WAL Special Issue (CFP)

Call for Submissons for Special Issue of WAL

Title: Emerging Field Directions from Younger Scholars

This special issue of Western American Literature showcases literary and cultural study work of younger scholars — graduate students and junior faculty.  Of particular interest is work which engages current theoretical debate in the field.  “West” is defined broadly here to refer to all of North America that either critically or historically has been considered “West” including comparative studies of the American West that cross regional or national boundaries.

Possible topics include:

  • interdisciplinarity and Western American Studies (ie ethnography, philosophy, the biological sciences, and more familiar history/literature study)
  • decolonizing the West
  • the interface between the virtual and real in postregional cultural production (ie place issues as they intersect with the “local real” in practices of video gaming, digital humanities, social networking, and etc.)
  • visuality and West: cinema, TV, photography, art
  • cultural and postmodern geography and literatures of place
  • affective geographies
  • historicist practices and 19C contact zones on moving frontier
  • animal studies and the posthuman in literature, film, culture
  • environment, social justice, nature writing, ethics of place
  • theoretical work engaging debates about conceptualizations of West including: notions of the rhizome or westness, forensic aesthetics, region as city-region in network of global world cities, translation, the local/global West, place ethics, feminist critical geographies, critical regionalism, comparative frontiers
  • issues of sovereignty, settler colonalisms, and the question of “What constitutes legitimate settlement?”
  • comparative work on the Global South, the US South, borderlands, and West
  • marking gender/queer/race/class as ongoing strategy of engaging problems of power
  • class, political economy, rural/urban/suburban
  • other issues of critical significance not listed here

Proposals (500 words) for submissions are due December 31.  Essays will be due July 1 (sooner is great).  Essays will be reviewed by the guest editor and/or sent out for more specialized review and returned with comments on August 1.  Contributors are to submit any revisions by September 1, 2010.  Essays cannot exceed 25 pages double-spaced, including endnotes (no footnotes) and Works Cited.  This special issue will be published in the early winter of 2013.  At 2012 WLA annual meeting in Lubbock, contributors will be invited to present their work in a plenary devoted to this special issue.  Your manuscript should follow MLA style. All submissions are electronic to guest editor, Krista Comer.  Questions and submissions should go to kcomer@rice.edu directly.


Hell on Wheels (recent episode)

Things keep moving forward in the most recent episode of Hell on Wheels, “Jamais je ne t’oublierai,” even if the building of the railroad itself is coming along quite slowly. The “Fair-haired Maiden of the West” has been rescued and returned to camp, where she is wined and dined by Durant, in part out of respect for his murdered partner (the “Fair-Haired Maiden’s” husband Robert Bell), and, in part, perhaps, because he suspects she may know where those missing survey maps are after all. The episode begins with an excellent long-distance gun fight. Bohannon has almost tracked down the illusive Sgt. Harper, the last living member of the group of soldiers who raped and murdered Bohannon’s wife (Bohannon having killed the rest of them). Fleeing on horseback, Harper is spotted over the prairie, and there’s an exchange of rifle fire between the two men. It’s a tense scene. Bohannon sees through his telescope that Harper has returned fire, but we have to wait a second or so for the bullet to close the distance between the two—and to find out whether Bohannon has been hit or not.

One of the elements of Hell on Wheels that I like is the way it suggests that the recently concluded Civil War is not quite over. Durant refers to building the railroad as a kind of warfare, and Bohannon’s quest for vengeance certainly suggests that the war is in some ways still being fought. In this episode, when a new shipment of black powder arrives, there’s an accident, which results in an explosion and fire—and then more explosions—transforming the camp into what looks like a battlefield, complete with destroyed machinery and structures, and wounded men being treated on the ground. It also suggests that Bohannon is a man of war who is having trouble adapting to peace. Although he’s taken over Johnson’s job as foreman, he’s been thus far a terrible foreman, leaving the job site to chase after Harper, and, when he returns to Hell on Wheels, getting spectacularly drunk. Rather than turning out the next morning to get his men working, he stays in bed nursing his hangover—until the explosion propels him into action. By the end of the episode, he is fully engaged and in charge. Bohannon knows what to do in a state of war. It’s the state of peace that he’s still trying to figure out.

SoA: Burnt and Purged Away

In the most recent episode of Sons of Anarchy, “Burnt and Purged Away,” the Sons have a meeting with the Irish—and, as usual, that results in one thing: man hugs of greeting. The hugs are somewhat restrained (one shoulder slap only), but, two man hugs within the first 5 minutes of the episode, well, that’s usually a good sign. The Irish group is not happy about the SoA’s relationship with the Cartel (and they’re really unhappy that some of their weapons were used in last episode’s pitched battle between the two drug cartels—with the Sons in the midst). The Irish also seem to be involved in running babies as well as guns. And baby peddling is where Jax draws the line.

Ray McKinnon continues to amuse as the oily District Attorney Lincoln Potter. We first see him in this episode in some sort of device that allows him to hang upside down—while smoking a cigarette. At the midpoint of the episode, he seems on top of the world—tipped off as he’s planned by Juice of the meeting place between the Sons and the Irish, and having successfully (or so it seems) suborned Otto.

In the previous episode, Opie discovered Piney’s body—and Wayne revealed to him that Clay was the murderer. Ultimately, this leads to Opie bent on vengeance racing through the night on his motorcycle, followed by Jax . . . driving a hearse. Will Jax get to Opie and time and prevent him from killing Clay?

Man Hugs This Episode: 3

Man Hug Season Total: 28

Catching up with Hell on Wheels

In the most recent episode of Hell on Wheels, “A New Birth of Freedom,”  we learn more about Bohannon’s history. We know that he is on mission to kill the union soldiers who raped and murdered his wife–including Captain Johnson, who he killed at the end of the first episode, and whose position as foreman Bohannon has taken by the end of episode two. Inside Captain Johnson’s tent, we see Bohannon searching through his stuff, finally finding a photograph of the full regiment. As Bohannon scans the photograph, and as the camera rests on each individual,  we get a flashback to his killing of each man. Still alive is the mysterious Sergeant Harper, the one man who Bohannon didn’t know was part of the group—until Johnson revealed that information to him.

In the previous episode, we were introduced to a new (and, thus far, the most interesting and unique) character, The Swede (although, as he continually reminds people, he is from Norway), who is sometimes referred to by the other characters as Mr. Swede. The Swede is the camp’s enforcer, whose authority comes from his boss–Durant, and not from the government. He is the law of the lawless frontier—that is, he is the keeper of order, but only so far as “order” is for the benefit of Durant.  With his Norwegian accent, his tall gaunt figure, and his black clothing, he is a striking individual. Canadian actor Christopher Heyerdahl, who is recognizable from a variety of science fiction television programs, plays the Swede, and he is thus far the highlight of the series.

Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), the “fair-haired maiden of the West” (to use the grandiose name Durant calls her in his inventive retelling of the Cheyenne raid), is finally rescued—by Joseph Black Moon (played by Eddie Spears, Lakota Sioux). “You’re Cheyenne,” Bohannon comments. “I”m Christian,” Black Moon responds.  Christian or not, Bohannon realizes that if he arrives back at camp with the “fair-haired maiden of the West,” he will be seen as her captor, not her rescuer. When three of the Swede’s deputies arrive, they find Lily by herself, and, not knowing that Bohannon is around, threaten her, intent, it seems on raping her. Bohannon, small cigar in his mouth (reminiscent of Clint Eastwood in A Fisftul of Dollars), and gun in hand, fends them off. For the most part, unlike Deadwood, this is a western without women. In episode 2, we don’t have a woman in a speaking role appear until a quarter way into the episode (Lily again). Thus far, Lily is the only developed female character. Other female characters may emerge—it seems like one of the women in the brothel is going to be further developed, but I guess we will see.


Sons of Anarchy: Call of Duty

In the last episode of Sons of Anarchy, a fight between Gemma and Clay ended with Clay beating her severely. When Wayne asks her what they’re going to do about Clay at the beginning of “Call of Duty,” the most recent episode,, she tells him, “I’ll take care of it.”  Even Tig has had enough of Clay. “Why are you shutting me out?” he asks Clay, and Clay responds, “Am I married to you, too?”  Tig answers, “In a way, you are.” Clay seems hell-bent on putting an end to all his marriages. By the end of the episode, Tig has returned his ring (or, rather, handed Clay his Sergeant at Arms patch.

Several people have commented that Sons of Anarchy is a “soap opera” for men, and these past two episodes in particular have really seemed to emphasize the soap opera roots—especially because many of the scenes take place at the hospital, that most typical of soap opera settings. That Tara, the surgeon, suffers a hand injury that threatens her career also seems particularly soap operatic. Then Jax’s first wife, and the mother of his first son, shows up in Tara’s hotel room with  flowers (this does not make Tara happy).

The Sons break out the heavy weapons and go after the Cartel, and there’s a major battle scene in this episode, with mined fields and rocket propelled grenades. There’s a very high body count in this episode. Again, bodies are left everywhere, in car trunks, in fields, and I still keep wondering, does anyone ever notice all the bodies piling up around town?

There’s a man hug between Juice and Chibs, who has been counseling Juice after his suicide attempt. As Chibs comments after a fairly long hug with something like 7 or 8 taps, slaps, and pats,  “couple guys hugging in a bathroom.” For those of us who watch Sons of Anarchy for the man hugs, it’s the highlight of the episode.

Man hugs this episode: 1

Man hug season total: 25

Sons of Anarchy: “Hands”

In the most recent episode of Sons of Anarchy,  Clay has set in motion his plan to have Tara killed. Things go wrong quickly. Gemma figures out what he’s up to and enlists Wayne to help prevent it. Clay also does not realize that Jax and the children are traveling with Tara, accompanying her to her conference. He tries to stop the hit, but is told that once the hired killer has been set in motion, there’s no stopping.

In the meantime, Jax and Tara are enjoying the vacation—even to the point of offkey singing in the car. After several episodes that have followed the same pattern (the Sons go to a meeting, there’s a driveby shooting, and everybody argues some more about whether or not the club should be running drugs), the plot finally moves forward in this episode. I’ve been finding the past few episodes to be kind of slow moving, covering the same developments in slightly different variations. This episode breaks from the pattern, and it’s a suspenseful engaging episode. Putting Tara in danger is a ready way to build suspense, and she also has an opportunity to demonstrate her resourcefulness in a crisis—no easy kidnap victim, Tara, but her hand is severely injured in the incident, jeopardizing her career as a surgeon.

This is the episode where we see how far over the edge Clay has gone. He is indeed a “wounded animal” (as Wayne called him in an earlier episode) striking out at everyone—including Gemma. By the end of the episode, Gemma comments, “Clay can’t be saved.”

Man hugs in this episode: 3

Man hug season total: 24

Hell on Wheels

There’s a new western starting up on AMC (the network that gives us Breaking Bad). Hell on Wheels is set in the 1860s and follows the building of the transcontinental railway. The title Hell on Wheels is not, as one might suspect, a reference to a runaway locomotive, but to the tent city that follows along with the Union Pacific Railway as it’s being built, with the tracks and the tents simultaneously moving westward.

The “nation is an open wound,” a title informs us at the beginning of the premiere. Railroad builder Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney), in a money-raising stump speech, offers the transcontinental railroad as a stitch in time for the nation’s wounds: “The nation that nearly tore itself apart by north and south will be joined together by east and west.” Although, as the episode reveals, Durant is more interested in lining his own pockets than healing the nation. He insists on building more curves in the railroad because he’s being paid (“from the government teat,” he observes, in a Swearengenian turn of phrase) by the mile , and building in a straight line is costing him money.

The episode begins well with Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), disguised as a priest, shooting a man in a confession booth. Bohannon is the central character, a former confederate soldier seeking vengeance on the Union soldiers who murdered his wife (one of whom wanders into the wrong confession booth). “You got to let go of the past,” he tells former slave Elam Ferguson (Common), who responds, “Have you let it go?” Neither man has let go of the past, or, maybe it would be more accurate to say that the past refuses to let go of either man. Because he’s a former slaveowner (although he was convinced by his wife of the evils of slavery and set them all free before the war started), Bohannon is put in charge as walking boss of the black workers. And, because he is black, Ferguson is given the lowest paying and hardest job on the railroad.

Although the Civil War is over, it seems very much present in the episode, as the characters respond throughout in ways determined by their pre-Civil War experiences. Blasting associated with building the rail line occurs throughout the episode, and, especially early in the episode, we feel like we are on a battlefield, with explosions continually in the background—the only difference, everyone in the foreground continues with their tasks (such as a baptism) without paying any attention to the blasts.

Council Bluffs, Iowa, is the current leading edge of the railway line, and it’s that leading edge of building the railroad that establishes the frontier in Hell on Wheels. There’s no danger that Hell on Wheels (the encampment) will evolve into a civilized town, because it is continually moving forward into yet another frontier situation. The frontier is also defined by the presence of Native Americans, as the railway encroaches on Indian Territory (which results in an attack by Cheyenne Indians at one point). The Civil War may have ended, but there are other wars to be fought.

Hell on Wheels is a post-Deadwood western, and we see its influence everywhere (not the least in the Swearengen-like character Thomas Durant). There’s also plenty of blood, mud, and dirt-covered people. In the make-up tent, I imagine there must be a very large barrel labeled “FAKE DIRT, APPLY LIBERALLY”). The violence is also fairly graphic. So far, however, this is not Deadwood in terms of quality (but, really, the first episode is too early judge), although it is interesting and entertaining. There’s also a not unappealing cheesiness at  times (e.g., actor Ted Levine’s out-of-control beard, and Colm Meaney doesn’t just chew the scenery but makes sure he gives a full 32 bites to every piece).

Hell on Wheels follows AMC’s Walking Dead in their Sunday evening schedule, and the two shows are well paired.

In the anthology The Philosophy of the Western, several of the contributors observe that the setting of the western returns humanity to a “state of nature,” to a time before the institution of the laws of civilization, and the western therefore often functions as a way of examining what is essential about human nature outside of the influence of society.  Different westerns suggest different philosophical positions as to what human existence would be like in a state of nature. In The Walking Dead, a cataclysmic event (the virus that turns people into zombies) has reduced humanity to a “state of nature,” and the driving philosophical concept is Hobbesian—that in a state of nature every person is out for himself, and that without the order of government, we are in a state of continual warfare. In this state of nature, it is kill or be killed (or, in Walking Dead terms, kill or be eaten).

This seems to be the philosophical framework for Hell on Wheels as well. The cataclysmic event here is the Civil War, but it is an event that has turned one human against another just as completely as a zombie apocalypse. In Hell on Wheels, we are in the early stages of the recovery from that cataclysm, but the veneer of civilization seems a thin one. Although the war may have ended, we still see its effects, especially in the actions of Bohannon, which are driven by vengeance for atrocities that occurred during the war.  In the Hell on Wheels camp, kill or be killed remains the order of the day, whether those deaths are caused by others outside the camp (the Indian raid) or whether the violence comes from within the camp. Not only is the role of government weakened because we are on the frontier, but the series suggests that the war itself has so weakened the government as to make it ineffective. (Ferguson refers to the Emancipation Proclamation as so much toilet paper, as it has had no effect on his everyday existence, which remains much the same, he feels, as when he was enslaved.) In the absence of government control, in step the capitalists to fill the gap. And Durant, who sees himself as a “lion” slaughtering the “zebras” around him certainly views society in terms of kill or be killed, and he is intent on being the one who does the killing.

Of course, this is just the first episode of the series, so we will see how it develops, whether as in Deadwood we see “order out of the mud” or whether we remain closer to a predatory kill or be killed state of nature as we seem to be doing in Walking Dead.

For more on the Indian attack in this episode, see “Indians in Prime Time” at Indian Country Today.