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Environments in Western American Literature  

Susan Kollin

Western American literature is a diverse body of writing that documents human responses to the ecological changes that have reshaped the region over the years. The literature includes narratives of contact and encounter, nonfiction nature essays, borderlands literature, popular Westerns, hard-boiled detective narratives, Dust Bowl novels, eco-memoirs, climate change fiction, and other genres. At a time when the West faces a number of environmental crises, a survey of the region provides insights into how we arrived at this point by addressing key moments in the environmental past, including struggles over land use, conflicts over resources, the historical meanings of eco-disaster, and efforts at finding solutions to these problems. In settler colonial imaginaries, the region appears as a space of promise and possibility. It offers a retreat from a hyper-modernizing world and serves as a bulwark against changes taking place elsewhere. In this way, the region is also a shifting terrain associated with the nation’s moving frontiers and contact zones, as Europeans continually pushed beyond the spaces of their previous settlements. Before the West was called the West, however, it was home to hundreds of tribal groups who did not configure the land through this geographical lens. Likewise, for some Hispanics, it was known as Aztlán, the mythic land of the ancient Aztecs, and also el Norte. Beginning in the mid-19th century, Chinese immigrants called the area in what is present-day California “gold mountain,” while from 1733 to 1867, parts of the West from Alaska to California were recognized as “Russian America.” As a place that calls forth diverse memories about encounters and conflicts, stories about dispossession and recovery, and dreams of enrichment and tales of going bust, the West remains a contested terrain whose literature carries traces of the economies and ecologies of the people who have made it their home.