Literature of the American Southwest

Greetings from the literary Southwest.  This site is part of a seminar in the English department at the University of Virginia on literature of the American Southwest.  We read poetry and prose from American Indian, Chicano, and Anglo-American writers who have lived in and written about the unique cultures and landscapes that make the Southwest.

The Southwest is a region named by Anglos. To many Latinos, it would better be called El Norte or perhaps Aztlan; to Indians, the land of little rain, or simply, ancestral home land. We’ll call it the Southwest, if for no other reason than familiarity.
We can consider this place in at least two ways:
1) The Southwest as a geographic region: Although the boundaries of the Southwest are a matter of considerable debate and depend on whether you look at the region geographically, politically, or culturally, we’ll take an expansive view, considering the borders to run from the southeast corner of California, north into southern Nevada and Utah, east to southeast Colorado and west Texas, and south across the U.S./Mexican boundary line into northern Mexico. The area includes a great number of ecospheres or biomes; as a bioregion the Southwest includes four large deserts – the Chihuahuan (southern Texas and New Mexico), the Sonoran (southern Arizona and California), which blends into the Mojave (including Death Valley and Las Vegas), and the Great Basin desert of Nevada and Utah. Each of these includes mountainous regions, the two main mountain ranges being the Southern Rockies and the northern Sierra Madre. You can tell when you have arrived in the Southwest when you come in view of flat-topped mesas, brown and yellow soil, and an abundance of prickly-pear cactus, yuccas, mesquite, and scraggly live oaks. These are essentially arid regions, remarkable for the clarity of the air and the open sense of space. Agriculture, long practiced in this region, nearly everywhere depends upon irrigation, and the varying ways in which people have watered their crops reflects essential aspects of their cultural relationship with the land.
The sense of spaciousness, as in most of the interior West, is accentuated by the lack of forest lands (except in the mountainous regions), and because of the clustering of population in numerous urban islands – initially Denver, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and more recently Salt Lake, Phoenix, Las Vegas, El Paso, and Los Angeles/San Diego.

2) This is also a region where three major population groups have interacted over several centuries,  from the millennia-long occupation by various indigenous peoples to the Hispanic incursion north from Mexico in the early 16th century, and finally the Anglo-American advances in the mid-19th century.  The Anglo-American political presence was codified at the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848 by the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hildago which implicitly ceded to the U.S. much of the current Southwest. As a result of these demographic and political changes, the recent culture and the literature are characterized by these three traditions and influences – the Indian or Native American, the Chicano or Mexican-American, and the Anglo-American.

In this course, we’ve tried to mirror that variety and richness, to include works by those born and raised in the region as well as immigrants to the region. We’ve also tried to find a balance between men and women writers. The predominant criteria, however, has been to find fiction and poetry that evokes a deep and passionately held sense of place. Western and Southwestern writing is typically characterized by a strong sense of place, but in some, and in those texts we’ll study, place is clearly and powerfully an integral part of the text. We’ll explore how these texts create a distinct sense of regional identity where people living in similar environmental conditions have developed similarities in their cultural patterns, be they native, Hispanic, or Anglo, that are different from those cultural patterns of other regions of this continent.

This search for similarities does not preclude distinct differences among peoples and cultures. The history and experience of the Southwest is characterized by cultures in conflict from the 16th century Spanish incursions into the North. The essence of the humanistic study of region, however, is that geography is not simply an abstract cultural construct, but that place matters; that place, whether in a wilderness state or transformed by the dynamics of politics, economics, or the symbolic imagination, is at the center of human experience. Each of the writers included believe in the essential reality of the natural non-human world.

Among the questions we’d like to keep in mind are the following:
• How powerful is the Southwestern landscape?
• How much does the aridity and heat of this desert region impose itself on the human imagination even in an era when we are able to mitigate the extremes of climate with air conditioning and massive irrigation projects?
• How have social, political, historical, and economic interests helped to determine the identity of the imaginative Southwest?
• How have the individual experiences of these writers with the specific local places or sub-regions of the Southwest influenced their texts?
• How much is it this place called the Southwest contested and changing?

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