New Work on the American West

As a new feature on the WLA Blog, I’d like to add an occasional digest of notices about new scholarly and creative publications on the topic of the American West.  If you would be willing to share information about recently published or forthcoming articles, books, etc., please email to the WLA Blog (westernlitblog@gmail.com)  the title and place of publication of the work, and, if you wish, a one or two sentence description of the work. Depending on the number of items received, we will try to post a digest of new and forthcoming work once a month.

Submit to:

westernlitblog@gmail.com

Shameless Self-Promotion

The University of Texas Press has recently listed the new Best of the West book on their website. You can now view the table of contents and even pre-order the book. I am already working on the next volume, so if anyone out there has information about any western short stories published after October 1, 2008, please contact me, Seth Horton, directly at bestofthewesteditor@hotmail.com with the author’s name, title of the story, and the publication information (journal title, volume/issue, page numbers). I would be delighted both to consider new work for the next Best of the West volume as well as share the publication information with readers of this blog.

Fritz Scholder Exhibition

I had the opportunity this week to travel to Washington, D. C., and spend some time at the National Museum of the American Indian, the most recently completed of the Smithsonian Museums, and one that, especially in its early days, met with quite a bit of criticism (a New York Times article from 2004 entitled “Museum With an American Indian Voice” provides a concise summary of that criticism).

The National Museum of the American Indian, Looking Back Toward the Washington Monument:

nmai

What attracted me to the museum was a special exhibit, an exhibition of the work of artist Fritz Scholder (1937-2005) that was quite comprehensive, ranging from his early work to his controversial paintings of Native Americans (such as Indian With Beer Can, Monster Indian, Massacre at Wounded Knee) from the 1960s and 1970s to his dark and disturbing later work, which often employed images of vampires and angels, skulls, and involved meditations on mortality and death.

Of the later work, his Blood Skull series (2001) is particularly interesting, in part because of the material he used to create the drawings: his own blood mixed with Diet Coke and brushed on note paper from a motel.  The series of abstractly drawn skulls is disturbing enough, and it was certainly odd to see Blood Skull No. 1 as a t-shirt design in the museum gift shop. However, all the reproductions of the drawings (including the t-shirt) I have seen have been cropped, cutting off the printing on the motel note paper, which, I think contributes to the ghastly humor of the piece. At the bottom of the page is printed “For Reservations” followed by a 1-800 number, and the double meaning of the word “reservations” for a native artist shifts the meaning of the drawing from a meditation on personal mortality toward social critique.  There may be copyright issues, or issues with the motel chain, that have caused the cropping of the drawings in reproductions, but words (which are employed infrequently but strategically  in his paintings and in his titles) seem important to Scholder’s aesthetic, and I’m glad I was able to see the Blood Skull series at the exhibit, with each piece displayed in full and not cropped.

One of Scholder’s sculptures, Obelisk, 1987, is on permanent display on the museum’s grounds, its dark color an appropriate counterpoint to that other Washington obelisk.

abdc2

The title of the NMAI exhibition is Fritz Scholder Indian/Not Indian, an appropriate title given the questioning of identity and the posing of the paradoxes of identity that Scholder’s work addresses. Scholder was an enrolled member of the Luiseno, a tribe of California Mission Indians; he was born in Minnesota, his father half-German and half-Luiseno, his mother white. Trained as an abstract expressionist, his early work did not address “Indian” subject matter, a subject he began to work with while studying at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe in the 1960s.

His approach, which involved questioning romantic depictions of American Indian life, attacking dominant cultural stereotypes, questioning notions of authentic or essential identity (thus the appropriate paradox of the Indian/Not Indian exhibition title), often offered something to offend Natives and non-Natives alike. This was really a thought-provoking exhibit, and I’ve included several links below to articles with more complete reviews of the exhibition and which also include on-line reproductions of Scholder’s fascinating paintings.

Fritz Scholder biography from the Fritz Scholder website.

Indian or Not? Fritz Scholder’s Art and Identity. This is the transcript of an excellent report from NPR’s All Things Considered, available also as a download.

I would also recommend K. Kimberly King’s article on the exhibition for Artcyclopedia.

Also of interest is an Academy of Achievement interview with Scholder from 1996.

And, finally, The New York Times obituary for Scholder, published Februrary 14, 2005.

Posted in Art. 1 Comment »

In Search of Alaskan Short Stories

I recently came across Charles Conley’s “The Final Cold” (Harvard Review, Issue 35, 2008), a haunting story that takes place in the Arctic. It reminded me of the relative lack of Alaskan fiction that I encountered last year. Here is an exhaustive list of those stories with publication information and a few of my own brief notes.

Asher, Charles. “The Hands that Fail You.” Zyzzyva, 23.2 (fall 2007). A solid story about a young fisherman and how he comes to turn on his boss.

Dolleman, Rusty. “Supervision.” Idaho Review, Volume 8 (2006). One of the two best stories on this list, it actually takes place in the Yukon Territory and is about two ethnically divided groups (Native/Anglo) of road maintenance workers. The ethnic tension is developed nicely, though it does rely on the old story of a white man seducing a native woman. The dialogue was pitch perfect.

Ellison, Burns. “And the Loons Cry Very Often.” South Dakota Review, 44.3 (fall 2006). A group of men find the ivory tusk of a woolly mammoth.

Farmer, Daryl. “Old Denali Road.” Fourth River, Issue 5 (fall 2008).

Farmer, Daryl. “Skinning Wolverines.” Hayden’s Ferry Review, Issue 42 (Spring/Summer 2008). This story wonderfully evokes Alaska, especially the tension between insiders and outsiders. It’s about a teacher who has lived in a rural Native village for thirteen years and his conflict with his school’s principal.

Graham, Jennifer. “And Then it all Went up in a Flame.” Seattle Review, 29.1 (2006). A short-short about a house that burns down in Palmer.

Holladay, Cary. “Heart on a Wire.” Glimmer Train, Issue 62 (Spring 2007). A very long story about a prostitute in Alaska. Reminiscent of that almost forgotten John Hawkes novel, Adventures in the Alaska Skin Trade.

McDonnell, Jerry. “Hooks Are Money.” South Dakota Review, 45.1 (spring 2007). Father and son story set in rural Alaska.

Peterson, Carl. “How it Will Be Built Up.” Whiskey Island Magazine, Issue 54 (fall 2007).

Roesch, Mattox. “All the Way Rider.” Narrative Magazine (spring 2008).

Roesch, Mattox. “Burn the House Down.” Indiana Review, 29.2 (winter 2007).

Roesch, Mattox. “Go at Shaktoolik.” Missouri Review (third issue of 2006). I don’t want to give the ending away here, but it is an interesting one. Narrator is a former gang member.

Shepard, Jim. “Pleasure Boating in Lituya Bay.” Ploughshares, 33.1 (spring 2007). Pastiche story set in Alaska and Hawaii.

Spatz, Gregory. “Luck.” Epoch, 56.3. An elderly couple is on a cruise ship in Alaska. Husband begins slowly to lose his mind.

Tulathimutte, Tony. “Scenes from the Life of the Only Girl in Water Shield, Alaska.” Three Penny Review and O’Henry Stories, 2008. This is one of the best Alaskan stories I read all year.

Vann, David. “Ketchikan.” StoryQuarterly, Issue 42 (2006). A man returns to Ketchikan to put his ghosts to rest.

Widdicombe, Jill. “Alaskan Fairytale.” Kalliope, 30.1 (2008). A story/fairytale about a woman and a tree.

It is interesting that not a single story above appeared in one Alaska’s three literary journals. The Alaska Quarterly Review, one of my personal favorites, is run by Ronald Spatz (Stephen King mentioned the journal in his introduction to Best American Stories 2007). The University of Alaska Fairbanks publishes Permafrost once a year. Finally, there is Feed Your Mind/Cirque, which claims on their website to be “a regional literary journal with a strong connection to the North Pacific Rim: Alaska, British Columbia, Yukon Territory, Washington, and Oregon.” However, for some reason there is no way to order this publication from their website, which hasn’t been updated in the year or so that I’ve been checking it. In any event, neither the AQR nor Permafrost is solely dedicated to publishing work about Alaska.

So where can Alaskan writers turn to publish their work? After all, having read 270 on-line and print journals and over 900 individual issues, I would have expected to discover more than the seventeen stories above. As this number strikes me as relatively small, I wonder if it was simply an “off” year. Or is it possible that Alaskan writers face unusual difficulties in publishing their work? If that is the case, what, if anything, does it say that the Western Literature Association has never been farther north than Banff, Alberta?

Ernest Haycox

One suggestion that we received for a future author week is Ernest Haycox. I’m curious to see what others thought about that possibility. John Ford’s 1937 classic Stagecoach was based on Haycox’s short story “Stage to Lordsburg,” and, unfortunately, that’s about the extent of my knowledge of Haycox’s work.

So, let me pose two questions:

Are there others out there who would be interested in an Ernest Haycox Week?

Given all that has been written about the film Stagecoach, is there anything left to say about that classic film?

African Americans in Montana

The Montana Historical Society has recently added a section on its website for the African Americans in Montana Heritage Resources Project. This is an excellent project, well worth checking out, and potentially invaluable for researchers interested in the African American West, particularly for the online access it provides  to information from census records from 1870-1930. The website includes biographical information for every African American individual listed in the 1870, 1910, and 1930 federal censuses, as well as biographical information drawn from city directories, church records, newspapers, etc.

An interactive time-line contains information about African Americans in Montana from 1805 (when York, likely the first individual of African descent to enter what would become Montana, arrived with the Corps of Discovery) to 2007 (when Miles City resident Johnnie Lockett Thomas received a Montana Governor’s Humanities Award for her work on African-American experience in the West).

This is a great website, so do check it out if you have a chance.

In Plain Sight

Good news for fans of USA network’s “contemporary western” (or so I would call it) In Plain Sight: the new season begins on Sunday (April 19).  This series is set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the on-location filming gives the series much of its western flavor, but it’s the often-ill-tempered tough-talking protagonist Mary Shannon (Mary McCormack), a federal marshall involved in the witness protection program, who provides a creative and highly-entertaining take on the western hero.

The setting is contemporary, and Mary’s position in witness protection is not exactly that of the classic western sheriff, but she has ample opportunity to give and take punches with the best of them, and actress Mary McCormack is brilliant at snarling out lines in a way that makes them simultaneously threatening and funny (“Guess what?” she snaps at one bad buy, “You just got your ass kicked by a girl.”) And mostly, it’s the energy and enthusiasm of her delivery that sells lines that don’t seem anywhere near as cool and tough when printed as when we hear her speak them.

Her partner is Marshall Mann (Fred Weller), whose metrosexual good looks and sharp threads contrast with his absurdly masculine name. Thankfully, the producers of In Plain Sight (at least if the first season is any indication of a continuing approach in depicting the partnership of Marshall and Mary), have decided not to go the cliched and increasingly tedious route of “obvious sexual tension” between male/female work partners.  In the second episode, “Hoosier Daddy,” the witness is a ten-year-old boy. Mary, speaking to her Chief Inspector Stan McQueen, comments, “Stan, I suck with kids.” Marshall responds, “So, you suck with grown-ups too.” She hits Marshall, Marshall hits back, and Mary says, “I can’t believe you’d hit a girl,” to which Marshall replies, “You’re no girl.” They fight like brother and sister, and that portrayal of a sibling-like relationship may save us from yet another “will they or won’t they” story arc.

What works quite well about the series is that it strikes a careful balance between the demands of the action genre and those of the “chick flick,” giving us a tough action hero who is “no girl” but who nonetheless experiences some of the emotional and relationship concerns that we see in programs more focused on women’s issues.  That the second episode of the series has Mary taking care of a child witness (one who, by the way, is a bit of card shark) is no surprise, as it allows Mary to show her toughness as well as her capacity for sympathy.

Mary, of course, has her own personal issues, a broken family, a (deceased) father who had a gambling problem, an alcoholic mother, and a younger sister with her own set of problems. She has her problems with trust and with anger management (as one witness tells her, “You didn’t start hiding yourself after you became a Marshall. That’s just how you justify it”). As is befitting a western hero, she responds to emotional turmoil through denial, shutting down, and acting out. However, she’s much much better at helping people through their family difficulties than she is helping herself.

Also, the decision to focus on the witness protection program means that, while Mary has plenty of law enforcement activities to keep her busy, she also plays multiple roles with the witnesses under her protection, psychologist, friend, sympathetic listener. As she helps her witnesses resolve their tangled personal lives, she also protects them (with force when necessary) from those who are hunting them. Under the guidance of the ill-tempered but well-intentioned Mary, even the most hardened of miscreants can find a path to redemption. In Plain Sight can at times seem a little bit like Dirty Harry crossed with Touched by an Angel. And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing.

In fact, it’s the tension between the western action roots and the attention to issues more typically seen in series oriented toward a predominantly female viewership (for want of a better phrase) that gives In Plain Sight its mojo, its energy, and it’s the fact that the series is able to keep these two sets of generic demands in balance that makes it unique.

In season one, the producers and writers still seem to be getting to know the city of Albuquerque, which serves more as a backdrop to the stories than an integral party of the storytelling. I hope that we’ll see Albuquerque and New Mexico become more integrated and explored in more detail in this upcoming season.

C. S. I. and the African American West

My television watching usually lags days, weeks, months, sometimes years behind the actual air date of some episodes and series. I’ve only just started catching up on season 9 of the original C. S. I., and adjusting to all the changes in the cast. I recently saw the episode “Young Man With a Horn,” which originally aired in December 2008, and I thought it was particularly interesting not only in its engagement with Las Vegas history but also in its exploration of racial issues within the context of that history.

C. S. I. has with some consistency included African American actors in both starring and guest roles throughout the series, but I’m not sure how often the series has directly addressed African American issues in terms of racial identity or race-related subject matter. “Young Man With a Horn” seems part of a continuing interest in the past few seasons in investigating the history of the American West via the specific history of a Las Vegas past that continues to make itself known in the Las Vegas present. C. S. I. Greg Sanders has been working on a book about Las Vegas history (which has at this point either been published or at least accepted for publication). There have been numerous episodes that have taken place over two timelines, the present and “30 years ago” or “20 years ago” or whenever that important moment in the past might have been.

Coinciding with these investigations of the past has been an equally interesting mining of film and television history through casting of actors and actresses with long and storied careers in the guest starring roles (Faye Dunaway in the 2006 episode “Kiss Kiss, Bye Bye” comes immediately to mind). We see the continuing presence of Las Vegas’s past in these characters, but there also seems to be an archival impulse in casting, a kind of history of film and television woven into the larger narrative of the story.

This episode brings us African American actor Bill Cobbs as Harry Bastille, the “Young Man With the Horn” of the title (the elderly man with the horn in the episode’s present), an actor who has been playing in film and television roles for 30 years. Tippi Hedren (who I’ll always remember from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds) plays Karen Rosenthal. Ralph Waite plays the retired Sheriff Montgomery. Robert Guillaume plays Sonny Bridges, who is part of Montgomery’s poker group, along with Emmy-winning producer and director George Schlatter (Laugh-In, various Frank Sinatra specials, etc.) as himself. That’s quite a guest cast for one episode!

The story revolves around the abandoned casino Le Chateau Rouge, the first integrated casino in Las Vegas. A young black  singer named Layla Wells breaks into the abandoned casino because her grandmother used to perform there. [Note: From this point on, spoilers follow, so if anyone is even more behind than I am in watching this season's C. S. I., read no further if you want to avoid any plot surprises.]

Layla ends up dead, although the real murder mystery is 50 years in the past, and the death of Layla (which turns out to be accidental) serves primarily as prelude to the investigation of the earlier case, which involves Harry Bastille (who is homeless in the present and living in the casino) and Karen Rosenthal, and the murder of Karen’s husband shortly before Le Chateau Rouge closed forever.

The episode paints a picture of the African American West as a place of both potential opportunity and continued oppression. Le Chateau Rouge represents a pioneering effort, “the first casino where blacks weren’t turned away at the door,” but the primary picture painted of Las Vegas in the 1950s comes through the conversation around the poker table.  As Sonny Bridges comments, “Back then, Las Vegas was known as the Mississippi of the West.” George Schlatter remarks, after reeling off a long list of African American performers, including Sammy Davis, Jr., and Lena Horne, “I booked them all into the big rooms on the strip, but they could not stay at the hotels there. Couldn’t even gamble at the casinos. Had to come in and out through the kitchens.”

As an integrated space, Le Chateau Rouge only lasted 6 months before, as Sanders puts it, “The KC mob didn’t like the east coast boys poaching their pigeons” and thus shut it down.  That, of course, was not the whole story, and neither was it even the murder of Le Chateau Rouge owner Rosenthal that caused the closing. Rather, what was most offensive to the men who ran Las Vegas, according to Karen Rosenthal, was the sexual danger represented by this integrated place. Karen, who killed (arguably in self defense) her husband when he discovered her with Harry Bastille, reveals that that murder was covered up and an innocent man framed for the crime as a means of hiding the true cause of the death, because “A white woman could get away with murder, but she couldn’t love a black man.”

An episode that deals so explicitly with show business, and with the tangled racial politics of show business, seems to suggest a kind of metacommentary on history of television and the racial politics of that medium, but I’ll leave that investigation for another day.

Western TV

For fans of television westerns, the cancellation of HBO’s Deadwood at the end of its third season left quite a void. That was also a huge loss for fans of creative, expressive, and frequent profanity, but good cursing is easier to find on television these days (British import Skins is my current favorite for creative profanity and inventive slang) than westerns, particularly those with “old west” or frontier settings. However, there are a number of interesting shows out there that we might claim as contemporary westerns, either because they are specifically and distinctively placed in a western setting (as with the original C. S. I. in Las Vegas) whether or not they share generic roots with the western, or because they are western in both  setting and (at least arguably) genre.

Two series that focus on law enforcement (traditional western territory), and which (interestingly) star female protagonists, and which are also located in specific western places are Saving Grace (Oklahoma City) and In Plain Sight (Albuquerque), and both series are shot on location in their respective cities.  I’ve just started watching Saving Grace‘s first season on DVD, and I watched In Plain Sight somewhat sporadically when it premiered last summer. I hope to go back and start watching it more seriously from start to finish to get ready for this coming summer’s season two premiere. Thus far, I like both series quite a bit,  not nearly enough cursing in either one for my taste, but, to give credit where it’s due, Holly Hunter’s Grace Hanadarko in Saving Grace indulges in plenty of other bad behaviors so that I don’t feel the absence of profanity so much.

I must admit that I’m somewhat interested by the heavily-advertised Harper’s Island, which premieres this week on CBS. This is a murder mystery set on a island off the coast of Seattle.  I’m intrigued by the specificity of the setting, but the premise, suggests more than a fair possibility that series will both hokey and clunky, combining the worst of Agatha Christie (someone’s killing all the guests on the island one by one), slasher movies (someone’s killing all the guests on the island one by one), and reality television (rather than voting someone “off the island” each week, the series promises to kill a new character each week). I may wait until some of the reviews start to come in on this one before I decide whether or not to commit to it.

In the meantime, I have repeats of Saving Grace and In Plain Sight to watch.

Wrapping Up Zane Grey Week

Thanks to everyone who stopped by the Western Literature Association Blog during our “Zane Grey Week” event. The WLA Blog has been online for only a little more than a couple of months, and the flow of visitors to the site has been fairly steady throughout that time. With Zane Grey Week, however, there was quite a bump up in readers visiting the blog, with 360 page views registered over the past seven days. That suggests that this type of “event” is of interest to a variety of readers and blog surfers, and it suggests as well that focusing another week of discussion around a particular author or a particular western text might be a good idea for the future.

That said, the WLA Blog would be a willing host for such an event, and we are more than willing to hear suggestions for an author, book, film, etc., that might provide a focus for the week.

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