Wallace Stegner and Cormac McCarthy on the Western Landscape

Megan Riley McGilchrist:

. . . politically, much of American life and government policy is still dominated by the myth of the frontier. The re-examination of this myth, its sources and its effects, in my view, cannot be done often enough. Stegner and McCarthy re-examine the myth from either side of the watershed of the 1960s and the Vietnam War. In so doing, the two authors provide a link between more traditional views of the West as home of heroism and hope, and the extreme postmodern perception of the West as hollow simulacrum of reality, as suggested by Baudrillard. Neither view, in my opinion, tells the whole story, but an examination of the link between the two provided by the Stegner-McCarthy hinge provides us with a new way of looking at the West, and the possibility of a fuller understanding of the conflicted nature of the western environment, and the West’s complex history.

* * *

I have chosen Stegner and McCarthy because they are, in my view, two of the most perceptive writers of their respective eras in terms of their critiques of the treatment of western landscape, McCarthy in fictional terms, Stegner through fiction, biography, history, and essay. In summary, Stegner’s perspective is “feminine” in the sense of protective and nurturing towards that landscape, as well as “masculine” in the traditional sense of male protectiveness towards the female. Additionally, Stegner’s awareness of a numinous quality in much western landscape gives his critique a further dimension linking it with transcendental thought of the nineteenth century. McCarthy on the other hand sees landscape as adversarial, equating it with his characters’ attitudes toward the disappointing and inscrutable feminine.

Both authors are concerned with the ongoing crises of modernity and their effects upon individual lives and upon the physical world around us. In the works of both authors, the western landscape is a primary character. Both writers also question the myth of the frontier—those received verities which have attained mythic status in our understanding of the West: endless land, hardy men, passive women, the rightness of American possession of “virgin” land despite previous occupation, grandeur, hope. Aspects of the myth of the frontier are appealing, there is no doubt. Its imaginative pull is nearly irresistible. Yet there is no reason why we may not revel in the grandeur of the West, and praise the accomplishments of its undoubtedly heroic settlers while abhorring the results of unchecked frontier expansion on landscapes and individuals in the past and in the present time. McCarthy and Stegner offer us ways to do these things, yet from such different perspectives that we may be able to re-examine previous conclusions. Read alone, each author gives us a new perspective. Looked at together, I suggest, we are able to understand the West from an unvisited perspective, reconsidering previous critiques and re-examining current ones.

The Western Landscape in Cormac McCarthy and Wallace Stegner: Myths of the Frontier


One thought on “Wallace Stegner and Cormac McCarthy on the Western Landscape

  1. I find myself in distinguished company! You might find the essays (mine among them) in Nicholas Monk’s, Intertextual and Interdisciplinary Approaches to Cormac McCarthy of interest.

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