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"There's no place like home": Geoff Ryman's Was and Turner's Myth of National Childhood

by Steffen Hantke

The "plot of a historical narrative," Hayden White has argued, "is always an embarrassment and has to be presented as "found" in the events rather than put there by narrative techniques" (21). The "odor of the ideal," which is presumably a foul one, hangs over "a world that is putatively "finished," done with, over, and yet not dissolved, not falling apart." Perhaps White's indictment of narrative as a neutral reflection of historical events accounts for the degree of hostility and admiration that has been directed toward Frederick Jackson Turner and his hypothesis of the frontier as the crucial determinant of the American experience. What is at stake for both admirers and detractors of Turner is not so much the truth or accuracy of the frontier hypothesis but rather that which White keeps referring to as "the impulse to moralize reality" (14), that is to say, "the need . . . to rank events with respect to their significance for the culture or group that is writing its own history" (10). That this "culture or group," which is in control of Turner's narrative, is a specific segment of America, and that therefore "the American experience" is properly speaking "their" American experience, is the reason for most of Turner's critics to reject his hypothesis as a unifying fiction. By telling a story about American history, Turner not only imposes a pre-established formula on a set of events but also, in the process, assigns meanings to these events that reflect an extraneous set of cultural interests and preoccupations. What White calls "the moralizing impulse" in all historical narrative Turner's critics will call by the far less flattering term--ideology--instead.

However, most of Turner's detractors find themselves in the difficult situation of having to argue against a historical narrative which, even if it did not sufficiently account for the period with which Turner is concerned, has held such a privileged position in the collective political unconscious that its explanatory reach seems virtually inescapable. As a central trope or metaphor in a larger legitimizing strategy, its influence has been felt in every expansionist project the US have been involved in during the twentieth century. As a self-fulfilling prophecy, it operates in the deepest structures of American exceptionalism, both as a social and as a psychological force. In order to resist Turner without dismissing him altogether, therefore, critics of the frontier hypothesis would need to intervene on the level of narrative if they hope to be successful. For it is here, according to Hayden White, that ideology is being manufactured. To participate in this rewriting of the frontier hypothesis, let me begin by asking the question which genre, so to speak, Turner chooses for his representation of American history. What type, or archetype, of story is the frontier hypothesis modeled upon? Which experiential paradigms make it intelligible for audiences of all colors and creeds? Is there an ahistorical, non-literal grounding for Turner's historiographic discourse? In other words, where does the foul "odor of the ideal" originate that has troubled critics of the frontier hypothesis all this time?

Right at the beginning of "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," Turner points out that he is about to describe a period that has just ended. It is not only one of many such periods in American history but the first one; nothing of any comparable significance precedes it. The "closing of a great historic movement," (1) as he calls it, opens up the possibility of its description, its critical dissection, and its ideological appropriation. This is the moment which grants the historian or the scholar the necessary critical distance. Turner's reference to "the bulletin of the Superintendent of the Census for 1890," cast in a language that itself carries governmental authority, makes it official that we, together with the speaker, can only conceive of the frontier as a historical event or process from which we are, by virtue of our late arrival to history, excluded.

Narrativizing history in this manner goes against the first instinct to presuppose that the present serves as a positive telos, the crowning achievement of the past. The present moment may answer to what Hayden White calls "the demand for closure in the historical story," (21) but if this closure does in fact provide "moral meaning" then its moral is not that every day in every way we all get better. As "sequences of events [are] assessed as to their significance as elements in a moral drama," the drama Turner unfolds for us is one characterized not by a sense of accomplishment but by a sense of loss. His rhetoric, the description of the frontier as a "great historic movement," leaves no doubt that Turner regards his subject with admiration, fondness, perhaps even with awe. It would be fair to describe Turner's sentimental telos as retrospective. Given the frontier's profound affect on both the individual and the national character of the United States, being present right there and then would have provided the opportunity to see history in the making, to observe the taking shape of the present in the aftermath of the nation's birth. As a historian, and as one who believes in the termination of the frontier period, Turner must have been sorry to have missed out on first-hand experience with this awesome historical force. Wishing that he could have been there, yet acknowledging that his own position of understanding and conceptualizing the frontier the way he does requires being shut out from it, are the preconditions of an intellectual and emotional attitude that can best be described as nostalgia.

As profound as this nostalgia might be, both as an intellectual and an emotional force behind Turner's thinking and that of his listeners in 1893 and subsequent readers, later historians have noted that nostalgia does not necessarily lead to clarity. In embracing the past we conjure up an image that justifies and meets the intensity of our desires. In the introduction to a collection of essays reassessing Turner's frontier thesis in 1968, Richard Hofstadter has noted that

precision has never been Turner's forte, and historians were not wanting to argue that his insights, though not devoid of truth, were rendered more or less useless by their elliptical statement. Even the frontier was not clearly and steadily defined; "the West" was vaguely and inconsistently used. (6)

A certain kind of vagueness, as much as it might have been Turner's personal shortcoming as a historian, characterize the state of mind I have described as nostalgia in general. Aware of its hopeless longing, nostalgia desires a past state of perfection that it knows it cannot attain or return to. Self-conscious futility is its most characteristic feature--knowing that what one wants one can never have. Passing through this screen of nostalgia, the image of the frontier loses the specificity, the sharp edges and clear outlines about whose lack Turner's successors and antagonists are complaining. Nevertheless, I would disagree with Hofstadter when he concludes that Turner's ideas are "rendered more or less useless by their elliptical statement." Contrary to what Hofstadter expects to find, however, Turner's frontier hypothesis has its use in the reading of American history, uses that are indebted more to myth than to history.

Turner's notion of the early, formative stage is of course deeply ingrained in Western mythology. His opening statement about the end of the frontier period also comes with the overtones of Christian allegory, i.e. the postlapsarian lament about being expelled from the Garden of Eden, a state of perfect harmony and bliss, a condition outside of history. But there is one crucial difference between the Garden of Eden and Turner's frontier. Eden remains present in our collective myth pool as an image of that which is lost. History does not extend seamlessly and consistently back through the moment when Eden is lost. The story of the Fall speaks of such irretrievable loss that the memory of what was lost has no formative impact on our present postlapsarian state. Surviving history at best as a faint utopian echo, it is by definition a past separate from and irreconcilable with the present. Turner's frontier, however, has the power of shaping the present. It is a stage in a process in which we are still involved, a step along the way. Its pastness is not imperative. Hence, a different metaphor of periodization must be at work.

This metaphor, which Turner is promoting and in which national history recapitulates individual biography, is that of the nation's childhood. Just as individuals on the frontier can recreate a period in their lives reminiscent of childhood, a moment of "freshness," as Turner himself calls it, so the nation as a whole was living through a formative period, accumulating experiences that would shape its later form, and acquiring a distinct and mature character along the way. The analogy works itself out in all aspects I have mentioned already: childhood is the first significant phase in an individual's development; nothing precedes it. It can never, in its full social and ideological dimensions, be experienced by the child. Only retrospectively do we gain access to "childhood as childhood," and then the experience, given the generally positive connotations that our culture places upon childhood, is generally one of loss and longing. Childhood, like the frontier period, is the moment from which the conscious subject is by definition excluded. Childhood can never be the object of self-reflexive criticism. Like the idea of a national character itself, which Turner must advocate in keeping with the inherent logic of his organizing metaphor, the frontier serves to personalize and anthropomorphize the otherwise impersonal and abstract processes of history.

In the interest of fairness as much as clarity, Turner needs to be credited with some awareness of his own function as a storyteller, even though this awareness is somewhat submerged in the rhetoric of serious historiography. Readers of the frontier article will quickly realize that Turner is self-consciously acknowledging the status of his hypothesis as narrative whenever he argues for its primacy over rivaling accounts of American exceptionalism, most notably the school that considers slavery and its historical and social ramifications as the mark that distinguishes America from other nations. In these passages, Turner does not argue about the validity of each theory's underlying facts. Instead his rhetoric is concerned with "finding the best story," the story that will explain it all, from demographics to national character.

Given Turner's self-conscious acknowledgment of his own role as myth maker, it becomes pointless to criticize him for not realizing that his discourse exceeds the epistemological and ontological requirements accepted by historians. Historians like Hofstadter, who criticise Turner for not being a good historian, have consequently been in the minority. They are outnumbered by critics like Richard Slotkin who openly acknowledge Turner's role as a fabricator of national myth. "The myth," Slotkin argues, "can be seen as an intellectual or artistic construct that bridges the gap between the world of the mind and the world of affairs, between dream and reality . . . It draws from the content of individual and collective memory, structures it, and develops from it imperatives for belief and action" (7). Understood as an "intellectual construct," Turner's hypothesis can simultaneously be intended by its author as proper historiography and understood by its audiences as a compelling metaphor for a a complex and morally bewildering historical reality.

It is on these same mythological grounds that the frontier hypothesis has been confronted and debunked. The genre of the Western, for instance, in which the frontier appeared to have found its most enduring home in popular culture, begun to lose its popularity after the 1950's. Its demise was accompanied by a series of anti-Westerns in which the frontier mythology in particular became the target of critical investigation. Rejecting Turner's vision of the frontier as the place where the nation's childhood played itself out is an essential ingredient of these films and novels. So essential, in fact, that contemporary texts in the wake of these anti-Westerns hardly need to reiterate the mythical nature of the frontier; it can be safely considered a given. For them, the path has been cleared to re-examine Turner, now not so much with the goal of debunking his ideas and dismissing him altogether as a fabricator of dangerous dreams, but instead with the possibility of discovering more complex, perhaps even redemptive readings of the myth of national childhood.

One such text, which by virtue of its great artistic accomplishment and insight into the process of myth-making deserves greater critical attention and public acclaim, is the 1992 novel Was by Canadian-born writer Geoff Ryman. At first glance, Was seems determined to debunk Turner's myth of the frontier as "The Lost Good Place" in the all-too familiar terms. Ryman paints a grim, naturalistic portrait of Kansas in the 1870s, a place of extreme physical and psychological hardship. The Kansas to which one of the novel's central characters, Dorothy Gael, is sent after her parents' death is a place of backbreaking labor, of constant physical discomfort from heat or cold, malnutrition or disease; a place of inconceivable isolation on the one hand--isolation that leads to mental and social depravities--and unforgiving, rigid, and exclusionary, almost punitive social structures on the other. Clearly, the writers lurking in the background of Ryman's depiction are such naturalists as Willa Cather, Hamlin Garland or Frank Norris, shot through with grotesque violence from the likes of Erskine Caldwell or Flannery O'Connor. It is a Kansas straight out of Michael Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip, where violence, suicide, and insanity seem to be the order of the day.

A crucial element of Ryman's portrayal of the frontier is his insistence on the genocidal and ecocidal consequences of European westward expansion. Toward the end of the book, Ryman describes a long nightmare of Dorothy's which plays out the apocalyptic allegory of westward expansion like a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Like the traveling companions on the road to the Emerald City, "America walked with them, westward out of the East" (350). Past the camps where "mounds of buffalo bones [were] bleaching in the sun," we encounter "Mechanical Woodsmen" who "couldn't keep themselves from cutting down the trees." As the pioneers "are pulling the East with them" (351), they refuse to acknowledge the destruction they have caused by worshipping "the things they had destroyed" (354): the buffalo, the Indian, "the child in the manger," and "the mother of the Child, but only because she was a virgin. All other women were bad" (354). Like the mechanized powers of progress, which are to remind us of the Tin Man, Christianity finds itself reflected in this grim secular version: "The Child hung, like a scarecrow, and the wood of the cross bent gently in the wind like a tree. . . and the Child stared like the buffalo." All the while, "Dorothy knew that by the time they got to the Territory, it would be gone, always advancing away from them like a rainbow" (351).

Ryman knows all too well that, even if his readers will not trace his critique back to Turner himself, they will be familiar with the ideological tradition he has inaugurated. In order to tap into this tradition, Ryman chooses The Wizard of Oz, with its mantra of a nostalgically enhanced Kansas, "There's no place like home." Its genealogy starts with L. Frank Baum's children's' book The Wizard of Oz, and eventually transforms itself, first with the MGM film and then with its annual broadcast on TV, into the full-blown secular myth and cultural icon we are all familiar with. At the end of this intertextual chain stands, for now, of course Ryman's novel itself, a fact I will return to later. As one version of the text inspires its reincarnation in a different medium--as Ryman himself puts it: "A book, a film, a television ritual, a thousand icons scattered through advertising, journalism, political cartoons, music, poetry" (368)--, the narrative is constructed around historically overlapping characters: Dorothy Gael meets L. Frank Baum during his brief stint as a substitute teacher in Kansas and thus becomes the real-life model for the Dorothy in Baum's children's book. While the success of the book inspires the film and thus recreates the child star Frances Gumm as the Hollywood fabrication Judie Garland in the role of Dorothy, the real Dorothy Gael, now suffering from senile dementia, ends her life in an institution where the discovery of who she really is leads a male nurse into a career as psychological counselor. This character turns out to be the doctor of a young actor named Jonathan whose lifelong dream of playing the scarecrow is brutally curtailed by his impending death through AIDS. His last days are spent in historical detective work, as he tries to determine the exact location of Dorothy Gael's house in Kansas. The moment Jonathan finds the spot where Dorothy Gael's and Frank Baum's biographies briefly intersect to create the story that has influenced his life he disappears inexplicably into the Kansas fields and thus, presumably, into the realm of myth, the land of Oz Wherever he disappeared to, he's certainly not in Kansas any more.

From this brief synopsis of the novel's rich and complex associative structure it should become clear that Ryman is extremely interested in the theme of childhood, its destruction or disappearance, and the relationship that we adults construct and sustain with it; and that Ryman examines childhood in the context of the frontier as Turner defines it. Adults and children are associated with the European settlers on the frontier and the Native American population--one group large and powerful, the other small and, despite its slyness, in need of protection. In one scene, which therefore resonates with the Munchkins hiding from the Witch, Dorothy dreams that there was a war between children and adults. Adults were hunting children across the landscape, on wagons and horseback. The children had to hide under the leaves. If the adults caught you, they made you a slave like in ancient Egypt. But if it was your parents who caught you, then they killed you. (211)

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This condition is not restricted to the harsh, exceptional conditions on the frontier. "In each of the films" Jonathan stars in "all of the adults were either fools or drunks . . . They had failed their children utterly. The children were left to defend themselves" (284). Childhood, in other words, is not, and never has been, a safe place. Violence is inflicted either by open hostility or neglect.

Since childhood is a cultural construct rather than authentic experience, believing and propagating the opposite of this vision is, for Ryman, a matter of deliberate choice. Unlike Turner, Ryman reminds us that childhood is a condition of utter dependency and vulnerability because children do not exist in an ideal and idyllic state of isolation. Just as childhood is constructed by adults, children are always surrounded by adults. Adults hold both the physical and the discursive power over children. As with other disenfranchised groups, children must be represented since they cannot represent themselves, at least for as long as they function as elements in the sentimental narrative of "childhood." Consequently, the adults' power manifests itself as violence. As Jonathan's professional alter ego, the fictional celebrity child killer Mort, puts it in a hallucinatory moment, "A country is like a child. Smooth and new and virginal until Daddy slashes its face" (302). Whereas adult males in Baum's children's book, as psychoanalyst Justin Call observes, are "in some state of disrepair, incomplete in their anatomy (Harmetz 312), and thus non-threatening once they are exposed for their weaknesses, Ryman has them repair themselves at the expense of children. They either resort to open violence, as Uncle Henry does when he molests Dorothy, or by abandoning them to the dangers of the world, as Frances Gumm's father does when his homosexuality leads to the dissolution of his family.

Consequently, Ryman's discourse reassesses Dorothy's euphoric mantra, "There's no place like home," puts a new spin on it, and, in the process, desentimentalizes it for the reader. Collective and individual traumatic experiences of individual characters illustrate that "home" is neither a place of shelter and security, nor one of permanence or transcendence. Corndale, Jonathan's home, "had disappeared" when it was "swallowed up by an administrative fiction called Missasauga" (299). The congregation of a town called Magic, not far from Dorothy Gael's home in Kansas, has to move "when the Army base took over" and changed the location's name, in the military's laconic jargon, into a "Drop Zone" (4). As a consequence of these incessant reminders of the fragility of "home," the meaning of Dorothy's reassuring phrase changes from, "There is no place as good as home," to, "There is no such place as 'home.'" Just as in my rephrasing of the statement, Ryman shifts the ontological status of the term "home" to a meta-level of his discourse. It occurs as a function of the characters' rather than the narrator's thinking, not as a given but as an object of critical reflection. Hence, if the novel can refer to "home" at all, it must bracket it as a local phenomenon of limited ontological presence and integrity.

To conclude, however, that Ryman leaves no space whatsoever in his portrayal of our grim national past would fall short of the novel's complexity. Despite the scathing attacks on both the glamorization of frontier life and the integrity of the metaphor of national childhood, Ryman ultimately insists on a utopian space to which human beings can escape from the devastating forces of collective history and individual biography, a space not unlike the frontier as Turner imagines it. Just that, unlike Turner, he does not assign a specific geographical location to this space. This unwillingness to associate "home" with a specific place implicated in the processes of history opens up a third reading of the sentence: "There is no exact geographical location that is by definition 'home'."). Given his historical and cultural vantage point, Ryman understands much better than Turner that insisting on the mythical location of "home" is necessary for keeping the concept uncontaminated by historical visions of conquest and genocide. The references to the Cold War, to missile silos around Manhattan, Kansas, to drop zones and nuclear annihilation, that are scattered all over the text of Was serve as a reminder that "home" can function as an aggressive rhetorical strategy in separating friend from foe. Historian Tom Engelhardt's analysis of American national mythology during the Cold War puts Ryman's objectives into context. "Simply by circling the "wagons,"" Engelhardt writes, "Americans could now create a sense of home anywhere they were; and since they were always potentially at home, any act against an American automatically put all Americans in the position of having their boundaries violated" (27).

What Ryman is pursuing and exploring is the idea that "home" is neither an absolute nor a safely and steadily localizable entity. To identify it with the frontier, or as characters in the novel repeatedly do, with Dorothy Gael's Kansas, is therefore mystification of the most dangerous kind. Dorothy Gael, perpetually retained at age five by looks like senile dementia at one moment and like a conscious strategy of warding off the unbearable reality around her the next, distinguishes between the two kinds of myth making that Ryman wants us to recognize as obscuring history in one case and illuminating it in another. Kansas "is nowhere at all" but also "right where everyplace else meets" (250): as Dotty speaks these words in a moment of utter clarity, she points to her head, the seat of the imagination. The imaginary, nostalgically remembered Kansas, however, becomes synonymous at this moment with Dotty's mental state of confusion. When another character, whose name ironically enough is Heritage, indulges her predicament condescendingly, she comments: "He'll never leave Kansas" (251).

Against this imaginary Kansas, which reenacts Turner's conflating myth and history in his description of "the frontier," Ryman plots another mythic location. Its name is Oz. Since the novel creates meaning by metaphorical agglutination if you will, the meaning of the word Oz keeps shifting within a sequence of new contexts. In the opening pages of the novel we encounter it through Jonathan's eyes as he discovers a map of the area in the Manhattan, Kansas airport. The "ambiguously rounded" (4) letters DZ, which mark the drop zones of the thermonuclear arsenal stationed around Fort Riley and thus ominously foretell complete human and ecological annihilation, look like the word Oz, particularly since they appear next to a no-longer-existent town named Magic, Kansas.

Part and parcel of this creative misprision is the second reading of the word, which is the novel's title, Was. "The world was haunted," Ryman tells us. "It needed to be haunted. The land of Was was cradled in the arms of Now like a child. Was made Now tender. Death made life precious" (359). Frank Baum's promise at the end of the novel, made when he himself was a child, is to remember always what it is like to be a child. Given the ambiguous nature of childhood as a place of suffering and bliss, "the land of Was" implies a kind of contract that all myths must reflect this ambiguous nature.

The richest etymological variant of the word Oz, however, is introduced during Frank Baum's brief stint as a substitute teacher at Dorothy Gael's school. Instead of following the curriculum, he decides to teach the children the Turkish language. Asked what his own name, Frank, is in Turkish, Baum utters a word that sounds like "Ooze" or "Uz" to the children. He goes on to explain:

It means a lot of other things as well. It means 'real and genuine.' It means 'pure and unadulterated.' It means 'kernel and cream,' and it means 'self.' It is the root word for 'yearning' and for 'homesickness' and for all the things that people want. It also happens to be the original name of the Turks, . . . a tribe called the Uz, or the Uzbeks. Or the Oz, and they came out of the wilderness. (171)

To this, Dorothy Gael replies, "You mean like the Indians?" and Baum's answer reaffirms Oz as a utopian space onto which everything that Dorothy is being denied--a sense of identity contingent on a sense of place; in other words, Home--can be projected. I say "projected" because Baum's terms "homesickness" and "yearning" already modify this space as always receding, always out of reach. Although Turkey is a mythical alternative to history because it "is a country where . . . the Indians won," it can only be a home in the sense that Home is always elsewhere. The moment "Home" is being identified with a specific geographic location, like the ever-receding frontier, it becomes an ideological tool in the service of insatiable expansionism. The pursuit of Utopia, which a critic like Jack Zipes in his book Creative Storytelling upholds as the central politically and psychologically ennobling and educational message in The Wizard of Oz, can thus quickly degrade into a thinly disguised and thus even more shameless grab for hegemony (182-3).

Ryman's novel, which is clearly meant for adults, inserts itself into an intertextual lineage that switches back and forth between texts meant for children and texts meant for adults. Addressing childhood as one of his central themes, Ryman's decision to examine serious issues in a manner only fit for an adult audience, yet through the lens of an intertextual network associated with children as readers, suggests that we should pay attention to the difference between both audiences and the texts intended for them. Is it possible that adult audiences are led, or manipulated if you will, into reading like children, perhaps without even being aware of it (and if so, is that necessarily an objectionable endeavor)? Is the distinction between the adult and the child as implied reader a clear-cut dichotomy: myth as a consolation for children; history as the harsh reality for adults; escape for children, confrontation for adults, etc.?

The distinction I am aiming for here is that between a text that invites its reader to be childish and one that encourages being infantile. The simplicity that characterizes a text intended for children is not the same as simple-mindedness. It engages the adult reader on a different level than a text whose complexity marks it as intended for adults. This level is more readily accessible but none the less crucial to the adult reading experience, which explains why grownups can still enjoy reading certain children's books or watch, for that matter, the film version of The Wizard of Oz. Our reading of these texts will be richer than the child's, but the increased depth of our reading need not undercut or close off the level on which the text is geared toward children. That is to say, it does not have to invalidate utopian desire. The good and simple place which language allows us to revisit--be it through the constructions of our individually remembered childhood or our collectively remembered past on the frontier--remains accessible. But "access" presupposes an outside to whatever we are entering, and this outside, this context, is what Ryman's novel provides us with. It reminds us that there is a metaphorical level to language from which we enter its literal level; that there is a mythical side to historiography from which we enter history; and that there is an adulthood from which we enter childhood.

If, to quote Ryman, the "land of Was [is] cradled in the arms of Now like a child," then we are the guardians of the past. Contrary to common wisdom, our fore-"fathers" are not our fathers but the children entrusted to us. First of all, the metaphor suggests that Was is intended for us, the contemporaries, the adults. But even though it is not intended to recover the past and thus return its readers to childhood, its intertextual horizon suggests that Ryman wants us to bring this level of our reading expertise into play. In other words, we are invited to read the past like the children we ourselves to have been. However, this reading must not be oblivious of the circumstances that allow it to take place. It needs to be contextualized through a critical awareness of the present--a challenge Ryman extends not only to himself and his readers but also to Turner in 1893 and the tradition he inaugurates.

To use Was and its terminology, reading like a child without this context means producing Kansas rather than Oz. It means producing false innocence, bad faith, or mystification. It means distancing us from history rather than confronting us with it. It means that a statement like "There's no place like home" will mean that there are no credible or useful myths, no utopias worthwhile pursuing, at all. In this context, Ryman's statement that "Dorothy knew that by the time they got to the Territory, it would be gone, always advancing away from them like a rainbow" (351) marks the futility of pursuing unattainable utopian ideals. However, if we read the frontier's elusive advancement through Griswold's interpretation of "There's no place like home"--i.e. "There's no place but home"--we aggressively declare dominance over the world as a place to be shaped in order to fit our psychological needs, no matter what the consequences might be. The frontier's steady retreat does not discourage but invite the pioneers to march on. The vacuum it creates as it recedes into the distance pulls them, and us, forward. Instead of a culturally and historically determined will to power, it is this natural(ized) force that can be held accountable for westward expansion. Unless contextualized properly the metaphor of childhood legitimizes either dissociation from history or aggressive, maybe even violent agency in it.

When Ryman concludes, in an afterword to the novel entitled "Reality Check," that "it is necessary to distinguish between history and fantasy wherever possible," in order to "use them against each other" (369), his words resonate with the approach of fellow writer Robert Kroetsch. Characterized by critic Stephen Slemon as magical realism, Kroetsch's writing, and by implication Ryman's own, responds to "a condition of being both tyrannized by history yet paradoxically cut off from it, caught between absolute systems of blind cognition and projected realms of imaginative revision in which people have no control" (418). Born in Canada and currently living in England, Ryman appears to share a sense of marginality with his fellow Canadian Kroetsch. Connected so crucially to the dogma of American exceptionalism, Turner's frontier hypothesis includes Canada at best as an extension of, or as a silent footnote to, American history. Ryman demonstrates that he is acutely aware of his position by writing himself into the novel as Jonathan the actor. Just as Jonathan grows up with Dale Evans, Roy Rogers, and, of course, the annual broadcast of The Wizard of Oz on TV, Ryman makes the significant decision as a Canadian writer not to write about Canada but about the most American of themes, the frontier. His view is that of the outsider, the marginal, the subaltern, the liminal. Initiated into American culture as historical outsiders, writers like Ryman could very well turn out to be the most acute critics of American culture. They are less likely to be "tyrannized by history but paradoxically cut off from it" because they enter history, particularly when it is written by American cultural imperialism, with the awareness that it has an outside. Against the constraining assertion that we are always and permanently confined within history, Ryman argues that we must enter into it, not just once but whenever we want to claim agency in it. The moment we enter into history, however, we do not mature from childhood to adulthood, to use the biological and thus deterministic metaphor. Instead, if we follow Ryman's clue, we enter history as an ideological construct, much like childhood. It is a place that may look simple and peaceful, but its serenity is hard-earned, arising from great complexity and struggle.


- Responses -

From Bruce Stewart, National University of Singapore :-
I appreciated Steffen Hantke's "There's No Place Like Home."  I am struggling to write a book on the discourse of American exceptionalism--from a perspective that it, like the frontier--is a "something" that has never/no longer existed.  The imprecise "concept" which may/may not have been appropriate for describing/explaining the peculiarities of some Americans' experience/interpretation of their history is no longer "usefull" for telling the story of the united states. American exceptionalism, like the frontier, seems expressive of childishness but is also expressive of conscious efforts to repress violence in nation-building, identity-formation.  (and so it goes...)