Skip to navigation – Site map
IV. Regional Identities in Question

The Place of Place in the 21st-Century American West

O. Alan Weltzien
p. 249-256


Le concept d’espace dans la littérature américaine de l’Ouest a fait l’objet d’une critique et d’une remise en cause croissantes, particulièrement dans le cadre de la théorie postmoderne. Tout récemment, l’une de ces remises en cause, émanant de Neil Campbell dans l’ouvrage intitulé The Rhizomatic West, réfute les arguments essentialistes pour aborder le problème de l’espace. Campbell propose le rhizome comme la métaphore la plus représentative des phénomènes de migration et d’habitat qui caractérisent l’Ouest. Cet article soutient des arguments de nature psychologique et littéraire et propose le palimpseste, plutôt que le rhizome, comme métaphore la plus adéquate. Il cite un certain nombre d’exemples littéraires pour montrer que l’Ouest reste une région d’enracinement et de migration ("Roots and routes"), de colonisation et de mouvement.

Top of page

Full text

1"Place", a literary concept with a venerable if disputed history, still has a place in the 21st century despite ever-increasing American mobilities and despite postmodern theoretical challenges to it. The former grow in complexity given contemporary communications technologies that, for example, link rural locations in the interior American West into the global village. In light of these tendencies, earlier notions concerning literature of place, at least in American literary history, appear naively essentialist, insufficiently nuanced and therefore holding little value. To qualify and re-validate place, I shall assay a few informal definitions of it before turning to a recent, substantive critique mounted by Neil Campbell in his The Rhizomatic West (2008).

2"Literature of place", unsurprisingly, can be defined in various ways and regions in American literary history. It often appears as an adjunct concept in regional literatures, and though regionalism has, more often than not, been treated pejoratively in most of our literary history (by critics and historians, though not the reading public), by the end of the last century, a new regionalism was gaining acceptance as a fundamental critical paradigm. Consider, for example, the privileging of regionalism in Michael Kowalewski’s oft-cited article, "Writing in Place: The New American Regionalism". In it, Kowalewski asserts, "Literary ‘mappings’ of American places have increasingly involved an interest in metaphors of depth, resonance, root systems, habitats, and interconnectedness—factors that together put places into motion, making them move within their own history, both human and nonhuman" (181). Indeed, "region" has long outgrown its dismissive, 19th-century connotative burden captured in the phrase, "local color". Maybe it will even assume a place at the critical table alongside race, gender, and ethnicity. Place is embedded in and fundamental to the notion of region.

3Reflecting the recent valuation of region, my department’s course offerings include a junior-level course, Literary Regions. The intent is to study a selected region, in or out of the U.S., through a range of texts and genres in order to define an admittedly large version of place and assess these particular literary responses to it. Such a course and survey assume the validity of some unique characteristics about a given human geography. In probing those claims, the course highlights common themes and critical issues as well as disparities or even disputes between texts.

4Certainly, place has always been essential to American nature writing and, for many critics more recently, environmental writing. After all, these genres, which since the 1960s have enjoyed accelerating public and critical interest, often though not always feature the relations of a self or selves to a particular landscape or set of landscapes. The generic foregrounding of a human life or lives in a physical setting depends, for its success, upon a detailed evocation and realization of that particular combination of topographies and weathers and plants and animals and people and their stories that together comprise a place.

5Following from this, I claim that literature of place represents a sustained, inscribed narrativization of a particular piece of topography or bioregion or neighborhood. In seeking to inscribe the meanings of place (i.e. a place), the writer or artist tends to make essentialist claims for it. In articulating its specific range of referentiality for human affairs, the writer endeavors to limn its uniqueness; in so doing, she simultaneously implies connections between the particular place and other human experiences of and about other places. It in fact traces the familiar argument of any enduring literature that the path from one’s particular place and story leads to some portion of common human experience.

6There is nothing new about literature of place, in American or any other literature, and white American writers past and present take their cue from indigenous people’s expertise about particular landscapes—a practice in reverse colonialism, arguably. Consider the homilies in Leslie Marmon Silko’s well-known essay, "Landscape and the Pueblo Imagination" (1986): homilies that explain its popularity in reprintings and citations. Silko reminds us that local topographies—specific rock outcroppings and hills and trees and springs, for example—bear names and stories. They constitute repositories which elders transcribed to youth. Such practices step back across the divide of objectification, of course, in animating features in a landscape and charging them with being. Or consider the lessons of N. Scott Momaday’s celebrated The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969), in which "Tsoai" (what whites know as Devils Tower, in NE Wyoming) and Rainy Mountain, on the northwest edge of what we call Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains, function as symbolic poles and stories in the formation of young Momaday’s identity. Native American writers like Silko and Momaday remind us that landscapes are always storied, a central theme in William Kittredge’s Credo Series essay, Taking Care (1999). Kittredge argues that our environmental ethics always spring from connections, and our connections spring from stories.

7Silko’s Laguna pueblo people, like Momaday’s Kiowa, represent North American indigenous praxis. Such praxis is distilled in the collection, Earth’s Mind (1997), by (white) poet, Roger Dunsmore, who has studied Native American literature and lifeways his entire career. And the same specificity and animism, among central Australia aboriginal tribes, is memorably captured by Bruce Chatwin in his remarkable The Songlines (1987), wherein human cartography and songs are coeval, inextricably linked in mapping features and presenting stories within the desert landscape.

8Personally and professionally, I have always been committed to literature of place as a valid and abiding construct. Certainly much of the writing (American and otherwise) I treasure, past and present, as well as some of my own, is literature of place. I’ll mention but two examples. I published a book about contemporary American nature writer and environmentalist, Rick Bass (2001), and for anyone familiar with Bass’s nonfiction and fiction, his fundamental literary place is the Yaak valley in the extreme northwestern corner of Montana. Additionally, my memoir, A Father and an Island (2008), features, as its primary setting, a beach along the eastern shores of a large Puget Sound island, Camano Island, in Washington State. A Father and an Island celebrates what I have always referred to as my first geography.

9If literature of place, in the early 21st century, appears a hopelessly hoary and befuddled construct for postmodern critics, consider three related semantic categories of place. We speak, for instance, of being in place, of knowing one’s fit in relation to a range of contexts, human or otherwise. I would argue that being in place represents a fundamental ontological category. Secondly, in the U.S. at least, we use placement in a variety of settings wherein one seeks or achieves a correct order or fitting or structure. To be "placed" often means to discover one’s place. University and college campuses always include placement offices, in which individuals seek to match their primary study and occupational aspirations. These offices endeavor to close the distance between what one knows and how one can earn a living: they are sites that merge the academic and aspiring with the vocational. Finally, consider place as a transitive verb: to place a person or experience or object. Placing serves central functions in learning theory (e.g. the notion of schemes in schema theory), where one orders the new according to the familiar.

10In light of these semantic variations of place, I would contend placelessness is neither an ideal nor optimal human condition. In fact, placelessness subverts if not vitiates identity formation. Arguably, nomadic peoples past or present are as well-placed—defined by changing weathers and seasons and animal migrations and habits—as anyone. Being "in place", however variable the particular manifestations of place, is constituent to identity formation in all stages of one’s life. In the U.S. at least, for the past generation or more, we use a sociological term, "the homeless", that not only addresses fundamental social justice issues but a psychological prerequisite to healthy human life. A fascinating example of recent American literature of place, William Least Heat-Moon’s big PrairyErth (1991), exhaustively surveys Chase County, Kansas, in a literary mapping involving the author’s attempt to come home in one landscape where he is not native. In fact, Heat-Moon’s "deep map" climaxes with a trek, with a friend, following an ancient Kaw trail, in which he defines "habitance" as an ideal "in-dwelling" in one physical space.

11In The Rhizomatic West, Neil Campbell, a postmodern British scholar of the American West, attempts to subvert most 20th-century definitions of "placedness". In his study’s most famous auditory-orthographic pun, which he borrows from critics Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Campbell argues that the most accurate story of the American West depends on "routes" (playing British and American pronunciations off one another), not "roots". Campbell dismisses essentialist arguments about place. To make his case he closely reads and extensively quotes postmodern geographers and architects and literary critics, among others. He has borrowed heavily from the oeuvre of Deleuze and Guattari, including his title concept, the rhizome, which he contends is the optimal organic metaphor for western American history and scholarship.

12Near the end of his ambitious and dense Introduction, Campbell offers a reformulated Western American Studies paradigm that centers upon a "geography of becoming":

Thus the West is less a distinct and definable location, a region or geographic space, than ‘an itinerary…a series of encounters and translations,’ and in exploring its many rhizomatic traces I will be drawn toward metaphors of mobility—travel, diaspora, migration, flow, borderlands, hybridity, and transnationalism—all of which are problematic for the reasons I have started to indicate above. This book, therefore, is transmotional ‘route work’ following connections, trails, traces, pathways, and echoes, peeling back the layers of a complex, unending palimpsest, following glints and glances, joining and departing from dialogues, but above all, attempting to reflect upon and examine the presence of westness in its various, complex forms of mobility as it has travelled globally resting in certain forms, mutating into others, and disrupting still more. (Campbell 37)

13I contend that the palimpsest is a more valid metaphor for the literature of place in the American West than the rhizome. I shall return to roots, but first comment upon Campbell’s "geography of becoming". He published The Rhizomatic West roughly one generation after the emergence of "New Western" history and the flowering of contemporary environmental history. It can be regarded as one of myriad offshoots (a rhizomatic metaphor) of Patricia Nelson Limerick’s ground-breaking The Legacy of Conquest (1987). There is great value in his emphasis upon migrations; upon historical and contemporary expressions of motion rather than settledness. His insistently postmodern conception of border zones, for example, shows his indebtedness to critic Mary Louise Pratt’s well-known definitions of contact zones (1991).

14Yet the robust endurance of literature of place (even place as contact zone) suggests, among other things, that Campbell overstates his case. The West is more than "itinerary", more than "transmotional ‘route work’". In fact "mobility" may not be the sole or primary construct through which one apprehends the long view of regions now called the American West as chronicled by Western environmental historians. Palimpsest presupposes a combination of migration and settledness, of routes and roots, of motion and duration.

15The argument in The Rhizomatic West proposes a far richer account of the American West than those favored by many white Westerners, particularly ranchers who often believe that if the property has been in the family for a century, then Genesis began with them. A popular bumper sticker that emerged in the late 1990s reads "Ranchers—The Original Environmentalists", a statement attesting to their severe myopia regarding inhabitation. Such myopia, of course, typifies popular cultural expressions of place and the usual naïve, self-congratulating narratives privileging white settlement. Obviously such cultural production has enormously influenced preferred 19th- and 20th-century self-definitions of place in the American West. Campbell and other cultural studies critics rightly take us to task for earlier cramped, facile definitions of Western literatures of place. Their scholarship pits popular cultural production of the national imaginary against more complex and nuanced evidence derived from historical research, literature, painting, film, and the like.

16Mobility and hybridity should centrally figure into and inside accounts of place; of sustained human stories embedded in a particular landscape. But “place” is here to stay because of its indispensability to human identity, let alone its role in regional literatures anywhere. After all, palimpsest as metaphor captures a given landscape’s successive history of human activity as a set of superimposed layers inscribed on and under its surface. Folklorist Henry Glassie calls landscapes "‘a palimpsest, the people’s own manuscript, their handmade history book. . .The land is art as Waldo Emerson exactly defined it: a blending of nature and will’" (qt. in Ryden 7). Heat-Moon’s "deep map" constitutes a palimpsest as does his closing figure of a buffalo wallow in which his trekking friend, the Venerable Tashmoo, rolls (Heat-Moon 612). Palimpsest presumes both inhabitation and displacement. Consider one of the most powerful palimpsests in the Western world, the site of Troy: a compact, vertical domain showing evidence of nine successive settlements and periods, a middle layer of which contains Homer’s Troy.

17Roots and rootedness, our most vital metaphor of organic life, describes humans’ affinity with vegetative life of all forms. In genealogy, the notion of family tree is indispensable, and in its most stereotypical form it resembles a big deciduous tree, say a live oak, with lots of branches of varying lengths and complexities. In this form, the base represents the furthest generation past, and the diverse, ever slighter ramifications at the top, the most recent or current generation. If genealogy is constituent of identity, how can rootedness be other than essential to selfhood? The rhizome, which for example defines the reproduction and dispersion of quaking aspen trees in the Rocky Mountain West, in and of itself provides an insufficient account of rootedness. Literature of place, that is to say, requires both roots and routes, settledness and diaspora, fixed locations (however transitory) and borderlands. The Rhizomatic West, though overstating the case, recommends a more self-aware and nuanced approach to studying and interpreting Western American literature.

18I turn, finally, to a pair of texts that make the case for place: one fairly recent and the other, a best seller of a generation ago that in turn inspired a series that made American television history. Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape (2006) represents a fascinating, interdisciplinary tome that straightforwardly advances essentialist claims about the relation of language to landscape. Edited by writer Barry Lopez (with Debra Gwartney as Managing Editor), Home Ground represents a literary dictionary by forty-five writers whose lexical entries—miniature nature essays, in most cases—conflate folklore, poetry, etymology, and naturalist field studies that encompass soil chemistry, local meteorology, hydrology, sedimentology, etc. In his Introduction, Lopez argues the same case that indigenous peoples have lived by for millennia: that landscape features constitute more than objects, and that their "being-ness" presumes some abiding connections with nearby human inhabitants. Indeed, "One must wait for the moment when the thing—the hill, the tarn, the lunette, the kiss tank, the caliche flat, the bajada—ceases to be a thing and becomes something that knows we are there" (Lopez xviii).

19If landscapes are inherently storied, it follows that any given landscape engenders variable, not necessarily similar, stories. It inspires if not requires a specialized vocabulary. Lopez’s straightforward essentialist argument poses a nice balance against the postmodern assumptions extrapolated from the rhizome metaphor. Lopez remarks, "Many landscape features that initially seem identical in our eyes to landforms we’ve seen elsewhere turn out, on close examination, to be unique to a place. In part this accounts for the large number of differing regional terms used for similar formations, many of which have never been written down." Superficial similarities mask nuances of difference, and those nuances collectively define one landscape and its cumulative bundle of stories: "How a particular culture or subculture divides and names the features of its homescape, and the way it perceives how one thing grades into another. . .is in the end peculiar to that culture. Thus, it’s hard to be certain about what someone else’s word for something might be. Or even what that word might mean (Lopez xxi-xxii).

20Palimpsest suggests mobility and stasis, migration and settlement. Home Ground chronicles and celebrates "the vocabulary of place" (Lopez 401). It acknowledges "the striking depth to which American fiction and poetry in general are informed by landscape" and "provide[s] an impetus for the rediscovery of an extensive American language, used to establish and reaffirm intimacy with our home place" (Lopez 403, 405).

21Over thirty years ago, writer Alex Haley published a novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976), which won him a Pulitzer (1977) and inspired two television miniseries (1977, 1979), the first of which was watched by 130,000,000 Americans. It made television history and Haley ultimately emerged as the best-selling African-American author—even though a 1978 copyright infringement lawsuit and the resulting agreement proved that Haley had plagiarized extensively from Harold Courlander’s novel, The African. Though Haley’s genealogical research has been repeatedly challenged as well, and though he remains excluded from the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature, Roots, in its thirtieth anniversary edition (2006), has been called, appropriately, Haley’s Comet. For this novel transcended the U.S.’s "peculiar institution", the ugly history of slavery and the "middle passage" that energized it.

22In Roots Haley draws his family tree backwards and down, to a specific village in Gambia. If the U.S. is mostly a nation of immigrants, Haley’s story reaches back through forced mobility and hybridity to some condition of settledness in Kunta Kinte’s village—the palimpsestic understories that accompany such folkloric vocabulary manifested in Home Ground. Roots acknowledges both forced diaspora as well as some measure of rootedness, at least at both ends of his story. Of course, it does not count as Western American literature except to the extent that the North American continent comprised the west end of slavery’s middle passage. It reminded all Americans, of whatever race and ethnicity, of the centrality of the long view in anyone’s history: of the ways in which genealogy confirms identity. Of course, exceptions exist, and that big, two-dimensional deciduous tree hardly captures the reality of frequent, voluntary or involuntary movement (i.e. the burden of Campbell’s argument).

23Both Home Ground and Roots attest to the endurance of fixity and movement. Literature of place will endure even if and as it includes places rather than one place and even as one individual’s story increasingly includes and writes pieces of others’ stories in one geography.

Top of page


Campbell, Neil, The Rhizomatic West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.

Chatwin, Bruce. The Songlines [1987], New York, Vintage Classics, 1998.

Dunsmore, Roger, Earth’s Mind. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997.

Haley, Alex, Roots: The Saga of an American Family. New York: Vanguard, 1976.

Heat-Moon, William Least, PrairyErth, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

Kittredge, William, Taking Care. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 1999.

Kowalewski, Michael, "Writing in Place: The New American Regionalism", American Literary History 6, No. 1 (Spring 1994), 172-89.

Limerick, Patricia Nelson, The Legacy of Conquest, New York: W. W. Norton, 1987.

Lopez, Barry, and Debra Gwarney, Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2006.

Momaday, N. Scott, The Way to Rainy Mountain [1969], New York: Ballantine, 1970.

Pratt, Mary Louise, "Arts of the Contact Zones", Profession 91, New York: MLA, 33-40.

Ryden, Kent, "Landscape with Figures: Nature, Folk Culture, and the Human Ecology of American Environmental Writing", ISLE 4, No. 1 (Spring 1997),

Silko, Leslie Marmon, "Landscape and the Pueblo Imagination", Antaeus Autumn 1986, 83-94.

Weltzien, O. Alan, "A Topographic Map of Words: Parables of Cartography in William Least Heat-Moon’s PrairyErth", Great Plains Quarterly 19, No. 2 (spring 1999), 107-22.

-----, The Literary Art and Activism of Rick Bass, Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2001.

-----, A Father and an Island, Lewiston: Lewis-Clark Press, 2008.

Top of page


Bibliographical reference

O. Alan Weltzien, « The Place of Place in the 21st-Century American West », Caliban, 31 | 2012, 249-256.

Electronic reference

O. Alan Weltzien, « The Place of Place in the 21st-Century American West », Caliban [Online], 31 | 2012, Online since 16 March 2015, connection on 28 February 2020. URL : ; DOI :

Top of page

About the author

O. Alan Weltzien

The University of Montana Western, Dillon, Montana

Top of page


Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Top of page
  • Logo Presses universitaires du Midi
  • Logo DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals