The Only Good Injun

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Author: Peter Michelson
Editors: Sharon R. Gunton and Daniel G. Stine
Date: 1983
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 2,011 words

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Leslie Fiedler is one of those literary personalities who has the effect of polarizing his readers. Already his new study of American Western mythology [The Return of the Vanishing American] has agitated the spleen of Kenneth Rexroth, who resents a New York Jew's tampering with the Western myth. Whether such romantic antagonism is just (Fiedler lived for many years in Missoula, Montana) isn't important, but it does present the kind of difficulty such a study as this must face. There are many Wests lurking in America's imagination. The imaginative or literary tourist's West is certainly not the Montana resident's. And Fiedler, having been both, knows this....

There is a crucial cultural difference between the romantic and the mythological Wests. The romantic one is historical and its self-image originates in the pragmatic circumstances of the “wild” life with and beyond which it has grown. That image—vaguely conceived as being more free, pure, democratic, hospitable, and natural than that of “Easterners”—is now vestigial because most Westerners are simply Easterners living in the West. There is no longer a “Western” reality because there is no longer a peculiarly Western way of life, only a feeling about one. The mythological West isn't historical; essentially it isn't even American. The cowboy or cavalry Western derives from chivalric romance; the trappings are American, but the substance is European. One of the trappings—the Indian—had, however, both an American and European character. To the American he was a guerrilla, to the European (e.g. Rousseau) a noble symbol of Nature. The fusion of those views created a mythology that simultaneously celebrated our triumph over Nature and manifested our guilt at having thereby profaned it, a mythology therefore representing the very warp and woof of American moral consciousness. Fiedler's book is an attempt to define and analyze this mythic consciousness as it appears in our literature and as it has analogues and origins in the European mind.

Characteristically, Fiedler's persuasiveness comes more from a quality of mind than an accumulation of evidence. This book completes a trilogy exploring the “myths which give a special character to art and life in America.” In the first study, Love and Death in the American Novel, he warned that he had attempted “a literary rather than scientific work ... a very personal book, in which I attempt to say with my own voice out of my own face ... what I have found to be some major meanings of our literature and our culture.” Not only is this also true of the present work, but it is a recognition without which its reader cannot proceed....

The very phrase on which his title and thesis turns—i.e. the Vanishing American—comes from a white man's (Edward Curtis) celebrated 19th-century photograph of six Navaho plodding on horseback into a gloomy indistinct canyon. The picture is called “The Vanishing Race,” a title more telling than its later variant, “The Vanishing American,” because it more clearly implies genocidal guilt. The later phrasing is too witty, ironic, and...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420002792