Date of Award
Dr. Corinna McLeod
Dr, Jim Persoon
Dr. Brian Deyo
The narrative trope of the American western is a long-standing literary convention rooted in a convoluted history of conquest, exploration, settlement, and exploitation. At the heart of the western genre is the idyllic vision of self-reliance. From its inception, the United States developed westward, pushing the limits of self-governance into the farthest reaches of empty terrain. As a result, the frontier has long been a symbol of personal liberty, a place where travelers and homesteaders have the freedom to achieve private independence in its purest form. Hollywood has done much to nurture this nostalgic image of prairie life. Iconic silver screen portraits of a bow-legged John Wayne or a cigarillo-chewing Clint Eastwood have endured in the eye of the American imagination for decades, and have perpetuated the classic vision of selfsufficiency in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Yet, while the genre has propagated the beliefs and values of an American monoculture, the cliché of the virtuous cowboy who tames the savagery of his natural surroundings is an image that comes under great scrutiny in Cormac McCarthy’s southwestern spaces.
McCarthy’s border novels foreground the problem of cultural identity in the postwar American mythos. In the years following the Second World War, McCarthy’s characters find themselves alone along the high plains of the Mexican-American border. Although the two countries did not fight one another during the war, the border is representative of the cultural barrier that exists between them. At different moments in each of the three novels, protagonists John Grady Cole and Billy Parham come of age in a time period marked by cultural ambiguity. As each of the boys explores the sparse, empty spaces of the mountain terrain, he is faced with existential dilemmas that challenge his sense of self. In their quests, both boys find that their national heritage is obscured by the lifestyles of the indigenous men and women they encounter long the way. As they travel between two countries that seem diametrically opposed to one another in terms of political and cultural ideology, the boys struggle to reconcile a sense of personhood. Since the boys do not feel at home in either country, the problem of unhomeliness forces them to live as cultural refugees in a land of similarly displaced persons. They become, in effect, men without countries. In the lonesome wastes of the desert, where geographical parameters of nations become abstract, the boys inhabit a liminal space outside any national boundary. Having grown up in culturally homogeneous environments, their cultural identity is challenged when they cross the border. It is in this space that they grapple with questions of ethnic heritage, ancestral worldviews, absolute morality, and the notion of a national epistemology.
Cox, Michael G., "Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy and the Modern American Identity Crisis" (2019). Masters Theses. 941.