In Failed Frontiersmen, James Donahue writes that one of the founding and most persistent mythologies of the United States is that of the American frontier. Looking at a selection of twentieth-century American male fiction writers—E. L. Doctorow, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Ishmael Reed, Gerald Vizenor, and Cormac McCarthy—he shows how they reevaluated the historical romance of frontier mythology in response to the social and political movements of the 1960s (particularly regarding the Vietnam War, civil rights, and the treatment of Native Americans). Although these writers focus on different moments in American history and different geographic locations, the author reveals their commonly held belief that the frontier mythology failed to deliver on its promises of cultural stability and political advancement, especially in the face of the multicultural crucible of the 1960s.
James Donahue's Failed Frontiersmen is a brilliant and close examination of post-1960s historical novels and their obsession with changing ideals of American masculinity. Donahue interrogates the persistence of masculine heroification in a collection of important texts from authors as wide-ranging as John Barth and Cormac McCarthy and illuminates their fixation on stories of failed masculinity within the hypermasculine and distinctly racialized spaces of various historical American frontiers. The detailed readings given to each novel, the analysis of the role of the frontier chronotope, and the critique of the figure of the frontiersman in these texts make an important and insightful contribution to masculinity and gender studies and to the ongoing process of mythologizing and demythologizing American history.
James J. Donahue, coeditor with Derek C. Maus of Post-Soul Satire: Black Identity after Civil Rights, is Associate Professor of English and Communication at the State University of New York at Potsdam.