Worldviews and the American West: The Life of the Place Itself

Edited by Polly Stewart, Steve Siporin, C.W. Sullivan III andamp; Suzi Jones. 2000. Logan: Utah State University Press. 257 pages.

Reviewed by Lisa Gabbert, Utah State University

[Review length: 650 words • Review posted in 2001]

[Cover ofWorldviews and the American West: The Life of the Place Itself]

According to the introduction, Worldviews and the American West began life as a festschrift for Barre Toelken nearly ten years ago. As former Toelken students, the editors anthologized the writings of many prominent western folklorists such as Hal Cannon, James Griffith, Margaret K. Brady, and William A. Wilson on topics near and dear to Toelken’s heart: the west, the idea of place, and worldview—each a heady subject in its own right. In true Toelkenian fashion, the contributors “sought to see with the many ‘native eyes’ that look outward into the western landscape and make different senses of it” (3). Though the publication lacks a dedication page, the sentiment and esteem the contributors have for Toelken is clear in the introductory remarks.

The book is divided into a number of different parts. Most importantly, perhaps, it begins and ends with sections called “personal essay.” The introductory essay, originally published in 1998, was written by Barry Lopez and is entitled “The Language of Animals.” In it, Lopez outlines how his deeply-felt sense of place is tied to his personal relationships with animals, and he suggests that animals have a lot to say to people, if only people would learn to hear them. By including animals in our worldview, says Lopez, humans could have a radically expanded definition of community and reorganize hierarchies of knowledge. The concluding essay by Kim Stafford was originally published in 1997. Stafford writes about his experiences with Gypsy Slim, Abe Johnson, and Marge Severy and what he has learned from them. Taken together as the anthology’s bookends, the authors ask us to consider what we might learn from beings placed on the margins of society, in one case, animals, and in the other, the homeless or local eccentrics.

Other essays scatted throughout the book also carry this personal tone. Twilo Scofield, for example, details what it was like to grow up as the child of a logger in Foster, Oregon. George Venn writes about the time when, as a boy, he accompanied his evangelical stepfather to “preach to the Indians” in the Upper Skagit Valley in Washington state. Venn writes that it was years before he understood the Upper Skagits’ response in song to the event. This personal dimension is particularly appropriate given the book’s subject matter, since one of the very few common threads that one can draw about the west is that people express a deeply personal relationship to it—and tradition after all, as Toelken and many others have rightly argued, begins in individual experience and meaning.

The next three sections of the book are based on specific folklore genres. One is called “Song,” another “Objects,” and a third, “Narrative.” The essays vary greatly in subject matter, ranging from a comparison of the ballad of Jesse James with the classic Robin Hood ballads to a lovely translation of a Tlingit Raven narrative recorded from the contributor’s grandmother in Alaska. A number of the articles in the “Objects” section focus on marketing and mass culture, examining Forest Lawn cemetery, Barbie dolls, and tall tale postcards, although there is an article on folk saints as well. The next to the last section is called “Groups” and focuses on particular groups found throughout the west: Mormons, loggers, miners, women pioneers, and Native Americans.

Overall, the contributions are short and jargon-free, making them a pleasure to read. While many of the authors discuss competing or different worldviews, or outline the worldview of one particular perspective, few directly discuss worldview as an analytical concept and there is little discussion about how the American West as an object of study is understood and conceived. It seems rather that the authors focus on the description or understanding of one particular kind of worldview or set of worldviews and are content to let the reader draw his/her own conclusions, which is probably the best strategy for an anthology on so complex a topic.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.