1990) is not, at first, apparent in Mason & Dixon, which has attracted less commentary than these earlier novels. Donahue bucks the trend when he presents the historical frontier romance of Mason & Dixon as Pynchon’s clearest response to those movements.
The Mason-Dixon Line between Maryland and Pennsylvania became the race line during the Civil War, separating free and slave states. But the Enlightenment bid to impose civilisation on the chaos of the frontier had already been expressed in the colonial project of imposing racial order, barring ethnic minorities from full participation in American life. Pynchon shows that a social and political order built on the enslavement of one part of the population must fail. ‘And because America’s foundational mythology refuses to accept this truth,’ writes Donahue, ‘those who actively participate in its lies are doomed to failure.’ By setting his frontier romance on the Mason-Dixon Line, the arbitrary line on a map seared into the national imagination marking the shameful persistence of its racist heritage, ‘Pynchon is reminding us that slavery has inscribed itself onto the American cultural landscape permanently’.
With the exception of Mason and Dixon, and Chinese Feng Shui master Captain Zhang, the allure of the Adamic myth of the New World never fades for Pynchon’s characters. The two men of science are in Cape Town to chart the transit of Venus before their geographical survey. They feel its pull as guests of the Vroom family, whose exotic daughters recall Africa’s Edenic landscape. ‘What a morning!’ exclaims Dixon, ‘one feels as Adam felt,—even better, as Eve.’ Excluded from the frontier myth, women feature as the spoils of frontiersmen. The East India Company, which rules this Garden of Earthly Delights, keeps a brothel where Opium-Girls and Slave Women ‘serve as dreamy, pliant shadows’ and endure ‘slavery within Slavery’. The grip of the Company over colonial life means that even Cape Towners, like Police Agent Bonk, are seduced by the promise of ‘an easier life’ as a farmer on the frontier of ‘the vast Hottentot land beyond’.
News of the first Conestoga Massacre reaches Mason and Dixon as they begin work on the Line:
Mason did note as peculiar, that the first mortal acts of Savagery in America after their Arrival should have been committed by Whites against Indians.
It slowly dawns on the geometers that the reason for such savagery, ‘far out of Measure to any Provocation’, is bound up with their own map-making venture, which surveys the ground for westward expansion and the colonial project of civilising the frontier. Rather than bring civilising order, the Mason-Dixon Line becomes an agent of barbarism and chaos that will be visited upon succeeding generations. The novel’s narrator, Revd Cherrycoke, describes the venture as
scientifick beyond my understanding, and ultimately meaningless,—we were putting a line straight through the heart of the Wilderness.
In Donahue’s gloss, the cultural meaning wrought by boundary-making is entirely negative and destructive:
As Dixon comes to learn in his travels to Africa and America, mapmaking is centrally concerned with establishing a ‘colorline’.
The Cape Town sex industry, for example, requires the division of white and slave communities into ‘two distinct Worlds, the Company maintaining their separation’. The economic ventures of the East India Company, in other words, promote racial segregation.
The failure of the frontier myth to deliver on its promise of freedom for all who have the courage to pursue it is lost on those not affected by its depredations. Its transmission down the generations, right up to the television audiences enraptured by the feats of Daniel Boone, is dramatised in the final sentences of Mason & Dixon, when the youthful auditors of Revd Cherrycoke’s narration, Pitt and Pliny (whose names recall key actors in the history of western imperialism), inherit the fascination exerted by the myth’s exotic promise of abundance.
‘We can get jobs,’ said William, ‘save enough to go out where you were,—’
‘Marry and go out where you were,’ said Doc.
‘The Stars are so close you won’t need a Telescope.’
‘The Fish jump into your Arms. The Indians know Magick.’
‘We’ll go there. We’ll live there.’
‘We’ll fish there. And you too.’
It is often thought African-Americans contributed nothing to frontier mythology on the assumption that they saw through it from the start. The ‘winning of the West’ was a white affair, a legend hiding the true history of oppression, slavery and genocide. In fact, not only did African Americans participate in frontier life, they wrote their own accounts of it, such as that of the ex-slave and cowboy Nat Love (1854–1921), or else they made imaginative use of the mythical frontier space, like author and filmmaker Oscar Micheaux (1884–1951), to prove that black men could come through the trials and hardships of frontier life on the same terms as white men.
Like Barth, Doctorow and Pynchon, Ishmael Reed challenges the idea that the frontier space is an exclusively white European preserve of nation building. The black cowboy of Reed’s Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (the title refers to the dime novels and radio programs that popularised the mythology of the American West) rewrites frontier mythology to reflect new possibilities of black self-making in the wake of the civil rights movement. In the process, traditional frontier mythology is exposed as a con job. Its failure is expressed in its refusal, in Donahue’s words, ‘to embrace the inherent multiculturalism of America’s diverse population’. In Reed’s frontier romance, the multicultural heritage that is written out of frontier life by Euro-Americans – literally in the case of western dime-novel hero Deadwood Dick, a whitened version of Nat Love – is reclaimed for an international audience.
While supporters of the Vietnam War were quick to redraw the frontier line between civilisation at home and savage cultures abroad, Reed saw in the war an organised effort to reinforce racial lines of segregation. For Reed, a disturbing connection exists between the high number of draftees from poor black neighborhoods in the US and the suppression of the nation’s multicultural heritage. The drafting of poor blacks to fight America’s foreign wars robs them of the opportunity to participate in the diversifying of American culture, which for Reed adds up to cultural genocide.
At the same time, the political successes of the civil rights movement inspired a cultural revival among minority communities, which challenged the dominance of white cultural and aesthetic standards. The scant appreciation of America’s multi-ethnic art by the dominant culture has political consequences, and Reed points to the origins of the Black Panther movement in a San Francisco theatre group. Written at the height of the Vietnam War, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down uses frontier imagery to educate readers about the cultural tensions bubbling over into the civil riots of the sixties. It exposes the racist inheritance of the frontier myth even as it reveals the progressive potential of African American participation in frontier life.
Reed’s black cowboy, the Loop Garo Kid, rescues the frontier ideal from monoculturalism — which was central to the race riots of the sixties — by infusing the American West with cultural diversity and restoring its multicultural heritage. The agent of this restoration is the trickster figure, which Donahue links to the Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s study of the ‘signifying monkey’ of African folklore. The Loop Garo Kid brings the rich cultural inheritance of Hoodoo to the frontier in his battles with the oppressive forces of white American culture, religion (the Kid’s cosmopolitanism is such that he is on familiar terms with the Pope), and capitalism, in the shape of the cattleman Drag Gibson.
Drag Gibson, whose name suggests that white frontier masculinity is all show, is fixated on ownership; indeed, he takes more interest in driving people away from his property than improving it. Reed pillories the outcome of manifest destiny as a fetish for property ownership. Drag’s ‘quest for control’, Donahue suggests,
represents the Euro-American drive that resulted in the attempted genocide of the Native Americans and the related enslavement and mistreatment of ethnic minorities and oppression of women.
Chief Showcase, whose name evokes this loss and trivialisation of Native American culture, joins forces with the Loop Garo Kid to mastermind the final battle against Drag’s property, evading white authorities by dressing in the very clichés to which his culture has been reduced. Reed shows what’s at stake with frontier mythology when the Loop Garo Kid joins the Pope in a bid to work with European cultural values rather than stay in America. As with the portrait scene in Django Unchained, Reed makes it clear that, as Donahue puts it,
it is the adoption of Euro-American values to the exclusion of others that fails the American frontier… Euro-American values have failed America, not Euro-American values.
Son of an Anishinaabe father and Swedish-American mother, Gerald Vizenor is only too familiar with the unhelpful persistence of frontier clichés in present-day race relations. Vizenor was the only Native American journalist to report on the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee by two members of the American Indian Movement (AIM). In 1890, the same year of the last massacre at Wounded Knee, the superintendent of the US Census announced the official closure of the western frontier. Two years later, on the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of America, historian Frederick Turner Jackson declared the conquest of the West was the crucible of the national character and its values of self-reliance and rugged individualism. By staging an occupation at Wounded Knee 80 years later, AIM’s goal was to force white America to confront its racist past.
The members of AIM addressed the media in the masculine poses and costumes of traditional frontier myth, kitted out in war paint and feather bonnets like extras from a western. The editors of the Minneapolis Tribune added spice to the coverage by inserting gratuitous references to hostages into Vizenor’s report, playing on the stereotype of the vengeful savage. Vizenor was as disappointed with the militant stance of AIM as he was with his newspaper’s misrepresentation of events. The incident demonstrated how the uncritical appropriation of traditional frontier mythology — on both sides, in this instance — drives cultures apart. Only its critical appropriation brings them together in shared recognition of America’s essentially ‘mixedblood’ culture.
The mixedblood theme running through Vizenor’s work defies monoculturalism. In The Heirs of Columbus (1991), Vizenor plays with the Columbus mythology, as Barth and Pynchon do with the Daniel Boone mythology, by mixing historical and fictional figures to weaken the grip of received history. And like Reed, Vizenor uses the trickster figure to undercut the racism justified in that history. Where Reed recasts the racial other in the hero role, Vizenor reimagines Columbus, in Donahue’s words, ‘as a mixedblood pioneer whose cultural heritage we have misunderstood all along’.
The Columbus of mythology is the original frontiersman — Daniel Boone before Daniel Boone — who rolls back the darkness of the New World with the torch of European civilisation. Vizenor meets this foundational cultural separation with a counterfactual proposition: Columbus was Mayan. At a stroke, the political and cultural worlds built on the divisions between savage and civilised, European and Native American, collapse in a heap. The notion of a mixedblood Columbus overturns the racism of frontier mythology, exposing it as a one-sided appropriation of a shared cultural heritage. As Donahue puts it:
Columbus did not bring European culture to America; he brought European culture back to America, giving birth to a mixedblood nation and a complex mythological inheritance.
The suggestion that all of us have got the history wrong suddenly makes it available again, offering us new ways to appropriate it in a spirit of cooperation.
Vizenor’s counter-history is not as implausible as it seems. Columbus reaches us more as figure of myth than man of history, a discursive construct through which the national mythology is transmitted. A Mayan Columbus disrupts this transmission. By mixing autobiographical anecdote with historical reports, Vizenor shows us that all knowledge of Columbus, especially Columbus mythology, is textually mediated. He does not want to write the frontier out of history but reimagine it. The vehicle of this reevaluation is the American frontier historical romance. Vizenor reclaims the frontier of national myth by breaking down its rigid borders. The frontier is transformed from a space of violent cultural separation into a dialogical space of cultural hybridisation, a coming together of cultures in a complex series of social interactions symbolised by the figure of the mixedblood Native American. The frontiers and border spaces meet in the hybrid figure of Vizenor’s crossblood and in textual cognates like the Mayan Christ and the Columbus gene.
Only such hybridisation can produce cultural and national unity, as the abject failure of the monocultural national myth to deal with mixedbloods makes clear. When the heirs of Columbus declare the sovereign state of Point Assinika, we are encouraged to imagine what nationhood could be without recourse to endless border wars. A borderless zone between Canada and the US (that just might, one day, be Washington State), Point Assinika acts as a non-violent space of cultural cooperation reclaimed from traditional frontier mythology. Focused on cultures working together, Vizenor has no time for exceptionalism, whether Native American or white American, which is why the tribal elders in the novel are just as put out by the inclusiveness of Point Assinka as its neighboring states. There is no colour line in Point Assinika because of this cultural cooperation, where everyone enjoys mixedblood status. Imagine.
Space forbids doing justice to Donahue’s treatment of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Border trilogy — really a tetralogy — as American historical frontier romances, not to mention his treatment of Doctorow’s Welcome to Hard Times. A final illustration of the soundness of Donahue’s thesis will have to suffice.
Critics agree that the poetic power of McCarthy’s work has transformed our vision of frontier life. Yet the profusion of terms to describe Blood Meridian — revisionary western, dark western, apocalyptic western, postmodern western, to name a few — points to confusion over McCarthy’s motivation and to the disfavour the term romance has fallen into among critics. McCarthy’s politics appear much less elusive when we read his tetralogy as historical frontier romance, which uncovers a political engagement with the High Sixties observed in the work of fellow romancers.
McCarthy does not offer us the positive models we find in Reed or Vizenor. The possibility of a multicultural frontier is explored only ironically, in the shape of Captain Glanton’s ethnically diverse gang of cold-blooded killers and in the disturbing, even demiurgic figure of Judge Holden, who fails (to put it mildly) to capitalise on the progressive potential of frontier life. Blood Meridian nonetheless is as strong an indictment of traditional frontier mythology as anything in Pynchon: a wide-angled counter-history in which the failure of the national mythology is writ large.
Donahue’s account of the disruption of the traditional frontier myth in Blood Meridian sheds light on the novel’s central mystery, Judge Holden. The Judge is based on a purportedly historical figure from Samuel Chamberlain’s memoir, only uncovered in the 1950s, about a scalp-hunting raid during the 1846-48 Mexican–American War. By withdrawing Chamberlain’s memoir from the pages of Blood Meridian, McCarthy de-authorises what is in any case an unreliable account to emphasise the work of myth in history. The Judge records in his ledger selected incidents from the Glanton gang’s raids into Mexican territory. The logic of these entries escaped me on my first canter through the novel. The Judge’s ledger (addressed, it seems, to himself) does not record the truth of events, but seeks to control them by first destroying them. After the gang discover ancient cave paintings near El Paso, to take one example, the Judge destroys one of the paintings after first transcribing it in his ledger. His account is as selective as Burlingame reveals Captain John Smith’s to be. The destruction wrought by the transmission of traditional frontier mythology is represented by the ledger – and so too is the illegitimacy of the power deriving from it.
In his expansive moods, the Judge is fond of speculating on the existence — or rather the absence — of cosmic order, affecting a prophetic grandeur that teeters at times on the ridiculous, like Marlon Brando’s Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (1979). But he remains a compelling storyteller and a skilled mythmaker. The inherent chaos of creation means its only order, as Heraclitus suggested, is war. The pre-Socratic koan reaches us at the post-metaphysical end of tradition as a reminder that the world is what we make it.
Even in this world more things exist without your knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way.
The order in the universe is all our own. We create the mythology — the string and the maze — without which we are lost in a black night. Or as another failed frontiersman traversing another sector of the maze put it: ‘what the cosmos lacks, we ourselves must supply’. Barth’s Cooke arrives at this insight only after he has learnt to take responsibility for the myth he inherits, the same one the Judge recounts to his gang. Initially, Cooke clings to the promise of metaphysical order, a modern-day Theseus guided through ‘the labyrinth of life’ by Ariadne’s thread. When Burlingame suggests the thread is laid down by the hero and not for him, he updates the image to suit our post-heroic horizons rather than dismiss it out of hand. For the modern-day Theseus, the thread does not lead out of the labyrinth but describes the paths one takes across it:
’Tis as if Theseus at every turn rolled up the thread and laid it out again in a prettier pattern.
Because of its orienting function, myth is never surpassed, only retold. Donahue’s fine study serves to remind us that the retelling of the central myths of one’s culture is a collective responsibility.
John Barth, ‘The Literature of Exhaustion,’ Atlantic Monthly (August 1967).
— The Sot-Weed Factor (Panther Books, 1965).
Christopher Frayling, Clint Eastwood (Virgin, 1992).
Michael K. Johnson, Black Masculinity and the Frontier Myth in American Literature (University of Oklahoma Press, 2002).
Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian (Picador, 1985).
Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon (Jonathan Cape, 1997).
— Vineland (Secker & Warburg, 1990).
Michael L. Tate, Indians and Emigrant: Encounters on the Overland Trails (University of Oklahoma Press, 2007).
David Foster Wallace, ‘E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,’ Review of Contemporary Fiction (Summer 1993).