on the edge

I listened to a Diane Rehm show about alcoholism, and one of the show’s participants made this comment: “stay in the middle; people on the edges fall off.”

Perhaps this is the appeal of edges. Standing on the precipice, looking over the cliff, imagining the fall–maybe even seeking to fall? As I’m trying to create a syllabus for my MENG class on the frontier, I keep coming back to these thoughts. There’s something about the frontier concept that draws us. It is a boundary, an edge, a cross-cultural place; it is the place where wilderness and civilization intersect; it is a dropping off place, where vigilante justice and lawlessness reign; it’s exciting, scary, and male-dominated. So what are the implications of idealizing this place/space in our culture? How does an American culture that relies on this frontier myth shape us? Aren’t we always at risk of falling off?

About BJ

living the dream in northern Utah
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3 Responses to on the edge

  1. What is the name of your course? It sounds awesome. I immediately thought of a book I read called “Over the Edge: Remapping the American West” edited by Matsumoto and Allmendinger.

    It’s a strange little book, all about looking at the West from a variety of perspectives, including Mexican and Japanese women and Native American slaves. It has a really interesting piece on viewing the West through Mae West films. Different, but it works.

    If you ever want to read it (if you haven’t already), I’d love to hear your thoughts. Some of the essays are pretty far out. 🙂

    I think myths of the West have shaped American culture. We’re innovators and unafraid of new frontiers, or at least we think are. The idea of an edge or a frontier land is fascinating to us. As an aside, do you think the Internet is the new West? I think it’s definitely what you called a dropping off place where hackers run like outlaws.

    Anyway, “Over the Edge” tries to bring in a variety of perspectives to the American West that challenge dominant views. For example, Patricia Nelson Limerick, one of the writers in the book, argues that “the West originated in the minds of people who were just passing through, people who saw only a little and who still wrote as if they knew the whole.” So fascinating. Think of how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle depicted Utah and the surrounding desert.

    Can’t wait to hear how your course goes! Thanks for making me think with this post. 🙂


  2. bjmcshane says:

    it’s an American Lit Survey focused on the frontier. I’m getting the book you recommended from the library–thanks! how do you know so much? you’re amazingly well read. I’ll post my latest version of the syllabus–still struggling with the texts–on my blog.
    I like the idea of the internet as the new west. Oh and I love Limerick’s stuff. she’s done very good work in new history.
    btw, you got some props yesterday at Susan Hafen’s presentation 🙂


  3. Let me know if you enjoy some of the essays in that book!

    I actually read it for a directed readings course I did with Dr. Crimmel. I called it New Readings of the American West (so original) and read all sorts of great stuff. Gloria Anzuldua’s “Borderlands,” Limerick’s “A Legacy of Conquest.”

    I got the idea from the writer Tom Spanbauer. He wrote a revisionist/historical fiction novel called “The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon.” It’s set in Idaho around gold rush times and absolutely rocks. I’ve read it so many times. Probably one of my favorite books.

    I hope Dr. Hafen’s presentation went well! I’m very flattered that she mentioned me. I told her she didn’t have to do that. She’s such a nice person.

    I would love to see your syllabus for this class. That way I can get some great new book ideas. 🙂


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