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date: 27 April 2017

Environments in Western American Literature

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: American West, literary regionalism, frontier, eco-disaster, race, U.S./Mexico borderlands, Westerns, climate change fiction, environmental justice movement, Anthropocene

The literature of the American West offers scholars a rich archive of material documenting human responses to the ecological changes that have transformed the region over time. In an era when the West is undergoing a number of environmental disasters, including years of severe drought across California, volatile fire seasons in the Rocky Mountains, retreating glaciers in the north, the collapse of species, and loss of habitat, scholars are becoming increasingly interested in understanding how we arrived at this point.1 A literary survey of the West may provide answers by noting how the region was named and called forth as a significant space because of its geographical location “west of someplace else.”2 The region as “West” marks the vantage point of settler colonial populations preoccupied with the search for new lands, opportunities, and resources. For many European Americans, the West was thought to be a site of possibility, a place of beginnings, and an escape from the perceived exhaustion of the Old World or the overdeveloped American East. It was understood as a terrain of promise, potential wealth, and the future.

The West is also a shifting geography associated with the nation’s colonial frontiers and the fluctuating dividing lines and contact zones of an expanding nation, as Europeans continually pushed beyond the spaces of their previous settlements.3 At various moments in U.S. history, the West referred to diverse areas that included upstate New York as depicted in the Leatherstocking Tales of James Fenimore Cooper; the Midwestern Plains described in the fiction of Willa Cather; the mountains of California as portrayed in the nature essays of John Muir; the Southwest borderlands featured in Gloria Anzaldúa’s poetry, criticism, and autobiographical writings; and the northern terrain addressed in Jack London’s adventure tales.4

Pointing to the ways in which landscapes are not bounded spaces but are shaped and transformed by events unfolding elsewhere, Ursula Heise argues that literary scholars need to maintain a “sense of place,” a focus on specific local and regional terrain, while also developing a “sense of planet,” or attention to greater global and planetary contexts.5 This perspective enables critics to recognize how regions like the American West come into being in the first place and how their histories are linked to larger transnational forces. In this way, it is important to note that the idea of the West is neither unique nor limited to a U.S. context, but builds on and revises several centuries of stories about renewal, adventure, and enrichment that took place across the globe. Richard Etulain provides an international scope for the term and helps dismantle exceptionalist views of the region by noting that “West” for the ancient Greeks and Romans was the geography of “Elysium and Empire.” In the 16th and 17th centuries, leaders in Portugal, Spain, and English also directed their attention west as the site for possible “future fiefdoms.” When Spain, France, and England battled for control over the New World, the “West” became a space offering both “promised riches” that could be exploited and a “threatening wilderness” that needed to be subdued.6

Before the West was called the West, it was home to hundreds of tribal groups who did not configure their lands through this geographical lens. Writer Thomas King (Cherokee-German-Greek) extends the idea, referring to the lines that define borders, nations, and regions as a “figment of someone else’s imagination.”7 For Hispanic populations, the region often evokes memories of Aztlán, the mythic land of the Aztec, and for others el Norte, with the boundaries defining the area inscribed quite differently on the map. In the mid-19th century, Chinese immigrants called the area in what is present-day California gam saan or “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 competing 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 diverse groups of people who have made it their home.

The literature of the American West also highlights the efforts of populations who have struggled to create sustainable communities and adapt to the environmental transformations that have reshaped the region. As climate change, mass extinctions, imperiled oceans, and other eco-disasters have impacts beyond borders and boundaries, and thus affect life across all regions and nations, a literary survey of the West provides a means for understanding the environmental past, changing land use over time, conflicts over resources, the meanings of eco-disasters, and efforts at finding solutions to these problems. How have ideas about the region as a shifting reference point for an expanding nation contributed to environmental disruption, disturbance, and disaster? How have dreams of endless renewal and new beginnings along various colonial frontiers perpetuated ecological challenges and crises over time?

The opening scene of Wind from an Enemy Sky (1978) by Salish Kootenai author D’Arcy McNickle offers some insights. Set on the fictional Little Elk reservation in northwest Montana, Wind from an Enemy Sky begins with a stark survey of the destruction of indigenous lands in the early 20th century. As the character Bull and his grandson Antoine walk into the mountains, they arrive at the scene of a recently completed dam, a New Deal project intended to aid recovery in the West, but a development that signals for Bull the devastating changes that have altered life for tribal peoples across the region. Not long ago, the grandfather remembered a stream that broke clear from below and moved “in a slow curve westward” toward a river that “pushed through the mountains until it opened itself to a great sea of water.” Following the building of the dam, the water source had now run dry, replaced by “gravels and sands” bearing the deathly look of “bleached bones.”8 Bull takes a moment to assess the changes. “So it was true, what his kinsmen had been telling him. They had killed the water.”9

As the author explains, “what began as a walk” undertaken by a grandfather and his grandson through tribal homelands had now become “a journey into the world,” the passage into an era of rapid modernization, hyper-development, and ecological change.10 The novel opens with the characters surveying their homeland and discovering a crime scene, the “killing” of water. The crime involves the death of a mountain stream and marks the beginning of a new time, an era of rapid social change and environmental disruption. The scene in turn calls forth questions about the changing human place in the natural world. How did we get to this point? How might literary scholars, like the characters in McNickle’s novel, critically survey scenes of environmental transformation in the West as a way of making sense of the ongoing economic, social, and ecological transformations that have reshaped the region over time?

A Changing Land

Loss and nostalgia often serve as powerful structures of feeling shaping stories about the American West. In assessing these narratives, however, new western historians and literary critics have cautioned against adopting a declensionist framework, a common device that announces the supposedly inevitable social, economic, or environmental decline of the West over time. In many settler colonial texts, the West appears as a lost Eden, its history entailing an unavoidable fall out of a mythic garden. The region is envisioned as a once harmonious or balanced nature that is destroyed by humans, a virgin land ruined forever by industry, modernization, or simply the arrival of other populations.11 The sentiment of loss is captured in titles of a wide range of narratives, including Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826); Larry McMurtry’s novel about small-town Texas life, The Last Picture Show (1966); and The Last Best Place (1988), a monumental anthology of Montana literature edited by William Kittredge and Annick Smith.

Anishinaabe author Gerald Vizenor argues that such sentiments are not useful starting points for understanding indigenous writings about the region. He offers the term “postindian” as a way of countering nostalgia and narratives of declension by refusing to mourn the passing away of what was a mythic construct in the first place. Extending McNickle’s understanding of environmental and cultural loss as a criminal and violent act, Vizenor focuses on the epistemic violence that emerges with and alongside of the ongoing quest of indigenous lands.12 For Vizenor, the concept of the postindian involves a continual reinvention of identity rather than an elegy for a vanishing people. It is an assertion of selfhood against Europeans’ “kitschy” constructions of “indianness” as a primitive entity, a limited and damaging projection whose meanings are central to a violent epistemology arising out of the history of conflict and conquest. As he explains, postindian identity enables “survivance” or endurance in the face of the “terminal creeds” of settler colonial populations who sought to naturalize tribal people as unchanging and to place them in a fixed location in the past.13 Vizenor makes his case against nostalgia through a reading of My People, the Sioux (1928) by Oglala Lakota leader Luther Standing Bear. In his memoir, Standing Bear persists in the face of change by refusing settler colonial ideas about indigenous identities and by re-asserting tribal presence and sovereignty.

Standing Bear’s writings also survey environmental conflict in the West, especially regarding issues of land use and resource development. “Many years ago,” he writes, the Sioux “traveled all over the Western country, hunting, camping, and enjoying life at its utmost, in the many beautiful spots where they found the best wood and water.”14 The author begins his narrative with memories of a powerful Sioux nation that managed to endure and thrive by adapting to changing social and environmental circumstances. While the arrival of white settlers brings important transformations to the land, it does not initially signal a crisis for his people. When a railroad is built through tribal lands, the event is at first greeted with curiosity.15 Later, conflicts arise when settlers disregard prior Indigenous connections to the land and restrict their access to resources. One day, a thirsty group of young Sioux pass by a railroad station and ask for water. The stationmaster refuses to serve them, which angers the group. When they return home and report how they were treated, a council is called to decide what to do. Standing Bear remembers his mother grabbing an axe and following the men to the railroad track, where they tear up the rails, cut the ties, and haul the pieces away. “They thought it was strange, that the white people would run a railroad across their land, and now would not even let them have a drink of water.”16

In popular Westerns the presence of the railroad typically marks the beginning of the end. It points to the arrival of industrialization and capitalist development, which in turn signals the death of wilderness and the closing of the frontier. In his 1893 essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Frederick Jackson Turner drew attention to the West as a crucial space for understanding U.S. national identity. He regarded the frontier as an important dividing line between the so-called primitive and the civilized, and contended that American democracy emerged out of frontier conditions found in the region. Turner’s argument centered on the movement of Europeans along a continuous border between the seemingly tamed spaces of the settled East and the alleged wild terrain of the West. As he explained, the frontier was “the line of most effective and rapid Americanization.” In offering “an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward,” the West in Turner’s mind was the key to explaining the exceptional qualities of U.S. national development.17

Eventually the arrival of the railroad does take on new meanings for Standing Bear. In particular, it begins to signal threats to tribal sovereignty and increased territorial conflicts across the region. Standing Bear’s description of the encounter thus reverses the savagery/civilization binary often found in settler colonial narratives in general and the frontier thesis in particular. Here, the forces of barbarism in need of enlightenment are the white populations whose industries have expanded across tribal spaces and who do not show respect or extend common courtesies to the people already residing in the land. The memoir likewise complicates the frontier thesis by indicating that the West was not the site of free lands or an empty space awaiting the arrival of white settlers, but was home to numerous indigenous people whose civilizations shaped and transformed the land long before the arrival of Europeans.

Popular Westerns and the Frontier Thesis

As a genre often associated with Turner’s vision of the frontier, the popular Western emerged in the 19th century and developed out of the dime-novel tradition, which provided the formula for its plots and characters. The stories were usually situated in lands that extend west of the Mississippi River to the Pacific Coast and typically took place between 1865 and 1900, roughly the time Turner set as the closing of the frontier. The standardized plots tended to include stories about the building of the railway, tales of ranch life, narratives about the cattle empire, revenge tales, the cavalry and Indian story, and narratives about the clash between the outlaw and the marshal.18

Over the years, a wide range of authors have produced Westerns including Stephen Crane, Bret Harte, Frank Norris, Owen Wister, Zane Grey, Max Brand, B. M. Bower, Willa Cather, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, A. B. Guthrie Jr., Mari Sandoz, Ernest Haycox, Jack Schaefer, Louis L’Amour, Ishmael Reed, Tony Hillerman, Larry McMurtry, Robert Conley, Percival Everett, and Cormac McCarthy. From its beginnings, the film industry was also attracted to the storytelling potential of Westerns, and from the silent era to the 1960s, Westerns became Hollywood’s most popular genre. The period saw the release of numerous Westerns by top directors including William S. Hart, Cecil B. DeMille, John Ford, Fritz Lang, Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh, Delmer Daves, and George Stevens. The genre has also attracted international fascination as demonstrated by the numerous film adaptations of prolific German author Karl May’s novels as well as the popular Spaghetti Westerns of Italian film director Sergio Leone. While Westerns appear less frequently on the big screen, they are not less significant as a cinematic genre. As Andrew Patrick Nelson argues, Westerns today have been transformed into a new type of film production—as prestige dramas that are made in fewer numbers, but that are intended to win honors for A-list directors, writers, and actors during the awards season.19

Although the genre is sometimes dismissed as straightforwardly endorsing U.S. expansion and settler colonialism, critics such as Stephen Tatum and Neil Campbell have pointed out that the Western is actually a highly flexible form that has accommodated a wide range of political positions and has been adapted to a variety of international settings.20 Various Westerns, for instance, have countered the frontier thesis, from short stories such as Jack London’s “All Gold Canyon” (1905), which describes the destructive forces of mining in a peaceful California landscape, to Dorothy Johnson’s “Lost Sister” (1957), a retelling of the captivity narrative of Cynthia Ann Parker that critiques settler colonial visions of the region. Dorothy Scarborough’s novel The Wind (1925) likewise recasts Turner’s thesis, adopting a gothic frame to chronicle the frontier experience of a white woman who struggles against loneliness, mental instability, and sexual violence while trying to make a living in the drought-ridden west Texas landscape.

The novel Cogewea the Halfblood: A Depiction of the Great Montana Cattle Range (1927) by Christine Quintasket/Mourning Dove (Okanogan) also counters the frontier myth, highlighting the clash between Anglo ranchers who encroach on western spaces and Native American populations who have been dispossessed of their homelands and forced onto reservations. Likewise, David Anthony Durham’s 2002 novel, Gabriel’s Story, depicts the 19th-century frontier from an African American perspective. Rather than being an escape from social and economic restrictions, the West in Durham’s novel is a space of racial terror and inequality that offers no retreat from the injustices restricting black lives in other American regions. Finally, Thomas Berger’s novel, Little Big Man (1964), also offers a critical take on Turner’s thesis and, like Scarborough’s story, was made into a well-received film. In the 1970 adaptation of Berger’s novel, director Arthur Penn takes on the U.S. military while referencing the Vietnam War as the global extension of the nation’s frontier, a critique that continues in the post–9/11 period with the Middle East as the new setting for Westerns in the war on terror.21

New western historians and postwestern literary scholars have likewise pointed out the problems and limits of Turner’s frontier thesis. In Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West, Patricia Limerick argues that Turner’s argument fails as a unifying idea for American history, because in focusing on Anglo settler males, it largely excludes Native Americans, Asians, Hispanics, African Americans, and women of all races, thus overlooking their contributions to western U.S. history. In treating the West as an entity to be tamed and conquered, the frontier thesis also provides an unsustainable model for dwelling in the land by implying that ecological crisis and collapse are inevitable and by suggesting that the continual expansion into new lands provides the only solution to the region’s economic, social, and environmental challenges.22

For Native American authors, Turner’s ideas about the frontier also tend to hold limited appeal. In the work of indigenous writers such as N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, Gerald Vizenor, Joy Harjo, James Welch, Simon Ortiz, Janet Campbell Hale, Thomas King, Sherman Alexie, David Treuer, Deborah Miranda, and LeAnne Howe, themes of resilience and adaptability instead take center stage. In their novels, stories, essays, poetry, and memoirs, Native American writers frequently emphasize different philosophies and practices in creating more sustainable human relations with the nonhuman world. In her 1977 novel Ceremony, for instance, Laguna Pueblo author Leslie Marmon Silko foregrounds the power of indigenous ceremonies and oral narratives as a route to survival in the aftermath of disaster. Ceremony tells the story of Tayo, a mixed-race protagonist who suffers from what is now called PTSD after fighting in World War II. Upon his release from an LA hospital, Tayo returns to his family’s home. There, he battles alcoholism while mourning the loss of his friend during the war. Throughout the novel, Tayo struggles to “bring back the rain” to a terrain undergoing a severe drought for which he feels responsible.

Silko’s novel draws a link between Tayo’s disconnection from the land and his community with the ongoing drought in the region. In Tayo’s mind, the climate disaster is linked to his wartime prayers about ending the rain in the jungle. At one point in the narrative, he recalls his childhood in the 1920s when he hauled water to sheep and also remembers the ceremonies that could “call back the storm clouds” and restore the land.23 In Silko’s narrative, a return to indigenous ceremonies helps reestablish connections between the people and the land. Such practices contrast with the social and environmental devastation of the federal government’s “trickery,” “lies,” and “sickness” evidenced in its long history of land theft and dispossession as well as the more recent military testing of atomic weapons in the Southwest and the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.24 Highlighting the violence of war and alienation, hyper-development and modernity, and technology and its risks, Ceremony centers on recovering and restoring Native American practices and understandings of the human place in the land.

Western Water

Like the death of a mountain stream in McNickle’s Wind from an Enemy Sky, Tayo’s struggle to bring back the rain to a land undergoing severe drought is a reminder that some of the best-known narratives about the American West have addressed the presence of water or the lack thereof, from expedition accounts to the nature essay and from Dust Bowl narratives to the emerging genre of “cli-fi” or climate change fiction. A recent anthology of scholarly essays on the literature of the West edited by Steven Frye, for instance, begins with a chronology starting in 500 ce. The timeline includes references to the first known irrigation system built in the region and lists a severe drought occurring in the Southwest from 1276 to 1299.25

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is perhaps the most recognized fiction about the economic, environmental, and social costs of drought in the Great Plains. Winner of a Pulitzer Prize, the 1939 novel is set in Oklahoma during the Great Depression and tells the story of the Joad family, tenant farmers who struggle to survive during the Dust Bowl years. While the drought places numerous pressures on the family and the Depression intensifies their conditions of precarity, the Joads also face challenges caused by a modernizing system of agriculture that further disrupts their livelihoods. They are eventually forced to leave their homes, where they join other climate refugees or “Okies” who head “on west to California,” where “[t]here’s work … and it never gets cold,” and who relocate to a land of opportunity where “you can reach out anywhere and pick an orange” and “there’s always some kind of crop to work in.”26 The family’s California journey does not pan out as they had hoped, their movement west highlighting instead the underside of frontier myths about mobility and the limits of the American Dream.

Elmore Kelton’s Western The Time It Never Rained also chronicles the dire effects of a long-lasting drought in the West. Set in Texas during the 1950s in the aptly named border town of Rio Seco, the main character Charlie Flagg is a rancher with strong ties to the land who also holds white-supremacist beliefs as the grandson of a former Confederate soldier who settled in Texas after the South’s defeat. The novel highlights Charlie’s struggle to keep hold of his sheep ranch and his family as he tries to maintain his western pride and white identity. Treating climate as a character in its own right, the novel both genders and racializes eco-disaster. Early in the novel, rain is portrayed as an enticing female who maintains her distance, a “flirtatious stranger who occasionally waves but never pauses long enough.”27 At another point, the novel figures drought as an encroaching entity from south of the border, a menacing element that threatens the future of the Anglo ranchers. “It crept up out of Mexico,” the author writes, “touching first along the brackish Pecos and spreading then in all directions, a cancerous blight burning a scar upon the land.”28

While environmental catastrophe wreaks havoc on western lands and livelihoods, it also rewrites boundaries and hierarchies by dismantling the racial power of the ranchers. Thus, for Charlie’s son Tom, precarity means he’ll “have to sweat like a nigger at election and live tighter than the bark on that live oak yonder.”29 Both men are concerned that the ongoing drought will dismantle their white skin privilege, eliminate self-reliance, and threaten their national sovereignty. “If you get to dependin’ on the government, the day’ll come when the damn federales will dictate everything you do, where you live and where you work and what color toilet paper you wipe yourself with,” Charlie contends. “And you’ll be scared to say anything because they might cut you off of the tit.”30 The character expresses anxieties about his declining power as well as fears about becoming “just another peon with his hand out to Washington.”31 When a banker recommends that he switch from raising sheep to goats as a more sustainable livelihood, Charlie is outraged. “Outside of a few Spanish goats for meat, I never owned a goat in my life and I don’t ever intend to. I’m no Ayrab.”32

At another point, Charlie recalls previous populations who resided in Texas. “It was an ageless land where the past was still a living thing and old voices still whispered, where the freshness of the pioneer time had not yet all faded, where a few of the old dreams were not yet dark with tarnish,” he remembers. “It had not been so long, really, since feathered Comanches had roamed these hills ahorseback seeking after game, or occasionally in warpaint seeking honor and booty and blood. Eighty years … one man’s lifetime.”33 While Charlie initially recognizes the prior Native American presence in the land with a certain detachment, he later realizes how his own fate could follow that of the Comanche. “Each of these men had had his own time—the Indian, the mustang hunter, the pioneer rancher, and each had passed from the scene.”34 Recalling these earlier populations, Charlie is confronted with the impermanence of human dwelling in the land as well as his own temporality.

Part of Charlie’s anxiety involves compromises to his western identity, the humiliation of moving as he puts it from “rugged” to “ragged” individualism.35 While disaster in Kelton’s novel is figured as a threat to property and signals a waning way of life, it is also understood as blurring and erasing the social divisions separating Anglo ranchers from African Americans, Mexicans, Indians, and Arabs. Ultimately Kelton’s novel may be read as a cautionary tale about how eco-disaster can be recast through other concerns, often with less-than-desirable outcomes. Scholars have noted that environmental crisis can result in unpredictable ways, with some populations offering cooperation or support and others choosing to maintain the status quo by keeping in place systems of power.36 For eco-critic Kate Rigby, one of the challenges in assessing disaster involves whether groups will “adopt the bunker mentality that it’s every man for himself” or develop “new ways of being and dwelling that might be not only more adaptive but also more just and compassionate, in the long run.”37

Speculative Wests

The genre of speculative fiction addresses similar challenges. Referring to a broad category of literature whose settings, characters, and events arise out of an author’s imagination rather than appearing in the actual world, the genre has taken up the task of examining problems and risks associated with science, technology, and environmental development. The West serves as a point of departure for a number of speculative novels, including works by Ernest Callenbach, Kim Stanley Robinson, Octavia Butler, Bruce Sterling, Karen Tei Yamashita, and Paolo Bacigalupi, to name just a few.38 A classic example of speculative fiction located in the West is Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which describes a toxic, posthuman future for the Golden State. Set in San Francisco after nuclear war has devastated the biosphere, the novel was made into the 1982 cult classic film Blade Runner directed by Ridley Scott. Employing noir tropes in its depiction of the post-apocalyptic urban landscape, the story addresses a profoundly damaged environment ruled by powerful global corporation and describes the declining possibilities for the characters as well as the replicants, or the genetically enhanced artificial humans who increasingly populate this world.

In The Ecology of Fear, geographer Mike Davis chronicles the myriad disasters facing Los Angeles at the end of the 20th century in the wake of fire, earthquakes, mudslides, hyper-development of the built environment, and growing divisions between the wealthy and the poor. In doing so, he also offers a detailed reading of the “literary destruction of Los Angeles” that examines the city’s imagined futures in eco-apocalyptic fiction. Estimating that LA has been destroyed at least 138 times in fiction and film from 1909 to the late 1990s, Davis argues that such narratives draw on LA’s “environmental exceptionalism”—the city’s location near mountains, beaches, and forests and its mostly pleasant climate as well as its placement on an active fault line, its proximity to an urban/wilderness interface, and its ongoing water issues.39 In writing a literary history of environmental ruin in LA’s speculative fiction, however, Davis has been criticized for framing disaster through the eco-jeremiad, a narrative device building on biblical prophecy that warns believers about the consequences of their transgressive behavior.40 Examining the rhetoric often shaping discussions of environmental disaster, scholars note the problems in using the same language frequently employed by fundamentalist groups in their focus on end times. Many critics instead point to the importance of imagining worlds governed by more inclusive, equitable, and sustainable politics rather than one ruled by fears about divine punishment and retribution.41

Edan Lepucki’s novel California grapples with these issues and, in doing so, contributes to the growing subfield of cli-fi, a term coined by Dan Bloom in 2008 to describe a new form of speculative fiction that addresses global warming and climate disasters.42 Lepucki’s novel imagines a future West where the main characters Frida and Cal are forced to flee a devastated LA now governed by marauders and pirates.43 Initially figuring themselves as the last man and woman, they move into the remaining intact forests, where they come upon a settlement run by a cultish organization called The Group. The survivors try to make new lives for themselves in a world where superstorms have wiped out large portions of the population and where a flu epidemic has left even more devastation.44 The story is set at a time when the Internet has become so expensive that most people no longer have access to it. After written texts have migrated to e-readers, only a few are able to enjoy the world of books.45 While Frida and Cal struggle to find ways to connect with The Group, which is governed by strict rules about community and identity, the situation takes a turn for the worse when Frida finds out she’s pregnant. Much of the challenge of rebuilding society thus involves imagining what sustainability might look like if more inclusive communities, critical thinking, political cooperation, and social freedoms were part of this environment.

An imperiled California also provides the setting for Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus, a climate change novel located in a drought-ridden land of “[t]en million empty swimming pools.”46 In the story, the golden sun that once helped fuel the California Dream appears as a “merciless” force, an “ever-beaming, ever-heating, ever-evaporating” presence.47 Agriculture has collapsed under these conditions and now only provides blighted fruits—“blackberries filled with dust” along with “[f]laccid carrots, ashen spinach, cracked olives, bruised hundred-dollar mangos, all-pith oranges, shriveled lemons, boozy tangerines.”48 At one point, desperate survivors gather at Venice Beach, a “desiccant city” where nervous crowds enact what they imagine to be Native American ceremonial practices in the form of a weirdly conceived rain dance on the fringes of a farmers market. Traffickers of all kinds pitch their sales, hawking goods including “poisoned and reeking” fish as well as abandoned children.49 Later the novel features an encounter with a group of survivors whose cult-like beliefs include unsettling views on proper parenting, communal sex, and gender hierarchy.

The novel also reconceptualizes the nature essay, a genre that has played an important role in developing environmental awareness about the West. At one point, Watkins offers a description of nature as a once generous female entity who finally refuses to “offer herself” in the years following the collapse. “The prospect of Mother Nature opening her legs and inviting Los Angeles back into her ripeness was, like the disks of water shimmering in the last foothill reservoirs patrolled by the National Guard, evaporating daily.”50 Later the main characters Luz and Ray become post-apocalyptic John Muirs, faithfully describing the environmental destruction they encounter on an ill-fated road trip. During their journey, the two characters come upon an area of ancient yuccas where they hear an “incongruous sound, like the tearing of very delicate fabric.” The stump of a tree falls in front of them, sending up a “dry veil of dust.” They soon discover that all of the trees are dead, “without moisture enough to rot” because the groundwater has disappeared.51 Numerous geo-engineering projects also reshape the land, including projects involving techno-optimistic “bureaucrats draping valleys under invisible parachutes of aerosols, engineers erecting funnels to catch the rain before it evaporated, Research I universities dynamiting the sky” and “a derelict cloud seeder” that can “spit crystalline moisture-making chemicals into the atmosphere.”52

Soon they notice public signs going up across the West Coast announcing that “Mojavs”—or California climate refugees—are no longer welcome here. One survivor explains to Ray, “Your people came here looking for something better. Gold, fame, citrus. Mirage. They were feckless, yeah? Schemers. That’s why no one wants them now. Mojavs.”53 Frontier dreams end with resource migrants traveling from California to Seattle where militia groups guarding the Oregon border stop them in their journey. Moving east, they become “reverse Okies” or, as the main female character imagines it, a post-collapse pioneer family with her intrepid partner as the capable man playing out the “[h]orse and wagon part.”54

During their road trip, Luz carries with her an impressive reading list, a canon of western literature that includes books by or about Sacajawea, Lewis and Clark, John Wesley Powell, John Muir, and William Mulholland, all of whom are figures whose lives intertwined with water and the development of the American West, either as guide, explorer, and conservationist, or, in the case of Mulholland, as the person responsible for building the infrastructure providing LA with its modern water supply.55 In the end, a certain kind of nature writing itself faces extinction in this future West, as it becomes increasingly clear that forms of writing celebrating the virtues of pure nature are not likely to be viable or effective literature in struggles for the region’s survival. Part of the difficult task for authors and critics thus becomes how to write the American West in the face of eco-disaster, how to determine what language and literary forms will be useful in making sense of the environmental disruptions and crises that are reshaping our world.

Western Literature in the Age of Humans

In Gold Fame Citrus, the author includes a passage by Mary Austin from The Land of Little Rain, which takes on new meaning for a drought-ridden West in the early 21st century. Describing her experiences dwelling in the desert a hundred years earlier, Austin portrays the American Southwest as a “land of lost rivers, with little in it to love; yet a land that once visited must be come back to inevitably.”56 While western futures are likely to include landscapes that for some may have very “little” in them to “love,” recent literature about climate change indicates the need to reacquaint ourselves with these spaces through new critical frameworks. Austin notes that in “all the Western desert edges there are essays in miniature.”57 In the Anthropocene, as human activity significantly alters geology, climate, and other earth systems, nature writing must include more recognition of these “Western desert edges” and their unruly, unpredictable matter.

When European explorers and Anglo-American tourists first arrived in the Southwest, they struggled to comprehend the geographical and climate challenges posed by the desert. As a way of making sense of the terrain, many writers described the space through a familiar language, using biblical imagery to situate the desert as a New World Holy Land waiting to be claimed by American Adams and Eves.58 In some instances, the region also served as an imaginative extension of Turner’s frontier, a promising terrain that relocated the conditions for adventures in a post-frontier world.59 Mexican author Carlos Fuentes takes this view to task in his 1985 novel, The Old Gringo. Describing the U.S./Mexico border within a larger environmental, social, and political context, Fuentes writes that “the long spans and vast spaces on both sides of the wound that to the north opened like the Rio Grande itself rushing down from steep canyons, as far up as the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, islands in the deserts of the north, ancient lands of the Pueblos.”60 In contrast to Turner’s ideas about frontier expansion and Anglo-American conquest, Fuentes describes the line separating the two nations as a “wound,” a violent mark on the land and a painful scar that signals the larger disaster of colonialism.

The Old Gringo portrays the disappearance of Ambrose Bierce, a U.S. writer and journalist who wandered into Mexico in the early 20th century and was never seen again. The novel explores death, with Bierce’s demise marking not only the end of a writer’s life, but also the collapse of a master narrative about the borderlands. “The frontier’s gone,” one character proclaims, “the continent’s dead; Manifest Destiny’s gone to hell in a hand basket; so where are we to find adventure? In a desert mirage?”61 Placing Anglo constructions of the region against the vast scales of natural history, Fuentes’ novel foregrounds the limits of human understanding through the broader context of geological time. When the Mexican community comes upon the American writer’s dead body, for instance, they note how it has “almost faded into the desert wind, as if the frontier he had crossed one day had been air, not earth, and had encompassed all the times everyone could remember, suspended there.”62 The false belief or “mirage” propelling Anglo-American settlers to search for new beginnings south of the border contrasts with larger nonhuman temporalities. Fuentes likewise offers a greater geographical scope, describing the desert as “a great open-air dome” that serves as “the bed of the ocean that once had occupied this platter of coarse sand and then drawn back, leaving a wasteland inhabited by all the specters of water: seas, oceans, all existing or possible rivers.”63

In challenging human understandings of the more-than-human world, Fuentes gestures toward a larger time frame and spatial awareness that in many ways anticipates recent developments in science and the environmental humanities. Since 2000, Earth system specialists have argued that the human imprint on the biosphere has altered the planet to such a degree that we have now entered a new geologic time period, the Anthropocene, or the age of humans. In his widely cited essay “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” historian Dipesh Chakrabarty extends the argument, contending that many of our taken-for-granted concepts such as time and scale have been rendered obsolete in the Anthropocene, such that the task of writing history must now account for disturbances that are planetary in scope and that occur across much greater time scales.64 The idea of the Anthropocene remains under debate, however, with some environmental scholars preferring other names for this new geologic time, such as the “Carbocene” or the “Capitalocene.”65 Likewise, many critics do not agree that an undifferentiated anthropos—a universal or generic human population—is ultimately responsible for planetary disturbance.66 Other scholars also contend that focusing on the vast temporalities of the Anthropocene may end up depoliticizing the history of environmental destruction. Such a focus may render human agency nearly impossible, creating a falsely inclusive view of the species as uniformly and equally responsible while emptying local communities of any relevance or power to enact meaningful change.67

Recasting Disaster

In Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest (1927), environmental disaster emerges out of specific economic histories shaping the region. Red Harvest is a hard-boiled detective novel set in the fictional town of Personville and is based on the author’s experiences working with the Pinkerton Agency in Butte, Montana. As the site of an eight-month labor strike, Personville has been aptly renamed “Poisonville” by angry and exploited workers in response to the environmental and economic challenges facing their community.68 In the beginning of the novel, the narrator explains that the town is owned by Elihu Willsson, “president and majority stockholder of the Personville Mining Corporation, ditto of the First National Bank, owner of the Morning Herald and Evening Herald, the city’s only newspapers, and at least part owner of nearly every other enterprise of any importance.” Willson’s footprint in the region is indeed enormous, as is the economic corruption that follows in its wake. “Along with these pieces of property he owned a United States senator, a couple of representatives, the governor, the mayor, and most of the state legislature. Elihu Willsson was Personville, and he was almost the whole state.”69

While the main character investigates a crime related to the labor strike, he stays at the Great Western Hotel, a particularly telling name given the town’s ongoing violence, corruption, and environmental decline. Red Harvest opens with a survey of the degraded landscape that provides an environmental overview of the town’s compromised status. “The city wasn’t pretty. Most of its builders had gone in for gaudiness. Maybe they had been successful at first. Since then the smelters whose brick stacks stuck up tall against a gloomy mountain to the south had yellow-smoked everything into uniform dinginess,” Hammett writes. “The result was an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been all dirtied up by mining. Spread over this was a grimy sky that looked as if it had come out of the smelters’ stacks.”70

Other western literature also connects disaster and destruction to economic developments, including Frank Norris’s The Octopus (1901), which centers on corruption and land disputes between large industries and property owners, and Upton Sinclair’s energy novel, Oil! (1927), which was made into the 2007 film There Will Be Blood by director Paul Thomas Anderson. More recently, Ruth Ozeki takes on the destructive practices of the global food industry in her novel All Over Creation (2004), while a number of eco-memoirs have addressed the toxic legacies of the West’s military/industrial complex, including Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place (1992) and Kristen Iversen’s Full Body Burden: Growing up in the Nuclear Shadow of the Rocky Flats (2013). Likewise, Thomas King’s narrative, The Back of the Turtle (2014), addresses the economic foundations of environmental disaster by telling the story of a First Nations scientist named Gabriel Quinn, who grew up on a reserve in British Columbia and later worked as a chemical scientist employed by Domidion, a multinational company responsible for making a toxic defoliant called GreenSweep. When the main character returns to his hometown after it has been evacuated in the wake of industrial pollution, he considers ending his life because of the deadly consequences of the toxic product he helped develop. In the novel, ecological disaster is thus understood to include a broad set of concerns such as pervasive racism, ongoing colonialism, and neoliberal economies.

The environmental justice movement has brought increased attention to the manner in which ecological issues are often framed in narrow ways by mainstream organizations. The result is that popular environmentalism frequently ends up excluding people of color and working-class communities by focusing on landscapes of leisure, such as wilderness areas or national parks, rather than the spaces in which humans mostly live and work. Ramon Barrio’s 1969 novel, The Plum Plum Pickers, for instance, examines labor disputes involving Chicano workers in the agriculture industry, while Ana Castillo’s So Far from God (1993) employs magical realism to address the intersecting social, environmental, and global issues that impact the lives of a small border town in New Mexico. Likewise, as an instance of environmental-justice literature, Helena Viramontes’ novel Under the Feet of Jesus (1994) addresses inequalities of race and economy. It contrasts the beauty of the California landscape with the harsh and toxic working conditions of migrant laborers in the Central Valley.

Addressing disaster in the context of racial and class violence, Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 examines political uprising as the outcome of ongoing injustice in LA’s urban environment. T. C. Boyle’s Tortilla Curtain (1996) likewise takes up the problem of social inequality in the making of the California landscape, this time focusing on suburban spaces. The novel contrasts the experiences of two families in LA, the upper-middle-class Mossbacher household with America and Candido Rancon, undocumented workers from Mexico who cross the border in search of better lives. The novel foregrounds the forgotten labor that sustains the Mossbacher’s privileged lives in a well-tended suburban neighborhood and that literally builds the infrastructure in the form of a wall that protects and isolated them in their gated community. In doing so, Boyle’s narrative highlights the limits and problems of an environmental vision that sets off certain populations from larger disasters and that does not take into account the social divisions separating races, genders, classes, and nations.

Asian American writers also configure disaster in broader terms by addressing the immigration restrictions that disrupted the development of Asian communities across the West. For the Chinese populations detained at California’s Angel Island between 1910 and 1940, poetry was a way of dealing with and surviving the racism they confronted upon entering the United States. The edited volume, Island, by Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung collects 135 poems produced by the Chinese detainees at Angel Island, some of which were written on the barrack walls themselves. Literary critic Jane Hseu draws attention to Poem 23 in particular, which reads, “this mountain wilderness is a prison,” a stark description of western space that highlights the false promises of both the Turnerian frontier and the California Dream.71 Likewise, memoirs such as Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s Farewell to Manzanar (1976), graphic narratives such as Mine Okubo’s Citizen 13660 (1983), poetry such as Mitsuye Yamada’s Camp Notes and Other Writings (1998), and novels such as Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine (2003) also describe the dire ecologies of the Japanese internment camps established during World War II. In these instances, disaster and western environments are recast and reinterpreted to include larger problems of racial violence, forced labor, and confiscated lands and property, as well as toxic work and living conditions.

Western Futures

In Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, philosopher Jonathan Lear turns to the autobiography of Crow leader Chief Plenty Coups (1848–1932) for the ways it describes the disappearance of bison in the late 19th century as marking the end of a way of life across the Northern Plains. Chief Plenty Coups’ writings enable the philosopher to examine past experiences of environmental catastrophe, to investigate the vulnerabilities that emerge with the loss of a worldview, and to speculate, as it were, on future possibilities. Offering the concept of radical hope, Lear notes the challenges that appear when the conceptual foundations enabling a population to thrive no longer have meaning and points to the need for developing strategies to better address these crises.72 Taking a lesson from Chief Plenty Coups, Lear offers radical hope as a way forward in the face of collapse and as a solution during a time of confusion and uncertainty when “one cannot really know what survival means.”73

As various scholars have pointed out and as some of the literature suggests, many of the popular narratives that have framed the American West do not provide sustainable ecological models for our present condition. While the region in settler colonial contexts has been defined in a contradictory manner as a land of opportunity and promise yet also a place that faces immanent demise, the West has also been understood in a different manner, as a space of diverse stories that address dwelling and encounters, conflict and loss, transformation and recovery, as well as a site of speculation and critical assessment about current and future catastrophes. In this way, the literature of the West may be recognized as offering competing assessments of and numerous strategies for confronting the environmental disturbances, disasters, and transformations that have altered the region over time.

Review of the Literature

Various fields of study have emerged through an engagement with the literature of the American West. Some of the founding texts of American studies that became known as the “myth and symbol school,” for instance, centered on representations of western landscapes as they related to U.S. national identity. Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (1950) focused on how literature and culture about the frontier, the garden, and the desert helped position the United States as an exceptionalist national space.74 Richard Slotkin’s trilogy of the frontier—Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (1973), The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800–1890 (1985), and Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (1992)—examined settler colonial stories about violence, dispossession, and expansion for the ways they enabled myths about western spaces to serve as a powerful national narrative in their own right.75 Annette Kolodny’s The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience in American Life and Letters (1975) and The Land Before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers: 1630–1860 (1984) extended discussions about western environments by examining overlooked discourses of gender and sexuality in narratives about U.S. travel, adventure, and nation building.76

The rise of the new western history in the 1980s associated with scholars such as Patricia Limerick, William Cronon, Richard White, and Donald Worster redirected studies of the region by pointing to how previous work tended to over-rely on the Turner thesis while underplaying racial differences and the environmental consequences of expansion. Influenced by developments in the new western history, literary critics such as Krista Comer, Neil Campbell, William Handley, and Nathaniel Lewis extended these discussions in their studies of regional literature. Comer’s Landscapes of the New West: Gender and Geography in Contemporary Women’s Writing (1999), Campbell’s The Cultures of the American New West (2001), and Handley and Lewis’ edited volume True West: Authenticity and the American West (2004) emphasized urban spaces over wilderness zones, avoided discourses of authenticity in understanding the meanings of the West, and developed postmodern approaches in efforts to dislodge the popular antimodern sensibilities associated with the region.77 In recent years, post-western studies have also provided additional remappings of the region, with Stephen Tatum’s work on “postfrontier horizons” and Neil Campbell’s observations about the West as rhizomatic space serving as representatives of this critical approach.78

When scholars trace the study of western American literature through the lens of environmental critique, they often note that it was at the 1993 annual meeting of the Western Literature Association in Reno, Nevada, that a group of scholars founded the study of eco-criticism, with The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology, edited by Cheryl Glotfelty and Harold Fromm (1996), as the first significant collection published in the field. More recently, Tom Lynch’s Xerophilia: Ecocritical Explorations in Southwestern Literature (2008) and Stephanie Lemenager’s Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century (2014) serve as insightful remappings of western American literature from critical environmental framework.79

The region has also played a central role in the transnational turn in American studies. Borderlands criticism, for instance, countered the frontier thesis in focusing on the West as a multicultural space and contact zone. Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderland: La Frontera/The New Mestiza (1987) starkly described the U.S./Mexico border as una herida abierta, an “open wound” and a contested site “where the third world grates against the first and bleeds.”80 Three members of the Saldívar family further emphasized the global, transregional, and postnational pressures shaping the border environment. José David Saldivar’s Border Matters: Remapping American Cultural Studies (1997) analyzed corridos, poetry, hip-hop, and performance art, while Sonia Saldívar-Hull’s Feminism on the Border: Chicana Feminist Politics and Literature (2000) focused on race, gender, and sexuality as a productive areas of study for analyzing the Southwest region. Finally, Ramon Saldívar’s The Borderlands of Culture: Américo Paredes and the Transnational Imaginery (2006) examined how Paredes’ work as a folklorist and cultural critic served as an important precursor to more recent borderlands scholarship.81

Asian American and indigenous studies scholarship also helped usher in the transnational turn among Americanists. Lisa Lowe’s Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (1996), Lorna Fitzsimmons’ edited volume Asian American Literature and the Environment (2015), Joni Adamson’s American Indian Literature, Environmental Justice, and Ecocriticism: The Middle Place (2001), and John Gamber’s Positive Pollutions and Cultural Toxins: Waste and Contamination in Contemporary US Ethnic Literatures (2012) developed important links among globalization, labor, migration, national belonging, environmental justice, sexuality, and gender in constructions of western American landscapes.82


Thanks to Dan Flory, Max Uphaus, and the anonymous reviewers for their useful comments on earlier drafts; Thanks to MSU’s Western Lands and Peoples Initiative for support in revising this chapter.

Further Reading

Adamson, Joni. American Indian Literature: Environmental Justice, and Ecocriticism: The Middle Place. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Allmendinger, Blake, ed. Imagining the African American West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Bold, Christine. The Frontier Club: Popular Westerns and Cultural Power, 1880–1924. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Brady, Mary Pat. Extinct Lands, Temporal Geographies: Chicana Literature and the Urgency of Space. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Campbell, Neil. The Rhizomatic West: Representing the American West in a Transnational, Global, Media Age. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Comer, Krista. Landscapes of the New West: Gender and Geography in Contemporary Women’s Writing. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Fitzsimmons, Lorna, ed. Asian American Literature and the Environment. New York: Routledge, 2015.Find this resource:

Frye, Steven, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the American West. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Gamber, John. Positive Pollutions and Cultural Toxins: Waste and Contamination in Contemporary U.S. Ethnic Literatures. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Goodman, Audrey. Lost Homelands: Ruin and Reconstruction in the Twentieth-Century Southwest. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Handley, William R. and Nathaniel Lewis, eds. True West: Authenticity and the American West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Johnson, Michael K.Hoo-Doo Cowboys and Bronze Buckaroos: Conceptions of the African American West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Kollin, Susan. Nature’s State: Imagining Alaska as the Last Frontier. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Kollin, Susan, ed. A History of Western American Literature. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Lewis, Nathaniel. Unsettling the Literary West: Authenticity and Authorship. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Lowe, Lisa. Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Madsen, Deborah L., ed. The Routledge Companion to Native American Literature. New York: Routledge, 2015.Find this resource:

Saldívar, José David. Border Matters: Remapping American Cultural Studies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Atheneum, 1992.Find this resource:

Steiner, Michael, ed. Regionalists on the Left: Radical Voices from the American West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Vizenor, Gerald. Manifest Manners: Essays on Postindian Survivance. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.Find this resource:


(1.) For a discussion of the science and history of how we arrived at this point, see Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History, and Us, trans. David Fernbach (London: Verso, 2016), 49.

(2.) Douglas Flamming, African Americans in the West (Santa Barbara: ABC Clio, 2009), 9.

(3.) For more on contact zones, see Mary Louise Pratt, “Arts of the Contact Zone,” Profession (1991): 33–40. For more on the West as geography in motion, see William R. Handley and Nathaniel Lewis, “Introduction,” in True West: Authenticity and the American West, eds. William R. Handley and Nathaniel Lewis (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004), 7.

(4.) For discussions of the West as a shifting geography, see Before the West was West: Pre-1800 Literature of the American Frontiers, eds. Amy T. Hamilton and Tom J. Hillard (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014); and Many Wests: Place, Culture, and Regional Identity, eds. David M. Wrobel and Michael S. Steiner (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997).

(5.) Ursula Heise, Sense of Place, Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

(6.) Richard Etulain, Telling Western Stories: From Buffalo Bill to Larry McMurtry (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999), 2. For a related discussion of a richly signifying “West” in the Middle Ages, see Suzanne Conklin Akbari, “Alexander in the Orient: Bodies and Boundaries in the Roman de toute chevalerie,” in Postcolonial Approaches to the European Middle Ages: Translating Cultures, eds. Ananya Jahanara Kabir and Deanne Williams (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 105–126.

(7.) Thomas King, The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2002), 102.

(8.) D’Arcy McNickle, Wind from an Enemy Sky (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1978), 2.

(9.) McNickle, Wind from an Enemy Sky, 2–3.

(10.) McNickle, Wind from an Enemy Sky, 1.

(11.) For western loss and decline, see William Cronon, “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative,” Journal of American History 78.4 (March 1992): 1347–1376; William R. Handley, “The Popular Western,” in A Companion to the Modern American Novel, 1900–1950, ed. John T. Matthews (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 437–453; and Robert Bennett, “Tract Homes on the Range: The Suburbanization of the American West,” Western American Literature 46.3 (Fall 2011): 281–301. See also Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1950).

(12.) Gayatri Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader, eds. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 7678.

(13.) Gerald Vizenor, Manifest Manners: Narratives on Postindian Survivance (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994), 4, 194.

(14.) Luther Standing Bear, My People, the Sioux (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), 3.

(15.) Standing Bear, My People, the Sioux, vii.

(16.) Standing Bear, My People, the Sioux, 7.

(17.) Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (Mineola: Dover Publications, 2010), 1, 3–4

(18.) Christine Bold, “Literature: Popular Western Fiction,” The BFI Companion to the Western (London: BFI Press, 1988), 172–173.

(19.) Andrew Patrick Nelson, “Hollywood Westerns: 1930s to the Present,” in A History of Western American Literature, ed. Susan Kollin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 341.

(20.) For more on this point, see Stephen Tatum, “The Problem of the ‘Popular’ in the New Western History,” in The New Western History: The Territory Ahead, ed. Forrest G. Robinson (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1998), 153–190; and Neil Campbell, “The Western,” in A Companion to Twentieth-Century United States Fiction, ed. David Seed (Malden, MA: Blackwell Press, 2015), 36–47.

(21.) See Susan Kollin, Captivating Westerns: The Middle East in the American West (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015).

(22.) See Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: W. W. Norton, 1987), 21. For an overview of post-western studies, see Stephen Tatum, “Postfrontier Horizons,” MFS: Modern Fiction Studies 50.2 (Summer 2004): 460–468; Neil Campbell, Postwesterns: Cinema, Region, West (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013); and Susan Kollin, “Introduction: Postwestern Studies, Dead or Alive,” in Postwestern Cultures: Literature, Theory, Space (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007), ix–xix.

(23.) Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony (New York: Penguin, 2006), 49.

(24.) Silko, Ceremony, 132.

(25.) Steven Frye, “Chronology,” in The Cambridge Companion to Literature of the American West, ed. Steven Frye (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2016), xv.

(26.) John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1939. Reprint, New York: Penguin, 2002), 34.

(27.) Kelton, The Time It Never Rained, 32.

(28.) Elmer Kelton, The Time It Never Rained (New York: Forge, 1984), 1.

(29.) Kelton, The Time It Never Rained, 284.

(30.) Kelton, The Time It Never Rained, 58–59.

(31.) Kelton, The Time It Never Rained, 271.

(32.) Kelton, The Time It Never Rained, 245. Italics in original.

(33.) Kelton, The Time It Never Rained, 11

(34.) Kelton, The Time It Never Rained, 13–14.

(35.) Kelton, The Time It Never Rained, 9.

(36.) Kate Rigby, Dancing with Disaster: Environmental Histories, narratives, and Ethics for our Perilous Times (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015), 2.

(37.) Rigby, Dancing with Disaster, 2.

(38.) For a useful overview of speculative literature about California, see Lynn Mie Itagaki, “Science Fiction and Mysterious Worlds,” in A History of California Literature, ed. Blake Allmendinger (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 371–384.

(39.) Mike Davis, The Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1998), 276, 278.

(40.) John Sutherland, “Jeremiad with a MacArthur Grant,” The New York Times, November 3, 2002.

(41.) Rigby, Dancing with Disaster, 18.

(42.) For more on cli-fi, see Adam Trexler, Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015), 8; and Timothy Clark, Ecocriticism on the Edge: The Anthropocene as a Threshold Concept (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 78, 182.

(43.) Edan Lepucki, California: A Novel (New York: Back Bay Books, 2015), 68.

(44.) Lepucki, California, 74.

(45.) Lepucki, California, 72–73.

(46.) Claire Vaye Watkins, Gold Fame Citrus (New York: Riverbend Books, 2015), 157.

(47.) Watkins, Gold Fame Citrus, 4.

(48.) Watkins, Gold Fame Citrus, 17.

(49.) Watkins, Gold Fame Citrus, 15 and 17.

(50.) Watkins, Gold Fame Citrus, 7.

(51.) Watkins, Gold Fame Citrus, 87.

(52.) Watkins, Gold Fame Citrus, 8.

(53.) Watkins, Gold Fame Citrus, 23.

(54.) Watkins, Gold Fame Citrus, 104. For more on “reverse Okies,” see Hal Rothman and Mike Davis, The Grit Beneath the Glitter: Tales from the Real Las Vegas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 180.

(55.) Watkins, Gold Fame Citrus, 185.

(56.) Watkins, Gold Fame Citrus, 111.

(57.) Mary Austin, The Land of Little Rain (New York: Penguin, 1988), 2.

(58.) Hilton Obenzinger, American Palestine: Melville, Twain, and the Holy Land Mania (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 3; and R. W. B. Lewis, The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), 5–6.

(59.) For more on postfrontier remappings, see David M. Wrobel, The End of American Exceptionalism: Frontier Anxieties from the Old West to the New Deal (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas), 71–85 and 93.

(60.) Carlos Fuentes, The Old Gringo (New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1985), 8.

(61.) Fuentes, The Old Gringo, 70.

(62.) Fuentes, The Old Gringo, 8.

(63.) Fuentes, The Old Gringo, 43. In trying to dislodge the “mirage” of human temporality, however, Fuentes expresses a gender and racial politics that naturalizes sexualizes, and fixes the identities of African American women and Mexican men in the novel.

(64.) Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35 (Winter 2009): 197–222.

(65.) See, for instance, Timothy James LeCain, “Against the Anthropocene: A Neo-materialist Perspective,” International Journal of History, Culture, and Modernity 3 (2015): 1–28; Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, and Chthulucene: Making Kin,” Environmental History 6 (2015): 159–165; and Bonneuil and Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene, 71.

(66.) Bonneuil and Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene, 70.

(67.) Bonneuil and Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene, 67, 170, 172.

(68.) Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest (New York: Vintage, 1972), 3.

(69.) Hammett, Red Harvest, 8–9.

(70.) Hammett, Red Harvest, 3–4.

(71.) See, for instance, “Poem 23,” in Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910–1940, eds. Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1980), 12; and Jane Hseu, “Asian American Writers and the Making of the Western U.S. Landscape,” in A History of Western American Literature, ed. Susan Kollin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 299–300.

(72.) Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 6 and 32.

(73.) Lear, Radical Hope, 97.

(74.) Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1950).

(75.) Richard Slotkin’s trilogy of the West includes Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600–1860 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000); The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800–1890 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998); and Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998).

(76.) See Annette Kolodny, The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience in American Life and Letters (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975); and The Land Before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers: 1630–1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984).

(77.) See Krista Comer, Landscapes of the New West: Gender and Geography in Contemporary Women’s Writing (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999); Neil Campbell, The Cultures of the American New West (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2001); and William Handley and Nathaniel Lewis, eds. True West: Authenticity and the American West (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004).

(78.) See Stephen Tatum, “Postfrontier Horizons,” MFS: Modern Fiction Studies 50.2 (Summer 2004): 460–468; and Neil Campbell, The Rhizomatic West: Representing the American West in a Transnational, Global, Media Age (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008).

(79.) See Cheryl Glotfelty and Harold Fromm, eds. The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996); Tom Lynch, Xerophilia: Ecocritical Explorations in Southwestern Literature (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2008); and Stephanie Lemenager, Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

(80.) Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1987), 3.

(81.) See José David Saldivar, Border Matters: Remapping American Cultural Studies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Sonia Saldívar-Hull, Feminism on the Border: Chicana Feminist Politics and Literature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000); and Ramon Saldívar, The Borderlands of Culture: Américo Paredes and the Transnational Imaginery (Durham, NC: Duke University Press 2006).

(82.) See Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996); Lorna Fitzsimmons, ed., Asian American Literature and the Environment (New York: Routledge, 2015); Joni Adamson, American Indian Literature, Environmental Justice, and Ecocriticism: The Middle Place (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2001); and John Gamber, Positive Pollutions and Cultural Toxins: Waste and Contamination in Contemporary US Ethnic Literatures (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012).