Significance of the Frontier in an Age of Transnational History (Conference)







































Dear Colleagues:


It is our pleasure to invite you to a symposium to be held on Saturday, February 25th  at The Huntington Library entitled The Significance of The Frontier in An Age of Transnational History.   This interdisciplinary symposium will be a discussion between leading scholars in fields across the humanities about the concept of the frontier in its global contexts.  All roundtables and lectures are free and open to the public. Please see the statement and schedule below for a complete list of participants and a more information.  A catered lunch with the symposium participants is available for 10 dollars for graduate students, and 20 dollars for faculty and the public.   Lunches must be reserved before Monday, February 20th


To RSVP, reserve a lunch, or request additional information, please contact us at





Symposium Organizers:


Erik Altenbernd, UC Irvine History

Alex Young, USC English


Organizing Committee:


Seth Archer, UC Riverside History

Hoest Heap-of-Birds, USC Sociology

Jessica Kim, USC History

Dan Lynch, UCLA History

Jen Staver, UC Irvine History

Eric Steiger, UC Irvine History

Symposium Statement

Nearly twenty-five years after the interventions of New Western History, a
brief survey of recent scholarship on the American West displays a
diversity of approaches to the concept of the frontier. In a moment in
which scholarship across the humanities continues to seek frames of
reference beyond that of the nation-state, scholars of U.S. imperialism
utilize the frontier as a concept that describes not only contact between
cultures and environments, but as a site (both real and imagined) of
community formation and nation building.  Borderlands scholars, for
instance, have broadened considerably our understandings of La Frontera

and its significance in the history of North America.  In the world of

critical race theory, scholars of settler colonialism have fruitfully

reintroduced frontier binaries into their transnational analyses.  Critics

working in literary and film studies have likewise focused on how these

mediums have borrowed from as well as pushed back against the powerful
national narratives articulated by Turnerian historiography.

This symposium aims to put some of these diverse views of historical
frontiers into conversation with one another and assess the current state
of frontier studies.  Have historians of the American West, through the
synthesis of transnational, borderlands, and environmental history (among
other fields), returned, in the words of Kerwin Lee Klein, to telling “big
frontier tales” and in the process become “postwestern?”  Does Turnerian
historiography remain an important object of study for scholars who want

to challenge dominant narratives of American power, or has the

implementation of transnational and postnational perspectives set aside
the decidedly national concerns of Turner and New Western History?  If we
understand the frontier purely as a myth, how and why does the frontier
myth continue to be invoked in such a broad range of political rhetoric

and cultural productions?  If, as scholars of settler colonialism argue,
the frontier is a narrative structure rather than an historical event, and
the binaries between settlers and indigenous peoples are central to the
production of power in settler colonies and states, how can the study of
frontier historiography inform our understanding of Native Americans’
ongoing struggles tribal sovereignty?  Lastly, have these various critical
appraisals of the mythologies of colonial settler frontiers–a body of
scholarship to which Frederick Jackson Turner and New Western History both
belong–had any effect on contemporary popular productions, or do they
continue to reside primarily within academic discourses?

Sponsors: Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West; USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute; Research Division, The Huntington; Salvatori Fund, USC Dornsife College of Arts and Letters; Department of English, USC; The University of California Multi-Campus Research Unit in World History; Department of American Studies and Ethnicity, USC







Remember the American West (CFP)

Remembering the American West (MLA 2013, Boston)

Affiliate Organization Session of the Western Literature Association

A group of western writers could almost be “expatriates” as they relied on their notes, sketches, and memories to produce the vivid narratives of the American West that became their literary homes while living in their literal homes in the American East. And if the writers of the west weren’t living in the East, there was a time when they were writing for eastern publishers. Such western literary icons as John Steinbeck, Willa Cather, and Mary Austin spent at least a portion of their lives living in New York. Mari Sandoz, Loren Eisley, Wright Morris, and Mark Twain also lived in the East while writing about the West. How does working from memory and experiencing the separation from the literal landscape and people that make up the American West influence authors and publishers in the East when producing the West?

300-word abstracts to Max Despain, U.S. Air Force Academy ( by March 5, 2012.


Hell on Wheels: Revelations

Last week,  Hell on Wheels consisted of a series of negotiations.  In this week’s episode, “Revelations,” rather than negotiations, we have a series of showdowns. Lily Bell confronts an obnoxious relative of her deceased husband at a memorial service. The relative “draws” first, making several comments about how Robert’s death was all Lily’s fault and derisively referring to her as the “golden maiden of the west.” Lily sets her straight, her detailed account of how she killed the man who killed her husband accompanied by a ringing slap to the face. Lily wins this showdown.

Durant has his own showdown—with Senator Crane. Although Crane is trying to manipulate Durant by holding his knowledge of misappropriated funds over Durant’s head, Durant figures out that his real game is to capitalize on knowledge of where Durant plans to build a spur to get his railway connected to New York. After a show of (feigned) reluctance, Durant reveals his plan to connect to a particular existing line. Crane sinks all his money into stock, hoping for a big return when Durant announces his plans. Instead, Durant announces a connection to a different line, and Crane is nearly ruined. “Here’s a bright shiny new penny,” Durant states as he tosses it on Crane’s desk and turns on his heels and walks out. Durant wins his showdown with the Senator.

Meanwhile, racial tensions at Hell on Wheels continue to escalate. The Irish workers, frustrated in their desire go after the Cheyenne, go after Elam instead—with, it seems, the blessings of the Swede (who thinks it will let them blow off steam). As Durant’s head of security, one wonders what the Swede is really up to, as he’s absolutely awful at the job. It’s difficult to see how any work on building the railroad is going to get done if the workers are continually trying to kill each other—more often than not, set at it by the Swede.

In one of the best scenes in the series, Bohannon rides his horse into the tent where the Irish are in the process of lynching Elam. Gun blazing, he saves Elam, and they take off on the lam away from Hell on Wheels. The annoyed Swede sends the Irish workers along with two of his men off after them. By the end of the episode, the members of this posse (or lynch mob), including one of Durant’s walking bosses and several of his workers, are all dead. There may be a labor surplus at the end of the Civil War, but still, this seems like no way to build a railroad.

Bohannon and Elam set up an ambush, and Bohannon takes care of most of the mob with his rifle. Elam chases his nemesis, Mr. Toole into the woods, where we have the final showdown of the episode, and the most traditionally western of the episode’s showdowns, as the two men fire their pistols at one another until, as Elam realizes, Mr. Toole has used all his ammunition. Elam shoots him in the mouth. A nice gruesome touch is when we see smoke from the gunshot drift out of Mr. Toole’s mouth. Elam wins this showdown.

Interestingly, and thinking about Hell on Wheels as involving a story specifically of the African American West, we see Elam’s transformation in the first seven episodes from a former slave whose story follows the conventions of the slave narrative (as an object of white violence whose efforts to truly be a free man are continually thwarted) into a story that follows the conventions of the western. He begins “Revelations” as the victim of a lynch mob, but he ends the episode as a western hero (or western outlaw—at this point, it’s not clear how he and Bohannon will be considered), winning his showdown not because he’s the best shot, but because he keeps the coolest head. In the final shot of the episode, we see that Elam has thoroughly become part of the western story—as he and Bohannon ride off into the sunset.

Updating Blogroll

It’s been awhile since we last updated our Blogroll, so we are looking for suggestions for blogs and websites with an interest in the American West, the western genre, or critical regionalism. Please use the comments below to make suggestions, or send suggestions to

Hell On Wheels: Pride, Pomp and Circumstance

In the most recent episode of Hell on Wheels, “Pride, Pomp and Circumstance,” Illinois Senator Jordan Crane arrives to “negotiate” with the Cheyenne (with olive branch in one hand and cudgel in the other, he promises). Only Rev. Cole seems interested in peaceful negotiation. Other negotiations are taking place as well–particularly between Lily Bell (who has her husband’s maps of the route through the Rockies) and Durant (who wants the maps but isn’t willing to pay Lily’s price). The Swede provides the Senator with information about Durant’s financial shenanigans, and asks in return that the Senator find out the whereabouts of Frank Harper (the last living member of the unit of soldiers that killed Bohannon’s wife)—another moment of negotiation in the episode, as the Senator agrees to the Swede’s terms.

A group from the Cheyenne arrives at the camp. My favorite shot of the episode has Durant and the Senator on one side of the table, Rev. Cole and Wes Studi’s Cheyenne chief on the other, with the tall, black-clothed and black-hatted Swede standing away from the table looking on—the visual center point of the shot, even if he isn’t part of the negotiations.  “The United States government is offering you a piece of land of your own,” the Senator tells him. “We will give you everything you need,” Durant offers, “if you will just submit to living on a reservation.” Unsurprisingly, this is not an attractive offer to the Chief. So much for the negotiations.

When we change camera positions, we see the steam engine in the background, a strangely appropriate visual match to the Swede in the earlier shot. Somehow, this all leads to a race between the Chief’s son and the train engine—a parallel sporting event to the previous episode’s boxing match. The iron horse eventually overtakes and passes the real horse.

There are further negotiations between Durant and the Senator (the Senator: “Now I have your pecker in my pocket”), and those negotiations don’t work out so well for Durant.

The final round of negotiations is between Lily and the Cheyenne woman that accompanies the group. When Lily sees her wearing her husband’s hat, she tries to take it back—realizing the connection to the Indians that killed her husband. In this case, Joseph acts as an effective mediator. The woman returns the hat to Lily, expressing her sorrow for her loss—for she has also lost a husband (killed, although she doesn’t realize it, by Lily herself). This complicates Lily’s vision of the Cheyenne, and the connection the two women establish, based on their shared experience of sorrow, suggests that good faith negotiations might indeed lead to peace and understanding. Durant and the Senator, however, are not negotiating in good faith—as they are more concerned about advancing their own financial and political interests than in working toward peaceful understanding.

Interestingly, the Swede and Bohannon end up on the same side in the final moments of the episode, joining to prevent the Irish workers from going after the Cheyenne. Of course, things don’t go quite as planned, and in the final scene of the episode, they go after Elam, dragging him from his tent (well, the Swede did suggest that they find something to do in camp to amuse themselves).

This was one of the most visually interesting episodes thus far, with several striking compositions (often involving the Swede), including a scene involving Lily at the gravesite of her husband, as well as the horse/train race itself. And whether it was Director of Photography Marvin Rush or director Michael Slovis, someone seemed intent on offering an homage to John Ford in this episode (lots of shots involving frame within a frame compositions, often from the inside looking through the door, tent opening, between two tent posts, etc., out toward an exterior space).

True Grit (subtitled)

Anyone who has struggled to make out exactly what Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn was saying  will appreciate this clip from College Humor, which has created subtitles for scenes from True Grit with what it sounds like (“My jinx is occupied”) Rooster is saying.


Older Than America Los Angeles Screening