Arts Literature

Series Explores Literature of the American West

By Gina Malone

The Wilma Dykeman Legacy is once again presenting its annual lecture and book discussion series on American literature, though virtually this year. The 2020 series is titled Exploring & Settling the American West. Books for October, November and December are, respectively, A. B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky, John Wesley Powell’s The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons and Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!. Open to the public, this year’s event will be held via Zoom, with lectures on the second Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m. Readers’ discussions for the books will be held, in each case, at 7 p.m. on the Tuesday following the lectures.

On October 13, Dr. Michael Sartisky will lecture on The Big Sky, which he calls “a novel of both American history and its own time and values in the mid-twentieth century, which contemporary readers will find less than politically correct, but at its heart mostly factually accurate and deeply humanistic.” Sartisky compares Guthrie to Asheville’s Thomas Wolfe in that both have not been widely read in recent years and to James Fenimore Cooper for creating a mythographic world that, later, would become better known than any history of the time.

An Indiana author, Guthrie won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Way West, published three years after The Big Sky, and also wrote the screenplay for Shane, nominated for an Academy Award. The Big Sky, Sartisky says, “provides an opportunity to discuss the prisms through which we view the past, at one and the same time factual, mythopoeic and illuminating.”

Dr. James Aton presents Powell’s memoir, The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons on November 10. “Although Powell’s narrative is not the absolute first frontier river narrative, it is certainly the most famous and is still relevant,” Aton says. “It is a classic hero’s journey told in simple, dramatic prose.” The book, first published in 1875, gained new readership after World War II for a number of reasons, he says, including “the publication of Wallace Stegner’s magisterial biography of Powell, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian; the growth of the environmental movement in the post-war period and its opposition to dams in the Colorado River basin; and the rise of recreational river running.” Today’s readers, Aton says, may appreciate the book’s poetic language, its treatment of the region’s environmental history and the author’s observations of Native Americans.

The series concludes on December 8 with Dr. Charles Peek’s lecture on Cather’s O Pioneers!. Readers, Peek advises, should forget that this book is a “classic” and just enjoy the story. “Cather was a Modernist writer,” he says, “not very bound by literary categories, drawing on ancient sources to cast a light on a contemporary scene, leaving (like Hemingway) much unsaid but understood.”

Rather than the masculinity often found in cowboy tales of the American West, Peek says, Cather’s dynamic book explores the “other west,” a new civilization of farming and the “harnessing of resources for human settlement.” The book is also notable for presenting a female protagonist, a “me-too pioneer woman, assertive and bold,” he says.

To sign up for the lectures and book discussions, send a request for the Zoom link to west@wilmadykemanlegacy.org.

Leave a Comment