The keyword “west” typically has two referents. On the one hand, it refers to the western United States or the area west of the ninety-eighth meridian, where arid country begins; on the other hand, it invokes a global geographic division between the “West” as a center of global colonial powers in Europe and North America and the non-West, or the “rest” of the world. The two referents—the “American West” and Western colonialism—intersect in a system of narratives and images popularized in U.S. literature, visual culture, and especially cinema: Monument Valley, the Oregon Trail, cowboys, Indians, pioneers. Mainstream understanding of these narratives and images position them as wellsprings of Anglo-American nationalist character, as sites where the “Old West” or “Wild West” of the nineteenth-century masculine frontier becomes the West, a place frequently believed to be “more real” or “more authentically western” than the actual environs where novel readers, television viewers, and moviegoers live their lives. Critical approaches to the same archive reposition these artifacts as belonging to a larger history of colonial thought. The term “west” becomes, in this context, a badge of identity, conflating geopolitical and topographic space with cultural belonging and matters of style. To take up the keyword “west” is to contend at once with its national as well as its global genealogies.
Older usages of the word “west” reveal its Teutonic, Aryan historical character. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “west” occurs in Old English only as an adverb, indicating directional movement or map area, coming into later use as a noun and an adjective. By the early modern period, “west” denoted the Americas or the New World. Two additional figurative senses of the word, noted in the OED, are significant. One is to die, to disappear, or to be destroyed. This figuration becomes a recurrent feature of the conclusions of film and literary Westerns, as protagonists as different as Alan Ladd of Shane (1953) and John Grady Cole of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses (1992) fade into the sunset. The other sense, gaining currency over the past two centuries, conflates the noun “West,” now capitalized, with colonial projects headquartered in western Europe and North America. It is this conflation that both Raymond Williams (1976/1983, 333–34) and Naoki Sakai and Meaghan Morris (2005) characterize as Eurocentric and mythical. “The West” or “the Western World” is posited against some presumed non-West, a world of Others. The category “westerners” conceives a unity of peoples who share residential origins, racial heritage, and civilization. “Westernization” maps a specific geographical referent onto notions of progress, modernity, scientific achievement, and processes of capitalist development. The non-West, by definitional contrast, lacks these things; it is presumed to need colonization and the benefits of the imperial force of civilization.
During the major period of U.S. imperial expansion westward (loosely 1830–1890), the meanings of “west” slipped and slid between those associated with the “civilizing” processes of European colonialism and new meanings emerging with U.S. nationalism and linked to “the frontier.” The injunction “Go West, young man, go West,” often attributed to the journalist Horace Greeley, linked Old World claustrophobia and the utopianism of colonial ventures toward an ideal of rugged masculine individualism. Opportunity belonged to the man who pursued it, and its location was west, at the frontier. Such urgings were crucial to nation-building efforts since the frontier regions were war zones, requiring settlers to secure them, and other political destinies were yet still possible (LeManager 2004). Britain, France, and Russia vied for territorial control of regions not yet dominated by the United States. Indigenous peoples fought to retain land, language, culture. The vast territories of the northern frontier of Mexico were impractical to govern and vulnerable to appropriation, as revealed by Mexico’s loss of the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846.
Making explicit the ideological links between the westering experience and processes of Americanization, historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 “frontier thesis” argued that the challenge of settling “the wilderness” had created a society of men of action who embraced populist government and rejected class hierarchies and religious and aristocratic authority. By contrast, the close of the frontier or running out of “free land” (Turner disregarded indigenous occupancy claims) endangered the nation. Turner looked back with imperial nostalgia and found hope in the vision that “American energy will continually demand a wider field for its exercise” (1893/1920, 26). Turner’s approach informed early twentieth-century usages of the term by incorporating older meanings of “west” (the “West” of “Western Civilization”) and bending them toward U.S. national and imperial designs. “West” is understood to fall west of the Mississippi but also, when politically expedient, to exceed it by expanding across new frontiers. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn famously “lit out” for the territories, as did Twain himself, eventually writing about Hawai‘i, in the same years that Teddy Roosevelt used the west to fashion his manly political image and imperial military projects. Roosevelt was a sickly northeastern boy, an avid reader of popular Western dime novels, and eventually a rancher. His masculine vigor was recuperated by western cultural embrace, energizing the cowboy-cavalryman and providing an ideological rationale for leading his Rough Riders up San Juan Hill and into Panama (Bederman 1995).
The scholarly field of American studies was founded, in part, through critical engagements with these types of representations. Early American studies scholars such as Henry Nash Smith (1950) pointed to the popular misconceptions that Turner’s frontier myth fostered about democracy, and offered important theoretical contributions to the new field by developing new interpretations of the past. Feminist scholars, in turn, critiqued both Turner and Smith, noting the masculinist legacies of the frontiersman figure as a national archetype, the gendered implications of the “virgin land,” and the unconscious masculinity of American studies scholarship in general (Kolodny 1984; Baym 1985). The highly regarded writer Wallace Stegner showed Turner’s influence when he famously defined the West as the landscape forming national character, “hope’s native home” (1992, xxi). In turn, Stegner was sharply rebuked by the Native American writer and scholar Elizabeth Cook-Lynn (1996). She disputed the erasure of Native presence in Stegner’s conceptions of western history and demanded that writers and readers demonstrate awareness in matters of cultural authority and of who gets to speak for the western United States as a “native.”
Despite these correctives, the conventional notion of the west has so conditioned the keyword’s global reception that powerful counternarratives are not widely perceived in popular or scholarly circles. To date, the scholarship that has most dramatically advanced such counternarratives in the United States is the New Western History—a multiracial, feminist, environmentalist, urban-embracing, class-conscious, and anti-imperial academic and public history project that astonished even its own spokespeople by becoming an overnight media sensation (Limerick 1991). New Western Historians claimed the mythical West as a real place and redefined the terms clustering around the keyword during the 1980s and early 1990s. New terms and analytic categories animated the keyword, with conquest, empire, and realism becoming more central than discovery, frontier, and myth.
Literary, film, and cultural studies scholarship of the 1990s contributed significantly to this shift in critical conversation by drawing on poststructuralist thought and postmodern geography to interpret the cultural works inspired by the feminist and civil rights movements. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn (1968), Maxine Hong Kingston’s Tripmaster Monkey (1989), and Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands / La Frontera (1987) are only a few examples of literary works that gained popular and critical stature, forming a counter- or “New Western” canon in which white nationalist masculinity and regional insularity were no longer caveats (Comer 1999; N. Campbell 2000). An emphasis on poetics, philosophy, and questions of literary and cinematic form brought increased sophistication to a field that was considered overly historicist (L. Mitchell 1996; Tatum 1997; N. Lewis 2003). Literature itself was shown to be more important to history making than historians had acknowledged (F. Robinson 1997). Groundbreaking work emerged on indigenous issues, representation, and activism (Vizenor and Lee 1999; C. Allen 2002; Bernardin 2007). In the process, “west” became a keyword in studies of sovereignty, given that the majority of extant American Indian reservations intersect with western geopolitical spaces, making conflicts between tribal treaty rights and U.S. national claims inevitable. “West” is also a significant category in studies of displacement, exclusion, border culture, and cultural revitalization (Paredes 1958; M. Davis 1990; Lowe 1996; Limón 1999). These developments point to a new critical regionalism, a term used in architectural theory to describe the productive tension between local/regional factors and universalization (Frampton 1983) and in social theory to characterize cultural formations that move between borders and beyond the nation-state (Spivak and Butler 2007).
Current usages of the keyword are diverse and in transition. Even as the policies and personas of both Presidents Bush revived understandings of “the West” as a space of nation formation and imperial consolidation (merging the two usages of the term once again), these meanings are less active today in a political economy that is best characterized as postregional (Tatum 2007). Under globalization, national borders are porous, and regions function less as feeder economies for national centers than as autonomous units redirected toward “suprastate regionalisms” (EEC and NAFTA) and “city-region states” such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, and Houston. This new mobility of regions has given rise to hemispheric and transnational versions of American studies and to richer intersections with anticolonial scholarship in cultural studies. Social spaces and aesthetics signaled by the keyword “west” today are completely structured by the presence of global capital, raising questions about the fate of local geographic sites and about postregional style, affect, tropes, and ethics. Rhetorics of Ground Zero and the Homeland organize American exceptionalism after 9/11 more than Turner’s Free Land does (Pease 2009a).
Scholarship on the transnational West has responded to and catalyzed these shifts. It notes that the keyword has always been mapped as much by “routes” (of commerce, culture, ideas, and people) as by “roots” (of communities with competing claims for land occupancy). Neil Campbell (2008) powerfully maps the keyword from its transnational outsides through the concept of “the rhizome,” drawing from philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, to show how the idea of a rooted West, or the West as a stable place, is persistently contradicted by the rootlessness (or rhizomatic spreading) characteristic of western life and apparent in literature, film, and visual culture. The promise of the “rhizomatic West” as model for critical thought is challenged, again and appropriately, by feminist and indigenous critical regionalisms, which note parallels between rhizomatic spreading, the flows of contemporary capitalism, and the liberty of masculine movement assumed by settler colonialist projects (Comer 2010; Byrd 2011; Alex Young 2013). In the future, the concept of “postwestern”—which highlights the dynamism of the keyword and does not assume that “West” is known in advance—may offer enough flexibility to keep in productive tension shared scholarly interests in memory, space, and representation (Kollin 2007; K. Klein 1996; N. Campbell 2011; Comer 2013). The edge of critical thought will be honed through debate about what constitutes a sufficiently critical regionalism, what counternarratives it can sustain, and what efficacy it can have in decolonizing space and knowledge.