We Who Work the West
This dissertation studies representations of class, labor, and space in Western American literature from 1885-1992. I argue that class is a function of labor in space and that, by zooming in on literary accounts of individuals living out this equation, we can gain a more diverse, more pluralistic vision of a developing Western and more broadly American identity. Moreover, I argue that examining the effects of working practices, class limits and mobility, and spatial shifts on characters in Western literature unveils the crucial roles loss and uncertainty played in shaping the tone, metaphors, and episodes of Western American literature. With a foothold in the political and socioeconomic concerns of this project, I catalogue and close read the less tangible or measurable components of this literature to render individual lives legible against backgrounds of shared histories. Reading those common literary tropes alongside one another suggests that, ultimately, this shared history is an American one that draws from a number of historical moments and has deep roots and routes in the West itself. Chapter One argues that Frank Norris’ McTeague depicts class and socioeconomic identity as products of the kinds of labor that evolve in the ecological and social spaces of San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century. Chapter Two explores class dispossession, masked as ethnic dispossession, in Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s The Squatter and the Don and argues that national affiliations that grant capital security hold more sway in late 19th century Chicano-Californio ranching society than do claims of cultural belonging. Chapter Three focuses on literature that grew out of the twinned national crises of the 1930s, the Depression and the Dust Bowl, and argues that Sanora Babb’s Whose Names Are Unknown, John Fante’s Wait Until Spring, Bandini and Ask the Dust, and Frank Waters’ Below Grass Roots each document the instability, vulnerability, frustration, and constriction that these watershed historical moments brought to individuals and families. Chapter Four close reads historical accounts of cowboy work alongside depictions of ranching work in Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, Elmer Kelton’s The Time it Never Rained, and Larry McMurtry’s Horseman, Pass By. Finally, Chapter Five looks at a handful of American Indian novels that interrogate the role of labor, class, and space in post-indigenous reservation life in the American West. Linda Hogan’s Mean Spirit is the central novel of this chapter, while Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, and Stephen Graham Jones’ The Bird is Gone provide supplementary texts.