HC444H/421H - How the West Was Spun: Myth and History in the American West (Spring/2024)

Professor: Casey Shoop

4.00 credits

  • CRN 35999: Monday & Wednesday, 6:00-7:20pm @ ANS 192

The mythic representation of the American West occupies an enduring place in American popular culture. For all its apparent familiarity, however, “the Western” remains an incredibly complex form that contains powerful and deep-seated assumptions about American national character and history, masculinity, race, class and gender. By posing questions about how the genre works as a form of knowledge, we will position ourselves to interrogate some of the profound questions that often lie beneath the surface in Western literature and film: How does this mythography celebrating America’s victory culture also double as a record of settler colonialist erasure and violence? Why does this ostensibly democratic and populist celebration of the American spirit also entail a legacy of exceptionalism and exclusion? How does its heroic affirmation of national character also betray profound anxieties about that same nationalist project?  Why does the foundation of democracy seem to require heroes who are above the law? How and why does violence become so central to America’s mythic self-definition? Why does white masculine self-certainty so often require a gun? These questions and more await us out on the range of Western representation. Our course will explore the often dangerous intersection of myth and history in the American West through readings of film, literature, history, and critical theory. Central to our interrogation of how issues of race, class, gender and nationalist ideology operate in the Western will be a consideration of the resources of genre itself to both affirm and critique, to produce both myth and anti-myth: if the Western has produced a triumphalist narrative of national character, it has also produced a counter-tradition of anti-Westerns which subject that same narrative to ferocious critical appraisal and repudiation. In short, we will consider how the Western is a genre that somehow both self-destructs and persists with astonishing vitality into the present. Possible directors include John Ford, George Stevens, Anthony Mann, Mel Brooks, Sydney Portier, Robert Altman, Kelly Reichardt, Jim Jarmusch, Chris Eyre, Chloe Zhao and many others. Possible authors include D’Arcy McNickle, John Rollin Ridge (“Yellow Bird”), James Pierson Beckwourth, Willa Cather, Helen Hunt Jackson, Sherman Alexie, Cormac McCarthy, Percival Everett, among many others.

Graduation Requirement: This class will fulfill Arts and Letters colloquium and US: Difference, Inequality, and Agency cultural literacy requirements. If Arts and Letters has already been fulfilled, course will meet both elective colloquium and US: Difference, Inequality, and Agency requirements.