Sections: Introduction | The Northeast | The South | The Midwest | The West

The west is a country of the mind, and so eternal.

Archibald MacLeish, "Sweet Land of Liberty"

Western literature captures the spirit of the half of the continent beyond the Mississippi River, a landscape that consists of many regions--the High Plains, the Southwest, the Rocky Mountains, the Great Basin, the Pacific Northwest, and California. Gifted writers have flourished in each.

Like the land, the literature of the West is open and expansive. In Language of the Land, western writers convey the wonder that the spectacle of such a vast land elicits: John Steinbeck describes a lush spring in the Salinas Valley, William Stafford the stillness of Wyoming, and an anonymous Native American writer the beauty of a Southwestern dawn and sunset. These and other writers have created characters that have become legends: Owen Wister's Virginian, first of a long line of tough and self-reliant cowboy heroes; and Jack London's Buck, the rugged Alaskan sled dog.

New Mexico desert highway 70

The true West differs from the East in one great pervasive, influential and awesome way: space. The vast openness changes the road, towns, houses, farms, crops, machinery, politics, economics, and naturally, ways of thinking . . . Those spaces diminish man and reduce his blindness to the immensity of the universe; they push him to a greater reliance on himself . . . at the same time, to a greater awareness of others and what they do. . . . No one, not even the sojourner, escapes the expanses.

William Least Heat Moon, Blue Highways

New Mexico desert highway 70. June 1938. Dorothea Lange, Photographer. FSA-OWI Collection. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress (64)

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Grand Canyon of the Colorado River Arizona

The reactions of dogs and poets on the rim [of the Grand Canyon] are suggestive. Dogs, having no way of reasserting their doggish scale, very often get the shakes. Poets begin at once to put the canyon into words, and thus make it behave in a way that poets can understand.

Wallace Stegner, The Grand Colorado

Grand Canyon of the Colorado River Arizona, 1940. Russell Lee, Photographer. FSA-OWI Collection. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress (64b)

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Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Skyline

Along the storied Sacramento river on a superhighway; into the hills again; up, down; and suddenly the vast expense of bay (it was just before dawn) with the sleepy lights of Frisco festooned across. . . . there she was Frisco--long bleak streets with trolley wires all shrouded in fog and whiteness.

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

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Glacier National Park Montana

Mountainous chains and peaks in every variety of perspective, every hue of vista, fringe the view, in nearer, or middle, or far-dim distance, or fade on the horizon. We have now reach'd, penetrated the Rockies, . . . they typify stretches and areas of half the globe--are in fact the vertebrae or back-bone of our hemisphere.

Walt Whitman, "America's Backbone," in Specimen Days

Glacier National Park Montana. August 1941. Marion Post Wolcott, Photographer. FSA-OWI Collection. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress (65)

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Hood River Valley Oregon

Driving north from Seattle on Highway 99 is an exciting experience because suddenly you see the Cascade mountains rising on the northeast horizon. . . . The great peaks covered with trackless white, world of huge rock twisted and heaped and sometime almost spiraled into fantastic unbelievable shapes. All this is seen far above the dreaming field of the Stilaquamish and Skagit valleys, agricultural flats of peaceful green, the soil so rich and dark it is proudly referred to by inhabitants as second only to the Nile in fertility.

Jack Kerouac, Lonesome Traveller

Hood River Valley Oregon. September 1941. Russell Lee, Photographer. FSA-OWI Collection. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress (66)

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Wyoming Literary Map

The entire state is in reality a mountain and its ranges are merely the peaks of the mountain. One hour you are traveling through hot plains, the next you are in the cool recesses of incredible hills. Thousands of people cross southern Wyoming every year convinced it is a semidesert state, They do not know that to the north and south of them . . . all around them . . . are green valleys and greener forests and luminous uplands.

Struthers Burt, Powder River: Let 'Er Buck

Wyoming Literary Map. Eugene V. Moran, Compiler; Ken Clubb, Illustrator. Laramie: University of Wyoming, 1984. Courtesy of Eugene V. Moran. Geography & Map Division, Library of Congress (67)

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Cattle gate and grazing land on a ranch Buford, Wyoming

This land so wide, so gray, so still that
it carries you free--no one here need bother
except for their own breathing. You touch
a fencepost and the world steadies onward:
barbed wire, field, you, night.

William Stafford, "It's Like Wyoming"

Cattle gate and grazing land on a ranch Buford, Wyoming. September 1941. Marion Post Wolcott, Photographer. FSA-OWI Collection. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress (68)

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The John Steinbeck Map of America

It was a deluge of a winter in the Salinas Valley, wet and wonderful. The rains fell gently and soaked in and did not freshet. The feed was deep in January, and in February the hills were fat with grass and the coats of the cattle looked tight and sleek. In March the soft rains continued, and each storm waited courteously until its predecessor sank beneath the ground. The warmth flooded the valley and the earth burst into bloom--yellow and blue and gold.

John Steinbeck, East of Eden

The John Steinbeck Map of America. Jim Wolnick, Illustrator. Los Angeles: Aaron Blake, 1986. Courtesy of Molly Maguire and Aaron Silverman. Geography & Map Division, Library of Congress (70)

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Migrant from Chickasaw, Oklahoma stalled on the desert in southern California

The people in flight streamed out on 66, sometimes a single car, sometimes a little caravan. All day they rolled slowly along the road, and at night they stopped near water. In the day ancient leaky radiators sent up columns of steam, loose connecting rods hammered and pounded. And the men driving the trucks and the overloaded cars listened apprehensively. How far between towns. If something breaks. . . .

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

Migrant from Chickasaw, Oklahoma stalled on the desert in southern California. March 1937. Dorothea Lange, Photographer. FSA-OWI Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress (71)

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Oklahoma: Celebration of Literature

A single knoll rises out of the plain in Oklahoma, north and west of the Wichita Range. For my people, the Kiowas, it is an old landmark, and they gave it the name Rainy Mountain. . . . Loneliness is an aspect of the land. All things in the plain are isolate; there is no confusion of objects in the eye, but one hill or one tree or one man. To look upon that landscape in the early morning, with the sun at your back, is to lose the sense of proportion. Your imagination comes to life, and this, you think, is where Creation was begun.

N. Scott Momaday, The Way to Rainy Mountain

Oklahoma: Celebration of Literature. Judy Sprinkle, Illustrator. Norman: Oklahoma State Department of Education, 1983. Courtesy of the Oklahoma State Department of Education. Geography & Map Division, Library of Congress (73)

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The Literary Map of Los Angeles

The violet hush of twilight was descending over Los Angeles as my hostess, Violet Hush, and I left its suburbs headed towards Hollywood. In the distance a glow of huge piles of burning motion-picture scripts lit up the sky. The crisp tang of frying writers and directors whetted my appetite. How good it was to be alive, I thought, inhaling deep lungfulls of carbon monoxide.

S.J. Perelman, Strictly from Hunger

The Literary Map of Los Angeles. Linda Ayriss, Illustrator. Los Angeles: Aaron Blake, 1987. Courtesy of Molly Maguire and Aaron Silverman. Geography & Map Division, Library of Congress (75)

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Washington Writers

The land was not the arctic waste commonly envisioned, but a fertile paradise; Puget Sound, said one rhapsodic report, was "the Mediterranean of the Northwest."

David Lavender, Land of Giants

Washington Writers. Washington State Council of Teachers of English, 1989. Courtesy of the Washington State Council of Teachers of English. Geography & Map Division, Library of Congress (77)

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Moonlight desert scene, Pinal County, Arizona

In the house made of dawn,
In the house made of sunset light
In the house made of rain cloud
With beauty before me, I walk
With beauty behind me, I walk
With beauty all around me, I walk.

Navajo Nightway ceremonial chant, quoted in Tony Hillerman, The Great Taos Bank Robbery and Other Indian Country Affairs

Moonlight desert scene, Pinal County, Arizona. 1935-1940. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress (78)

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The Virginian from America's First Western Novel Written by Owen Wister

It was now the Virginian's turn to bet, or leave the game, and he did not speak at once. Therefore Trampas spoke. "Your bet, you son-of-a----." The Virginian's pistol came out, and his hand lay on the table, holding it unaimed. And with a voice as gentle as ever, the voice that sounded almost like a caress, but drawling a very little more than usual, so that there was almost a space between each word, he issued his order to the man Trampas:--"When you call me that, smile!"

Owen Wister, The Virginian

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Moonlight desert scene, Pinal County, Arizona. 1935-1940. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress (78)

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