Our imaginary plains: a new breed of writers advances a darker vision of the West

Our imaginary plains: a new breed of writers advances a darker vision of the West

Miriam Horn

The Great Plains, those vast grasslands roll- ing east from the Rockies, have sheltered the Indian, the buffalo, the pioneer and the cowboy and have spawned our most extravagant and enduring mythology about ourselves as Americans. The rugged individualist was born here, as was the invincible matriarch, holding together family and community against the terrifying emptiness.

But the myth is now under assault. A new generation of writers-essayists, novelists, poets-is at once testifying to an enduring fascination with the plains mythology and exposing something darker at the heart of America. “I’m not anywhere glamorous,”

Montana poet Richard Hugo has written about Butte. “I’m in a town where children get hurt early. Degraded by drab

homes. Beaten by drunken parents, by other children … It’s kind of a microscopic Brooklyn, if you can imagine Brooklyn with open-pit mines . . .

“Brooklyn with open-pit mines That is what has become of the land that Walt Whitman described in 1891 as “A Newer garden of creation,” its undulating grasses “the handkerchief of the Lord/A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt.” It was a land that

gave Mark Twain “a wild sense of freedom that used to make the blood dance in my veins,” a harsh land that nonetheless seemed to 19th-century writers to be maternal and sustaining.

A few contemporary authors still find freedom and sustenance in the prairies. “A person can be amazingly happy on the Great Plains,” writes Ian Frazier, author of the current bestseller Great Plains. “Joy seems to be a product of the

geography, just as deserts can produce mystical ecstasy and English moors produce gloom. Once happiness gets rolling in this open place, not much stops it.”

Other writers, such as Montana-born novelist Ivan Doig and Wyoming essayist Gretel Ehrlich, even feel the presence of God in these vast dramatic landscapes. But for most contemporary authors, the land has assumed a malevolent face. Richard Hugo’s poem, “Camas Prairie School,” nods to the vastness that so excited Twain: “Each farm beyond a gunshot of the next … When your sister’s raped, help is out of range.”

To these writers, the plains seem to be taking their revenge for the plowing under of prairies, the damming of rivers, the strip mining, the trailer arks and nuclear missiles

in silos beneath the prairie, the oppression of the native peoples. The 19th century sense of America’s expanse, bounty and possibility has been transformed into a brooding, claustrophobic, sometimes violent fear. And the residents of this wrung-out country are portrayed as being as corrupted and exhausted as the land. The men in these modern Westerns are nothing like those frontiersmen that Washington Irving described in his

A Tour of the Prairies in 1835: “Wild youngsters …. Restless, good-natured, adventurous,” who are forever leaping up to wrestle and play. In the words of Montana writer Tom McGuane, the new cowboy “trades beef for dope.”

Bittersweet romance has given way to pure bitterness: Brutal men, used and disappointed women, decaying families, suffocating small towns and a loneliness that bears little resemblance to that of Zane Grey’s lonesome cowboy. The fiction of Richard Ford and James Salter is full of whisky-numbed men who have

been abandoned by bored wives and neglected lovers.

The bitterness and brutality of the new West, these writers warn, are in part a consequence of the myth itself, of the lingering romance with the lawlessness and violence of the old West. In McGuane’s novel Something to Be Desired, a high-school kid watches his mother slap his father. “Then Lucien’s father did something very strange and yet wholly characteristic of him: he waved to an imaginary person in the window behind her; when she turned to look, he flattened

her with a tremendous blow.” Later, he explains to the boy that he had to teach the woman a lesson and that it would never have happened if men were still given the kind of freedom and respect they required. “Out in those wide open spaces … now, that was another thing entirely. Out where they don’t hamstring a man for standing a little tall.”

This writing is anything but nostalgic. Gunfights were greedy turf battles, closer in spirit to drug wars than to duels of honor, Frazier reminds us. And he argues that 19th-century writers’ preoccupation

with the “white man’s burden” was just self-justification: “They romanticized genocide,” he says, celebrating attacks on the Indians by “this Westering race whose clear, cold blue eyes can see a noble race on its way to the happy hunting ground.”

A group of Native American writers, among them James Welch, N. Scott Momaday and Louise Erdrich, is now writing quite different accounts of the encounter with white settlers. Their lyrical but troubled stories describe the dreariness of life on reservations and the damage done to Native American identity.

Despite the intensely antimythic streak in much of the new plains literature, the West has yet to lose its romantic allure for many, as shown by the tremendous popular success of Larry MeMurtry’s Lonesome Dove four years ago and the current success of Frazier’s Great Plains, which has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 10 weeks. A cattle drive over Labor Day drew 3,000 would-be cowboys to Montana, many of them from Europe and Japan. Authors in increasing numbers are also trekking to the West to find the real America.

Canyon ghosts. Clearly, the farther one lives from the real prairie, the easier it is to sustain the mythical one, for the Great Plains of earlier times, bountiful grasslands alive with elk and wolves, Sioux and Cheyenne, are largely gone. As the last of the topsoil blows away and the aquifer runs dry, people abandon rural towns and exhausted farms for places farther east and farther west; I in 10 has left since 1980. Land that once preserved remnants of history is now traversed by strip mines and superhighways. “Scrambled in these waste heaps,” writes Frazier of the refuse of mining, “the dinosaur vertebrae drift in chaos with the sandstone metate, the .45-70 rifle cartridge, the Styrofoam cup. It is impossible to imagine a Cheyenne war party coming out of the canyon, because the canyon is gone.”

As cynical and embittered, as funny and vulgar as many of these writers are, they are also deeply in love with the West. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Wallace Stegner is critical of America’s sentimental attachment to the old West but still sees the plains as “the New World’s last chance to be something better.” No better testament to this feeling can be found than lan Frazier’s account of the imaginary Great Plains he travels to these days when he can’t sleep in his noisy New York apartment. These plains are unfenced, empty of buildings, full of names and stories, with ravines that “hold springwater and wood and game and grass like sugar in the hollow of a hand.”

In 1982, lan Frazier moved from New York to Montana. “For ears ” he recalls “I had dreamed

of Montana. Actually, I had also dreamed of joining the Army, going to truckdriving school in New Jersey, building a wooden sailboat, playing the great golf courses of the world and moving to Fiji.” In truth, Fiji nearly won out. But then a little fellow at the consulate

looked at Frazier and shook his head. “Not good to go to Fiji without money.”

Leaving behind his office at the New Yorker magazine, Frazier drove his van to Flathead Lake, Mont., expecting to find paradise. What he found was goat jerky, the gift of a solicitous neighbor who had left a slaughtered g

at the foot of his satellite dish. Another neighbor vacuumed with a 30-’06 rifle strapped to her back.

“I guess the whole thing cured me of the Rand- McNally approach to fixing my life,” says Frazier, who now stays put in Brooklyn.

“Though I still feel like my personality is imported. I make it out there and bring it here.”

Mississippi mysteries. Frazier is now thinking of writing a book about the Mississippi, having learned from Mark Twain that nearly 200 steamboats exploded on that river. “One of them was filled to the gunnels with Mormons and blasted Mormons all over the countryside. It was a tragedy. But somehow, with the passage of time, tragedy becomes funny. I mean, there were seven crates of maraschino cherries on one of those boats. What were they doing with seven crates of maraschinos on the frontier in 1852? That stuff makes me happy.”

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