Current Issue

Volume 49, Number 3, Fall 2017

Special Issue: Gender and the Cultural Preoccupations of the American West

Guest Editors: Sigrid Anderson Cordell and Carrie Johnston

 

Introduction

Gender and the Cultural Preoccupations of the American West—Sigrid Anderson Cordell and Carrie Johnston

 

Articles

Reading the West Sideways: Queering the Frontier in Jean Stafford’s The Mountain LionLeslie Allison

This essay argues for a queer reading practice of western women writers, termed “reading sideways.” Using Jean Stafford’s novel The Mountain Lion as a case study, this essay shows how reading sideways allows previously marginalized women’s narratives to emerge—narratives that, in turn, debunk masculinist narratives of western conquest. Applying queer theory to The Mountain Lion reveals important connections regarding delay, death, and disenchantment that better inform the reading of Stafford’s text. By queering her main protagonist’s development in The Mountain Lion, Stafford subverts the myth of masculinist frontier development. 

“The Spirits Talk to Us”: Regionalism, Poverty, and Romance in Mexican American Gothic FictionTace Hedrick

This essay examines Mary Castillo’s 2012 Lost in the Light and Alisa Valdes’s 2013 The Temptation of Demetrio Vigil, both Mexican American gothic romances. The characters of both novels traverse parts of what are usually called the West, but which Américo Paredes called Greater Mexico, a term that I adapt to show the often-suppressed presence of Mexican Americans throughout the region. In these novels each heroine’s close relationship with her ghostly protagonist—one a poor Mexican American liquor smuggler in the 1920s, the other a poor cholo gangbanger from the near present—reveals specificities and differences between regional experiences, especially those of working-class and poor Mexican Americans. Through the lens of gothic theory and critical regionalism, I consider the ways that specific Mexican American cultures are evoked through the plot elements of a popular genre like the gothic romance. I argue that the striking prevalence of scenes of Mexican American regional and ethnic poverty in what would seem to be “beach read” popular novels suggests that in the Mexican American gothic, the sense of anxiety and abjection requires uneasy scenes of Mexican American destitution and violence, scenes which function as the true heart of gothic fear and uncertainty for their heroines. 

Women’s Power in the American West: Mary Hallock Foote and Honoré Willsie Morrow’s Tales of ElectrificationJennifer L. Lieberman

This essay argues that electricity was a significant theme in western literature during the turn of the twentieth century. It specifically focuses on two non-canonical texts by women writers, Mary Hallock Foote’s 1896 novella, “The Harshaw Bride,” and Honoré Willsie Morrow’s 1923 novel, The Exile of the Lariat—two works that engage with this theme in order to draw attention to the roles that women played in modernizing the West. This paper discusses how Foote and Morrow contradicted the electrical industry’s depiction of electrical development as a solely masculine endeavor. It also demonstrates that both writers perpetuated stereotypes about native women in their attempts to emphasize the contributions of white women. By recovering these novelizations of electricity in the West, this essay ultimately challenges the prevailing idea that western writers were anti-modern, chronicling instead the complex feelings that men and women had about social and technological changes to their way of life. 

Michelle Tea’s Mission District Frontier: Nostalgia, Gentrification, ValenciaGeneva M. Gano

In this essay, Gano argues that while Michelle Tea’s Valencia records and celebrates the particular, oppositional social practices of the Mission’s queer community as its members successfully create and claim space in the city, it also presents the reader with a Mission conspicuously cleansed of the racialized struggles of Latinos and people of color more broadly who were, in this very time and place, being pushed out of the neighborhood. Gano situates this novel within two primary, entwined generic contexts: the urban frontier narrative and the “American neoconfessional” memoir.  Gano first shows that the novel engages with a kind of frontier nostalgia, most powerfully expressed by Frederick Jackson Turner and commonly deployed in the rhetorics surrounding late twentieth-century gentrification.  This particular form of nostalgia simultaneously romanticizes and mourns the passing of a wild and wooly space of opportunity and personal freedom; in Valencia, this is the transitional space of San Francisco’s Mission district in the early 1990s. Michelle, the book’s protagonist, heroically navigates the mean streets of the Mission in her search for love; as is typical of what Leigh Gilmore has called the neoconfessional memoir, Valencia emphasizes the protagonist’s success in overcoming personal hardship while minimizing a broader historical and social contextualization of individual struggle.  After all, there are winners and losers on the urban frontier: this nostalgic look back at the exhilarating San Francisco punk dyke scene depends particularly on the overt occlusion of the racial dimensions of gentrification. Drawing on the work of cultural geographer Neil Smith, Gano argues that the whitewashing of the urban frontier in Valencia is not only central to its generic success but is an important element that helps to enable a heroic narrative of gentrification process more broadly.

Between Refugee and ‘Normalized’ Citizen: National Narratives of Exclusion in the Novels of Bich Minh NguyenSigrid Anderson Cordell

This essay traces how novelist Bich Minh Nguyen intertwines questions of identity and national politics in Short Girls (2009) and Pioneer Girl (2014).While Pioneer Girl has received critical attention for its engagement with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House novels through the eyes of a daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, this essay asserts that Short Girls, a meditation on precarity in Midwestern immigrant communities after 9/11, exposes Nguyen’s insistence on the connection between the local and particular and the national and global. Drawing on a framework of critical regionalism, I argue that Nguyen’s novels link her characters’ deeply personal navigation of community and identity as Asian Americans in the Midwest, national myths romanticizing a white pioneer past, and political narratives over who belongs and who should be excluded in the post-9/11 era.

Postwar Reentry Narratives in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime WalkCarrie Johnston

This article examines Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony alongside Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk to reveal the centrality of women’s textual presence in postwar narratives. While Silko’s novel incorporates female perspectives to construct productive and generative narratives, Fountain’s provides a warning about the sterile, ultimately destructive narratives produced when female voices are suppressed. Focusing on the formal elements of narrative focalization in both novels, I argue that women’s voices have the power to rethink the region’s intractable conceptual and geographical boundaries by configuring the American West as a regenerative space of reentry.

 

Afterword

Accountabilities: Authority, Feminism, West—Krista Comer

 

Contributors

Leslie Allison is the assistant director of the Writing Center at Temple University. She teaches courses on women’s literature and American literature, and is currently working on a book about mid-century women writers, entitled Atomic Authorship: Women Writing at Mid-Century.

Krista Comer is Professor of English at Rice University and a member of Rice’s Center for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality. In addition to many essays, her published work includes Landscapes of the New West and Surfer Girls in the New World Order. She directs the Institute for Women Surfers, a project in the feminist public humanities. In the fall of 2017, she will be a Visiting Scholar at Stanford’s Lane Center for the American West.

Sigrid Anderson Cordell is the Librarian for English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on the intersections of race, gender, and print culture in the US West. She is the author of Fictions of Dissent: Reclaiming Authority in Transatlantic Women’s Writing of the Late Nineteenth Century (2010), and her work has appeared in American PeriodicalsVictorian Literature and CultureNeo-Victorian Studies, and portal.

Geneva M. Gano is an assistant professor of literature at Texas State University, where she teaches courses on multicultural American women’s writing and geocritical approaches to literature. Her research examines the social, intellectual, and aesthetic networks of American literature in space and place. Her current book project, U.S. Modernism at Continent’s End: Carmel, Provincetown, Taos, considers the role of the little arts colony in the development of US modernism. 

Tace Hedrick received her PhD in comparative literature from the University of Iowa. She currently offers courses in US Latino/a, Afro-Latina, and Chicanx cultural studies, as well as in feminist theory. She has published two books, Mestizo Modernisms: Race, Nation, and Identity in Latin American Culture, 1900–1940 (Rutgers Press, 2003), and Chica Lit: Popular Latina Fiction and Americanization in the Twenty-First Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015). Currently Professor Hedrick is writing her next book, tentatively titled Queering the Cosmic Race: Spirituality, Race, and Sexuality in Latino/American Cultural Work, 1970–2000.

Carrie Johnston is the Digital Humanities Research Designer at Wake Forest University. Her research and teaching focus on women’s literary labor in the US and its intersections with technological advancement and political discourse. 

Jennifer L. Lieberman is an assistant professor of English at the University of North Florida. She is the author of Power Lines: Electricity in American Life and Letters, 1882–1952 (MIT Press, 2017), and her previous work can be found in journals such as ConfigurationsHistory and Technology, and MELUS: Multi-ethnic Literature in the US.

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