English 489.601
Writing the American West

Fall semester 1995

Instructor: Daniel Traister

Office: Special Collections, Van Pelt Library

Phone: 215 898 7088

E-mail: traister@pobox.upenn.edu

Click here for course materials.

Click here for assistance with writing.

Return to Daniel Traister's Home Page (URL: http://www.english.upenn.edu/~traister).



"Westerns" have long been a marginalized genre. In this course, we will look at the functions of marginalizing strategies--how, for instance, they may help maintain the relative power of one region or cultural elite vs. another or assist in the pursuit of other goals. We will ask whether marginalization may also offer readers, writers, and producers certain advantages to compensate for the disadvantages that marginal status confers. We will compare "westerns" with a few other marginalizing ascriptions--reading, for example, a "mystery" or two--and look at complexities that arise when two or more marginalizing ascriptors compete. We may consider a number of movie westerns during the semester.

This course requires substantial reading and two graded writing projects (a 5-page midterm paper, a 10-page final paper). There are no exams (but there may be quizzes).

Course mechanics

This course meets on Wednesdays from 6:30 P.M. to 9 P.M. in the Lea Library, 6th floor, Van Pelt Library. We may occasionally reschedule or relocate in order to accommodate the showing of movies or tapes.

The instructor's office is nearby, in the Department of Special Collections, sixth floor, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library. You can reach him by telephone (215 898 7088) or in person at that location. He is normally in the office between 9 and 5 weekdays, but please telephone before showing up.

You can also communicate by e-mail (directly at traister@pobox.upenn.edu or through the class list at traister489@dept.english.upenn.edu).

Members of the class must submit a response paper, 1 to 2 pages in length and no more, at our third session (September 20). Responses will not be graded; the instructor will use them to indicate writing problems, if any.

The syllabus calls for a 5-page midterm due on October 11 and, on December 15th, a FINAL PAPER about 10 pages. There is no final examination. The midterm essay is described below. The final essay should consider not only works read for class but also some material not read for class. It should use primary materials of some sort in doing so. CHOOSE A TOPIC AND WRITE THIS PAPER ONLY AFTER DISCUSSING IT WITH THE INSTRUCTOR. Follow MLA or Chicago format rules in preparing these essays. Death (preferably yours) is the acceptable excuse for lateness.

In general, the instructor appreciates good writing. He looks with extreme disfavor upon poorly-written essays. Sloppy writing normally means sloppy thinking. USE THE WRITING CENTER IF THIS IS AN AREA IN WHICH YOU KNOW--OR LEARN--THAT YOU NEED HELP. Click here for information about the writing center.

This class will work largely through discussion (and more rarely lectures). Since your attendance and participation will make a difference in its success, both will make a difference in your grade. Ground rules: talk; interrupt; open your mouths. Be polite. Do not let politeness prevent you from making your points.

AN IMPORTANT NOTE: The instructor is eager but (perhaps) not lunatic; he has noticed that he is asking you to read a lot. (1) These books DO require your attention. By and large, they do not require your familiarity with the literary equivalent of differential equations. (2) Read as much as you can. The instructor hopes that relatively light writing and no exam requirements will help make the reading load a bit more palatable (and possible). (3) The instructor labors under the delusion that some of this reading will be fun.

Course books

Books are available at the Penn Book Center, 3726 Walnut Street.

Edward Abbey, Fire on the Mountain
Nevada Barr, Track of the Cat
Walter Van Tilburg Clark, The Ox-Bow Incident
James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans
Zane Grey, Riders of the Purple Sage
Louis L'Amour, High Lonesome
Frederick Manfred, Lord Grizzly
Jack Schaefer, Shane
Catherine Maria Sedgwick, Hope Leslie
Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony
William Gilmore Simms, The Yemassee
April Smith, North of Montana
Jane Tompkins, West of Everything
Mildred Walker, Winter Wheat
Owen Wister, The Virginian



Week 1 (September 6)
John Graves, "The Last Running" (bulkpack)--Discussion of some of the basic themes of "westerns."


Week 2 (September 13)
William Gilmore Simms, The Yemassee

Week 3 (September 20)
William Gilmore Simms, The Yemassee
Catherine Maria Sedgwick, Hope Leslie

RESPONSE (1-2 pages) DUE:
  1. If you have been able to complete Sedgwick, compare and contrast the treatment of "the Indian" by Simms and Sedgwick.
  2. If you have not been able to finish Sedgwick, then discuss how the two illustrations to Simms by F. O. C. Darley suggest how the novel was interpreted by some of its pre-Civil War readers.
  3. Genuine fanatics may want to read a novel by Penn alumnus Robert Montgomery Bird, Nick of the Woods (copies in Van Pelt Library), and add consideration of this title to topic number 1.

Week 4 (September 27)
James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans

Week 5 (October 4)
Owen Wister, The Virginian
IF YOU CAN, ALSO READ PENN ALUMNUS Zane Grey, author of Riders of the Purple Sage

Week 6 (October 11)
Louis L'Amour, High Lonesome

  1. Read Jane Tomkins, West of Everything, on Louis L'Amour. Does your reading of this title confirm her views about this author's qualities?
  2. Compare and contrast two of the works read for class with special reference either to their attitudes towards "the land itself" (as presented in the works you choose to discuss); or
  3. towards the non-"Anglos" whom the authors you discuss may portray.
    SEE some questions about High Lonesome.
Week 7 (October 18)
Jack Schaefer, Shane
We may watch the Alan Ladd and Brandon De Wilde movie version, if arrangements can be made.

Week 8 (October 25)
Frederick Manfred, Lord Grizzly

SEE some questions about Lord Grizzly.


Week 9 (November 1)
April Smith, North of Montana
Nevada Barr, Track of the Cat


Week 10 (November 8)
Mildred Walker, Winter Wheat

Week 11 (November 15)
Edward Abbey, Fire on the Mountain

Week 12 (November 22)--THANKSGIVING VACATION

Week 13 (November 29)
Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony

Week 14 (December 6)
Walter Van Tilburg Clark, The Ox-Bow Incident

Week 14 (December 13)--Conclusion



Only one text is required:

Everything else below is recommended, but selections from some will be distributed in bulkpack on occasion for use in class discussion. Independent opinions about some of these and other related books about western history can be found by clicking here.

You can send Traister e-mail concerning this page at traister@pobox.upenn.edu.

Return to Daniel Traister's Home Page.