TOPIC: How the West Was Wild: Constructing and Deconstructing the American Frontier

In the weeks following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, President Bush continually mobilized rhetoric that has by now become his calling card: "I want justice, and there's an old poster out west that I recall, that said 'Wanted Dead of Alive.'" Thus, in a 'time of war,' did "the Cowboy President" rouse much of the American public to passionate engagement by making slanted references to "the West," a time when justice was swift, exacting, and dead on the mark, people meant just what they said, and men were always and only men. Five years later, after an ongoing public debate about whether or not (and if so, how) gay marriage should be legislatively enacted, one of the most controversial cultural phenomenon was a mainstream motion picture about gay cowboys - and it was significant indeed that they were cowboys (and not, say, accountants). At roughly the same time, a Texas-based, anti-immigration militia calling themselves "the Minutemen" claimed that by policing the U.S.-Mexico border, they were safeguarding a nation fundamentally in dager of "losing its identity," according to one member. It is this concept of 'national identity' that will concern us in this course, and the complex ways in which our 'national identity' is tied quite directly to the idea of the American West, that archetypal - and imaginary - "frontier" space which continues to be such a politically charged cultural presence. So what was the frontier, if it is indeed 'closed,' as one historian claimed in 1893? What is it, as a site of cultural meanings and contestations that continue to be of enormous political and social signigicance? And what does it 'mean' in the context of the still- developing narratives of national identity that we, as Americans, rely on for self-definition? What do we really talk about when we talk about the West, in other words?

This course will take as its foundation these questions. We will examine many different manifestations of the myth of the "Wild West," from feature-length films like Lone Star, Brokeback Mountain, and Star Trek: The Final Frontier to 'lower' orders of pop culture like Looney Tunes and HBO's wonderful show Deadwood. We will read academic essays by Western historians, film critics, and cultural theorists; and we will read excerpts from westerns and neo-westerns like Owen Wister's The Virginian and Tom Robbins' Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. In the end, we will both establish the content of the myth of the West and interrogate its meaning by asking difficult and complicated questions about race, gender, sexuality, and environmental concerns. We will end up examining not only what the frontier 'means' within American Culture, but also how the frontier myth constructs us as American subjects.