At my urban university in the Intermountain West, English majors enter a course called Literature of the American West with expectations formed from a global media culture of genre paperbacks and Hollywood films. They are skeptical about the literary value of popular forms such as westerns. Some fear that anything written for wide distribution and money must violate what Henry James called the artist's "conscience." James well knew his own answer when he asked about the nineteenth century Western writer Bret Harte some thirty years after the westerner's first success, "Has he continued to distil and dilute the wild West because the public would only take him as wild and Western, or. . .out of the necessity of his conscience?" (James 512).The opposition troubles both students and faculty at my university: Do literature and intellectual labor have to give up their "conscience" to seek the approval of a wide audience?1
This document was originally published by the New Jersey City University in Transformations: The Journal of Inclusive Scholarship and Pedagogy. Copyright restrictions may apply.
Penry, Tara. (2013). "When Students Write Literary History: Regionalism, Populism, and Literary Value in a Gold Rush Magazine". Transformations: The Journal of Inclusive Scholarship and Pedagogy, 24(1-2), 176-183.