Spatial Fictions - American West

Dissertation Project by
Dr. Steffen Wöll

My (ongoing) dissertation project on “Globe, Region, and Periphery: The Spatialization of the American West in Antebellum US Literature” examines spatial imaginations of the Western American peripheries and their representation in US literature during the nineteenth century, comprising both fictional and non-fictional literary accounts of the Western peripheries, including travel narratives, diaries, exploration reports, as well as (pseudo-)scientific geographical and anthropological texts. Taking into consideration both populist and elitist views, female and male perspectives, racialist and philanthropist ideologies, I put focus on the intertextual dynamics that result in the discursive construction, affirmation, contestation, deconstruction, hierarchization, as well as synthetic and antithetic negotiations of imagined and actual spatial formats and orders. Without ignoring the Turnerian and New Western History’s approaches to the American West and concepts like frontier and borderlands, my intention is nevertheless to take a step back. This seems necessarily especially in the light of current, often highly politicized discourses that view the West as yet another stage on which to transplant personal expectations and enact political agendas, resulting in presentism and ahistorical epistemic conceptualizations.

Furthermore, this intent of ‘re-historicizing’ the West through the use of primary sources is based in the conviction that the West was factually spatialized during the nineteenth century as a part of the American nation; this process of imagining, making-real or ‘worlding’ involved its physical appropriation, federal organization, national bordering, and oncurrent manifestation in texts, images, ideas, identities, symbols, and archetypes, many of which remain influential until today. In fact, engaging with nineteenth-century sources reveals a surprisingly high degree of alternative visions which often undermine or complicate the unified visions proposed by the Frontier Thesis and Manifest Destiny, yet also that of some New Western Historians, thus prompting questions about the reasons behind the narrowing of this imaginational diversity and suggesting a more synthetic reappraisal of the American West as a real-and-imagined space.