Professors Examine Enduring Myths of the American West
History, sociology and writing professors assembled at the Nov. 5 "Unsettling the West" forum urged students to look beyond myths perpetuated in Hollywood Westerns and develop a richer appreciation of people and stories from the 19th-century American West.
It's not an easy task, according to U.S. history professor Carl Guarneri. While professional historians like Guarneri have long marshaled evidence to challenge popular culture's frontier narrative of cowboys on horseback imposing order on a blank landscape, the myth has a tenacious hold over the collective American imagination.
"Myths tend to die not from factual bullets that historians fire at them at high noon on Main Street," Guarneri said. "They die from a gradual loss of faith that people experience in the surrounding logic of the myth or the buttressing culture of the myth, and that process has not played itself out (in the American West) yet."
The panel discussion was part of "Food for Thought," a series of events providing context for the College's fall theater production of Beth Henley's "Abundance," a revisionist American Western that opens on Nov. 13 at 8 p.m. in LeFevre Theatre.
Henley's focus on two mail-order brides in 1860s Wyoming Territory allows her to explore stories of frontier women, who are often absent from textbook accounts of the period. Sociology professor Phylis Martintelli noted that the skewed gender ratio in the 1860s American West - 80 percent male, 20 percent female in some territories - played a major role in shaping social relations, including an expectation that women would provide a civilizing influence. Martinelli argues that women's relative scarcity in these societies makes their stories more, rather than less, important to the historical record.
"They really were unusual women in some way or maybe normal women in unusual circumstances," Martinelli said.
Plot developments in "Abundance" also bring the main characters into contact with Native Americans, which white settlers grouped together as an alien "other" in the 19th-century American West.
Historian Juan Avila Hernandez emphasized that Native Americans formed hundreds of thriving societies with their own languages and cultures during this period. He also noted that the era of history covered in the play, from the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty to the killing of 400 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians at the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, represented a turning point between settlers and Native American societies that were increasingly coming into conflict.
"Wyoming Territory of the 1860s was a highly contested, embattled and violent terrain," Avila Hernandez said, adding that events like the Sand Creek Massacre polarized Native American societies between those favoring accommodation with white settlers and those advocating resistance.
Creative writing professor Mary Volmer, who is serving as the dramaturg for "Abundance," says one of the virtues of the production is that it establishes the texture of a historical period very different from our own.
"The audience can inhabit a historical place they can't penetrate through typical history," said Volmer, author of Crown of Dust, a novel about women on the American Western frontier.
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Photos by Gorbachev Lingad '10 and Michael Cook