James J. Donahue is Associate Professor of English and Communication at the State University of New York at Potsdam. In addition to his articles, which have appeared in such journals as Translation Review, The Midwest Quarterly, Studies in American Indian Literatures, and the Journal of Narrative Theory, he is co-editor with Derek C. Maus of Post-Soul Satire: Black Identity after Civil Rights (University Press of Mississippi, 2014). Donahue specializes in underrepresented literatures, narrative theory, historical fiction, as well as race and gender studies. Our conversation involved his more recent book Failed Frontiersmen: White Men and Myth in the Post-Sixties American Historical Romance (University of Virginia Press, 2015).
What drove you to write Failed Frontiersman? And what factors directed you to focus on Historical Romance?
I first became interested in the Historical Romance in a class with Robert Tilton at UConn, while pursuing my Ph.D. I was attracted to the books themselves – including works by James Fenimore Cooper, Mark Twain, John Pendleton Kennedy, Cormac McCarthy, and James Welch – but perhaps more importantly, I was fascinated by the ways the various authors engaged with American history and mythology. The Historical Romance was – and still is – the form many authors use when they wish to challenge the historical record or force their audiences to rethink long-established truths about our world. And on a personal note, I very much enjoy reading, teaching, and publishing on literary works that critically engage the complexity (and sometimes the painful moments) of our past. I was particularly drawn to the mythology of the American frontier, which has long been a popular subject for authors, filmmakers, cultural critics, etc.
In a different vein, I am engaged in the study of narrative theories, and I also became increasingly interested in the novel/romance distinction, which apparently was dropped by many literary theorists, but not necessarily by literary artists themselves. Finally, I have long been interested in the study of ethnic American literature, particularly Native American and African American authors. I was compelled to write this book because I saw it as a way to work with the formal, thematic, and cultural issues that most excited me.
In the Introduction, you state that many scholars have exposed frontier mythology “for its inherent racism and sexism.” Tell us about the major points in that discussion.
Traditionally, the frontier mythology largely focuses on the exploits of heroic white men, through whose bravery and strength of character the wilderness of the American landscape was civilized. The work of numerous scholars – including the New West historians, feminist historians and cultural critics, non-white scholars in various fields, and others – has shown this to be a poor representation of our nation’s past. Additionally, the mythology that has developed out of this misrepresentation of our history has contributed to the architecture that has supported systemic racism and sexism in our country. (Think, for instance, about the representation of women and people of color in westerns, or in advertisements that rest on the frontier mythology, and how such representations influence the way we envision our past and respond in our present.) The authors I focus on in my book (and certainly those authors do not constitute an exclusive list) have used their fiction to re-imagine the past, and provide a critical re-evaluation of our nation’s founding mythology, particularly in light of the socio-political movements of the latter half of the twentieth century (Civil Rights, American Indian Movement, the conflict in Vietnam, second wave feminism). The latter half of the twentieth century saw a concerted effort among scholars, artists, and activists to provide a necessary correction to our nation’s founding mythology, and my book is both a study of (one piece of) that development, as well as a participant in that development.
So Daniel Boone is an important figure in that mythological history.
Daniel Boone is perhaps the most recognizable figure, the most popular figure who – for many people – embodies the heroic white masculinity that the authors I study write against. More importantly for my study, however, is that Boone’s life provided many of the stories that served as the basis for the narrative tradition that became the mythology of the American frontier. In the late eighteenth century, John Filson published his short biography of Boone, which was merely the first in what would become many such treatments (including Robert Morgan’s recent 2007 biography). Similarly, Richard Slotkin spends a fair amount of his study of the American frontier focused on Daniel Boone and the mythology he inspired. I felt it both necessary and appropriate to build upon the work that had been done in both popular and academic writing, so I selected Boone as the paradigmatic figure. That said, a great number of such figures populate the frontier mythology: Kit Carson, William Cody (Buffalo Bill), Wyatt Earp, etc. What these figures all share is two-fold: on the one hand, they are all white males who are remembered for their heroic exploits and have become representative figures of cultural authority; on the other hand, they are all successful frontiersmen, who engage in some of the various activities tied to “the winning of the West,” which have allowed for the spread of Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism.
So part of the agenda in re-presenting our nation’s past is to imagine a different future or impact the future?
Yes, there are two parts to this agenda. The first is in correcting what (borrowing from E.L. Doctorow) I refer to in Chapter 1 as the “false documents” upon which this mythology has been built. Various historical documents – biographies, memoirs, fiction, film, historical narratives, etc. – work to construct a vision of the past that erases the contributions of a variety of people, but specifically women and people of color. However, just as important is the second part of the agenda, which is to imagine the future we deserve. As the various protest movements mentioned above attest to, the free, socially-progressive, democratic society that was promised to us by the frontier mythology was unfulfilled by the close of the twentieth century, which witnessed a variety of cultural outbursts that challenged the racist and sexist social architecture found throughout various institutions in the United States. Those various protests gave voice to many of the voiceless in American society, and forced various institutions – including artistic and academic institutions, as well as social and cultural institutions – to re-evaluate the narratives that we have used to define our nation and transmit our history. And as much historical fiction demonstrates, the works I studied all to some degree hint toward the future, reminding the readers that we must still engage in the hard work of building the society of free and equal citizens that our mythology promised us.
Tell us more about Doctorow, Barth, and the “beast known as postmodernism.”
Many writers associated with that beast known as postmodernism have used their fiction to highlight the problems with written documents. We traditionally associate writing with authority (think of when we ask for something in writing to make it official, or the way we insist that students demonstrate the knowledge gained from research by quoting from sources), and in particular we fetishize written documents as evidence of events from the past. However, as E.L. Doctorow and John Barth – in both their fiction and their nonfiction – demonstrate, written documents are far from the unbiased, factual accounts they are often taken to be. Doctorow’s first novel is presented in the form of a journal kept by a small mining town’s only official (the unelected and generally unskilled mayor of the appropriately named Hard Times). However, as the reader discovers by the end of these “ledgers,” our narrator is a biased recorder of information who increasingly comes to doubt his own reportage. Barth, in a similar vein, shows in The Sot-Weed Factor that written documents are often misused, misappropriated, and at times intentionally misread, in order to employ those documents to promote a variety of personal and political agendas. In both cases, written documents are revealed to be both the tools and products of ideological creatures who do not necessarily have “truth” as their agenda.
Like Barth’s work, Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon “challenges readers and critics alike with their formal and thematic convolutions.”
These works all play with form, in keeping with other works of historiographic metafiction, and I do mean “play” in the humorous sense as well as the more general sense of highlighting and upending formal conventions. Although the subject matter is quite serious, these works are all (though in the case of Welcome to Hard Times to a lesser degree) quite funny at times. But at all points, these works identify, employ, and then show the problems with the different formal conventions of the various genres at play. For instance, just as Welcome to Hard Times is presented as a personal journal and The Sot-Weed Factor in large part is focused on the various journals kept about Smith’s adventures, Mason & Dixon subtly employs the formal conventions of the diary, the sermon, the adventure story, etc. This formal work in exposing and undercutting the types of writing that have been used to transmit the mythology of the American frontier is an important part of exposing and undercutting the problems – particularly the inherent racism and sexism – found in that mythology. Just as we should not accept without question the mythology, so too should we not blindly accept the validity of the documents that have transmitted that mythology, which is fully in keeping with the time period during which these authors penned their works, as it was in the 1960s (and later) that groups of people challenged the history they had been taught (with the help of historians like Howard Zinn) and the validity of social institutions that have long suffered from institutional racism and sexism.
Did you find it difficult to write the chapter on Pynchon given that you call the clarity of his writing “murky at best”?
I believe I noted that Pynchon’s politics, as gauged through his writing, were “murky.” But more to the point, this was one of the most fun chapters to write. Aside from being a huge fan of Pynchon’s works (and Mason & Dixon is a particular favorite), I very much enjoyed exploring the political implications of the works, in particular because many of Pynchon’s readers (inside and outside the scholarly community) do not focus on the political dimensions of his novels. The best novels are those that allow for multiple entry points into thoughtful discussion and interpretation, and Pynchon’s works allow for a great many such entry points. I think this is one reason (outside of his skill as a stylist) that Pynchon has been and continues to remain a popular subject for literary analysis. That said, the murkiness that many find in his style – the complexity of his writing, his ability to weave together multiple discourses, his ability to range far and wide over space and time – was also fitting for my own project. The mythology of the American frontier really is not something one can study as a separate discourse; it has sunk its claws into a variety of our nation’s discourses (literary, historical, political, scientific, etc.). And Pynchon is one writer who consciously – and beautifully – adopts such a variety of discourses into his fiction. So while my own chapter focuses mostly on documents (following up on the first chapter’s focus on Barth, Doctorow, and the “false documents” of history), a different study could just as easily have addressed the mythology of the American frontier in terms of religion, science, etc.
You argue, “Writers like Pynchon employed the American Historical Frontier Romance to demonstrate how the nation’s failed race relations in the twentieth century had their roots in the racist implications of the American frontier mythology.” Do you see any parallels with Twain?
I did not have Twain in mind when I wrote this book, but I can certainly see the connection. In fact, Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is a staple in my course on Historical Fiction. (Sadly, I have not yet included The Sot-Weed Factor or Mason & Dixon in that course, but I have regularly included Welcome to Hard Times and The Crossing.) When I teach Connecticut Yankee, we spend much time in class on the book’s various means of commenting on nineteenth century racial and gendered biases and stereotypes. In many ways, The Boss is that heroic white male figure that I highlight (in order to condemn) in the works I study. Of course, Connecticut Yankee is hardly Twain’s only work that explicitly addresses race (and, perhaps less explicitly, gender), just as Mason & Dixon is hardly Pynchon’s only such work. Both authors used their fiction to tap into the various social and political problems of their day; this is, as I argue in the book’s Introduction, the reason why such authors write within the tradition of the historical romance.
Ismael Reed reinserts the African American into the West.
Representations of the American frontier, in both print and in film, are often constructed with largely white casts of characters, despite the large numbers of non-white peoples across the American landscape. (And this considers the traditional representations of Native Americans as savages.) So, on the one hand, writers like Reed use their fiction to repopulate the representations of the frontier to more accurately reflect the racial landscape. On the other hand, Reed (and others) are also turning on its head the traditional figure of the heroic frontiersman, by constructing (in Reed’s case) an African American frontiersman who embodies all of the traditional values – strong work ethic, fighting prowess, moral authority, etc. – and brings to the figure new values, informed by the social and political movements of the 1960s.
We see similar, if not quite the same work being done in Gerald Vizenor’s The Heirs of Columbus, when he reimagines Christopher Columbus as a Mayan, and the waves of European immigration as a returning home of Native American peoples. In both cases, the authors are using their fiction to reassess and redefine the American frontier in response to the social changes of the late twentietth century, while simultaneously commenting on the history of the frontier narrative. (Both authors, in fact, also provide meta-commentary on that tradition, taking pains to both show their immersion in that written tradition while also critiquing it.) And as with the rest of the authors in the study, Reed and Vizenor recognize that how we characterize and understand our past is both a reflection of our current self-defintion as well as the foundation upon which we continuously build our society.
In some ways, the theme of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian mirrors the thesis of your book .
I didn’t think of it that way until I was writing that chapter, but yes, in many ways my book provides an academic study of the theme that McCarthy’s book – as well as the Border Trilogy – beautifully addresses in fiction. I wrote the chapters in the order in which they appear in the book, so I always knew that I would be ending with McCarthy, and that I would have to find a way to do justice to his rather complex treatment of the frontier, in that his books do not attack the traditional frontier narrative as clearly and openly as do those by Doctorow, Barth, Pynchon, Reed, and Vizenor. In some ways, McCarthy’s books are much more nuanced, as well as much less clearly politically-informed. (And as I try to make clear in that chapter itself, I make no claims as to McCarthy’s own personal politics. Rather, I read his fiction as participating in the tradition of critical re-evaluation engaged by his contemporaries. In fact, some of my readings go against the grain of some of the more familiar interpretations of McCarthy’s works.) That said, Blood Meridian and the Border Trilogy all demonstrate how the myths we create – through the various kinds of documents we produce and stories we tell – are not the reality in which we live, and mistaking the one for the other can have dangerous results. In different ways, The Kid, John Grady Cole, and Billy Parham all meet disastrous ends, as the lives they tried to create on the American frontier were untenable; none were prepared for the reality they faced, in part, because they were steeped in the mythology (perhaps none more so than Cole, though I personally find Parham’s end more heartbreaking).
What is the most important point from Failed Frontiersmen you hope your readers walk away with?
Ideally, I would hope that my readers would walk away from this book with a desire to continue this line of inquiry. There are far too many avenues I could not explore, far too many issues I could not raise (for instance, I only allude to film), far too many authors I could not include (for instance, I do not study any Latino/a authors). And my study focuses exclusively on male authors and the mythology of the white man on the frontier; there is much work that can be done studying how women have re-imagined the American frontier, particularly with respect to women’s contributions and challenges to this mythology. While writing and revising this book, I was keenly aware of how much work still needs to be done, and how other scholars may be better situated to contribute to the discussion. The mythology of the American frontier has long been used as a model for American Exceptionalism, or the thinking that America is a fundamentally better nation; the mythology has been used as a means to demonstrate the means by which white men created a civilized nation out of the wilderness. Such claims about progress and betterment have not only been sexist and racist on their face, but have also proven to be a lie, as the various protests of the latter half of the twentieth century have shown our failure to create the civilized world that has been promised to us. That said, hope is certainly not lost, and one way to begin building that better world is to embrace our past, and recognize the diversity of peoples and cultures that have always existed in the United States.
Leslie Kreiner Wilson, Editor
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