Westerners are always surprised to realize that critics often dismiss the region’s art and literature as an inferior, derivative part of the American canon. Luckily, we have Alan Williamson, a poet and scholar with roots on both sides of the country, to set the record straight. In Westernness: A Meditation, he examines what it means to live in the West through the region’s artists and writers.
The American literary tradition began in New England, where authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne confronted the fears of the country’s early years: What kind of society was needed to survive in the "unpeopled landscape" of America? How would the natural environment affect the country’s development? By the time the West was settled, many Eastern artists and critics felt that these questions had been settled too, and that the attempts of Western artists and writers to address them were simply redundant.
Like their Eastern predecessors, Western writers and painters wanted to understand their environment, but the strangeness of the Western landscape provoked new forms of expression, forcing them to "seek a relation to the landscape, not simply human relation within the landscape."
Georgia O’Keeffe’s infatuation with New Mexico grounded her already dramatic, individual style in a landscape that seemed designed for her powerful brush. Willa Cather produced masterpieces of prairie life that imbued an "alien landscape with the richness of human emotion." And Leslie Marmon Silko and other Native American authors revealed the "superficiality and destructiveness of Euro-American culture — a strip of speed, waste, and glitter laid down across the ‘stolen’ land."
As Williamson shows, the encounter with the West was transformative for many artists. The works in this book show those of us who live out here new ways to understand the landscape and ourselves.
Westernness: A Meditation
182 pages, hardcover: $33.95.
University of Virginia Press, 2006