‘Ecomasculinities and the Old West in U.S. Literature: 1970- Present’
My thesis examines the concept of ecomasculinity in contemporary American fiction that invokes or reimagines the Old West.
Proceeding from the standpoint that frontier narratives and the western genre have helped shape the parameters of the man/nature relationship in the U.S. cultural imagination, this project seeks to highlight the ways in which these traditional conceptions of manliness have been challenged in an era of increased environmental awareness and changing gender norms. My underlying research questions are: how is the concept of the ecomasculine expressed or discussed in contemporary American fiction? In what ways do these works transform the man/nature tropes associated with early America and the frontier, and the conventions of western genre? How do factors such as race, ethnicity, and sexuality interact with traditional expressions of American masculinity in these works, and how are these issues related to, or through, environmentalist discourse? And finally, in what ways are these contemporary fictions significant to the theorisation of the ecomasculine within the context of American fiction more broadly? I will address these questions through the analysis of canonical American authors including Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, Annie Proulx, Percival Everett, Thomas Pynchon, and Edward Abbey. To differing degrees, each of these authors has embraced a revisionist project, challenging the ‘hero’ narrative of the traditional Western, which pits strong, silent men against a hostile environment (Slotkin, Regeneration through Violence), and highlighting broader masculinities through discussions of race, gender, and sexuality.
Because of its centrality to American socio-cultural myths, the Western is an ideal genre location from which to consider these questions. Studies of the contemporary Western across media have long acknowledged a shift in the genre, beginning in the 1970s, when the traditional narratives and standard mythologies of the West began to be questioned. This revisionism reflected the social and cultural changes that had defined the previous decades. The “sexual revolution” of the 1960s had sparked increasing conversations around social attitudes towards women, the legacies of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s were still reverberating throughout America, and the realities of the Vietnam War, and in particular the Mỹ Lai Massacre (1968), weighed heavily on the national consciousness. Perhaps most significantly for this project, there was also an upsurge in environmental discussion and debate following the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), which signalled a shift in public awareness around environmental issues. While studies of the contemporary Western offer many of these contexts to explain the emergence of revisionism within the genre, the impact of environmentalism is rarely discussed in any detail. Monographs, such as Robin L. Murray and Joseph K Heumann’s Gunfight at the Eco-Corral: Western Cinema and the Environment (2012) have begun address this, but there remains much scope for further study. This project seeks to add to the growing body of work on environmental westerns through a particular focus on the role of the ecomasculine.
The ecomasculine emerged as a concept in 2004 with the publication of Mark Allister’s Eco-Man: New Perspectives on Masculinity and Nature and is growing into an exciting branch of ecocritical enquiry, with new work such as Men and Earth: Ecomasculinities (Paul Pule & Martin Hultman eds.) and Ecomasculinities in Real and Fictional North America: The Flourishing of New Men (Ruben Cenamor & Stefan Brandt, eds.) forthcoming over the next couple of years. The ecomasculine is constructed not as a counter to ecofeminist discourse, but as an expansion of the concept of masculinity within the framework of ecofeminism. Building on an anti-essentialist approach to ecofeminism expressed by scholars like Victoria Davion (“Is Ecofeminism Feminist?”), which rejects the idea that women are more connected to nature than men and instead seeks to overcome these binary distinctions, the ecomasculine challenges the use of the masculine as a placeholder for patriarchy, and strives to uncover the breadth and depth of possible masculinities, and the many ways those masculinities interact with nature in real and fictive contexts. My project is situated within this emerging discussion and can, therefore, contribute to our developing understanding of the ecomasculine both as a theoretical tool, and as an expression of man/nature relations within American culture.
This project, then, reinterprets the legacies and burdens of the canonical Western genre in light of raised environmental awareness, and of new critical tools emerging from the growth of men’s studies and its intersections with ecocriticism and gender theory. In exploring representations of masculinity and masculine self-fashioning through ecologically aware narrative environments, which may be sites of guilt, fragility, or fear, this project pushes beyond the traditional discourse of dominance in man/nature relations. This allows for a new understanding of American masculinities within the context of the Anthropocene (an epoch posited in recognition of the extent of humanity’s impact on the planet), and of the Western as an evolving genre reaching far beyond the conservative values it is often assumed to connote.