Literary Conquista: The Southwest as a Literary Emblem


The discussion of an author's use of "region" is a relatively recent phenomenon, which became possible only with the rise of realism. It would seem silly to denounce Shakespeare for stranding characters on the shore of Bohemia, a region far from any navigable sea, or to criticize Dante for misrepresenting the topography of hell. These are clearly self-contained symbolical constructions, of which we ask only internal consistency. But when Tony Hillerman resolves the mystery in Listening Woman by having his detective, Leaphorn, discover the criminals in a cave with stalagmites on the shore of Lake Powell, some readers chided him severely: not only are there no 'caves on the San Juan arm of the lake, they pointed out, there could not be any, since the rock there is sandstone and such caves form only in limestone. These readers knew the region and expected it to be faithfully reproduced.
Such an objection is possible only if one accepts one of the fundamental conventions of realist fiction: the pretense that it is not fiction. Early realist writers often constructed elaborate disguises for their fiction to allow the reader to indulge in the delusion that he was not wasting his time on "mere fiction," or "lies": they added prefaces and footnotes identifying the text as letters from the heroine, as a diary, as an anonymous manuscript found in an attic, etc. There are plausible explanations for this convention in the unacknowledged ideology of middle-class readers; today's readers, however, are conditioned enough to settle for a realistic style to create the expectation of verisimilitude and allow them to "believe" the author, "believe the author" in the same way that they would a textbook on the region's culture, on its topography, climate, etc. Hence travel agencies offer tours to "James Herriot Country" in Great Britain, to "Zane Grey Country" or to Monument Valley as "Western Country," and customers are satisfied if the region looks as described in their novels and films, and feel cheated if it does not.
What these pervasive conventions of realism disguise is, of course, that even realistic art is still "art-ificial," i.e. that its parts, its details–and "region" is one of them–are determined by internal esthetic purposes and not by external considerations of verisimilitude. Verisimilitude may occur, but only incidentally. Perhaps it is possible to learn about bovine bone structure from a Georgia O'Keefe painting, but that is hardly its raison d'être. It seems likely that one will learn something about the climate of the Southwest from an Edward Abbey novel, but the primary function of the region in that novel is something quite different and more complex. In realistic fiction, as in all fiction, region is used symbolically, i.e. it is used, even exploited, for the connotations and suggestive overtones it can contribute to the work's overall meaning. These contributions can come either from qualities inherent in the region–e.g. wide-open spaces or narrow canyons, a harsh climate or pleasant weather–or qualities established through literary or cultural traditions or clich6s. Examples are "Hispanics are less greedy–or don't work as hard," or "life in the Southwest is always sunny–or the Southwest sun is a deadly force" or "Indians have great wisdom and flowery rhetoric–or are pitiful alcoholics."
I have taken these examples from this region because no other literary region in America, perhaps, indeed, in the world, has proven as durable and as universal as the Southwest. The fact that it was easy to find complementary opposing qualities suggests a possible explanation: the Southwest appears to be a region whose universal appeal is adaptable enough to accommodate a great variety of visions and artistic requirements by allowing emphasis on different aspects without radically altering the overall import. This paper is an attempt to illustrate how two very different writers from two very different times and cultures have managed to "conquer" the Southwest for their fictional world, to exploit those features, qualities, and connotations of the Southwest that fit their particular visions, as well as the visions of their widely different audiences. I have selected two writers working in popular genres because popular literature exemplifies this symbolic use of region most clearly. It relies for its success on the repetition and reconfirmation of thought patterns and constellations, of collective dreams and nightmares shared by writer and audience. It, therefore, allows one to speculate not just about the individual motivation of the author, but to attempt more general conclusions about the culture in which these works succeed.
Karl May (1842-1912) was the most successful German author of all time. By 1978 his works had sold more than seventy million copies worldwide. Since then the copyright has expired, and innumerable additional copies have been sold. Indeed ever since his death his works have kept a separate publishing house devoted to nothing but Karl May's work operating profitably through two world wars, a depression, and the relocation from East Germany. Though virtually unknown to the English-speaking public,1 his books have been translated into all other major languages and many minor ones. Readers as varied as Albert Schweitzer, Hermann Hesse, and Albert Einstein spoke with praise–and a bit of nostalgia–about their reading of May's works, and Hitler is said to have recommended them to his generals, all seventy-some volumes in his personal library. In 1962 Der Spiegel called May's influence "greater than that of any other German author between Goethe and Thomas Mann."2 Even if we allow for some journalistic hyperbole, this judgment is hard to resist. The U.S. State Department certainly seemed to agree, for as late as 1965 it was recommending May's works to its personnel as helpful in understanding German views of America.
This view of America is embodied in some fifteen novels set in the American West in the 1860s and '70s. This is only one-fifth of May's output, but is by far the most popular part. The other books have very similar adventure plots, but as they are mostly set in the region of today's Middle East, their overall effect is quite different.
The American theme was well established with German audiences by the time May started writing. The first half of the nineteenth century saw the rapid growth of popular literature, often in the form of serials distributed by travelling book peddlers, and popular contract writers eagerly capitalized on the success of writers such as Cooper and Chateaubriand. Thus May is only the most successful and enduring of a long series of writers taking advantage of this tradition, which continues to the present day. He could take over, recycle, and in turn reinforce many conventions of the familiar Western: his serial protagonist and his Tonto-like or Chinchagook-like Indian sidekick roam the open West from Texas to Montana in an endless series of conflicts with bad guys and their Indian allies. But upon this familiar pattern May imposes some distinctly different features to claim this region–which he never saw in person-for his and his audience's sensibility and imagination.
An obvious change occurs in the appearance of the region. While the American Western uses the open spaces, the harsh, clear light, and the wide vistas as an emblem for the clarity of the moral conflict, May's West is a much more deceptive locale. While there is a good deal of riding on the prairie, May's prairie is always full of numerous places of hidden evil: mountains, valleys, canyons, caves, subterranean passages, or at least patches of vegetation from which sudden attacks can be and are launched, and from which both sides continuously spy on each other. There is a constant sense of paranoia; to be out in the open in May's West is to be vulnerable, and his protagonist (who quickly acquires the nom de guerre "Old Shatterhand" when he knocks out an angry bison with one blow) needs more than physical strength and superior marksmanship to survive and to rescue his friends.
This constant sense of insecurity and the braggadocio necessary to cover it up make May's protagonist quite different from his American counterpart: whereas the American Western hero reveals his superiority only reluctantly, Old Shatterhand has a constant need to prove himself. The opening of Winnetou, the book that introduces him, is called "A Greenhorn," and the book is structured as a series of tests in which Old Shatterhand demonstrates his superiority in area after area. For his readers he thus symbolizes the newly emerging Germany, triumphing in skills and morals over her well-established competitors in the conquest of a new world.
Villains of the American Western tend to be straightforward, given to simple offenses like cattle rustling, stage coach holdups, or insulting women, all in plain daylight, offenses which can be dealt with simply, and only by death in a fair shoot-out. In May's Westerns the villains typically wear disguises, pursue elaborate confidence schemes, and are particularly active at night. Old Shatterhand is therefore forever sneaking around their campfires, spying out their plans and thwarting their schemes by trapping his opponents in a narrow valley or canyon. The sense of paranoia is therefore complemented by a sense of confinement and imprisonment that constantly threatens man in this region, a sense quite inimical to the feeling of openness and space we usually associate with the Southwest. May's heroes, of course, always escape from the traps, while the villains are forced to acknowledge Old Shatterhand's superiority, agree to his terms, and are then released with a stem warning on their promise of better behavior.
As a plot device this serves to keep the story going, because the really hard-core villains naturally violate their promises, seek revenge, and thus create the opportunity for further pursuit and adventures. But Old Shatterhand's reluctance to finish off his opponents Quickly–in the American Western always a mistake–is an important indication of his superior civilization: he frequently reminds his audience of the Christian basis for his reluctance to kill and of the need to give offenders the chance to go and sin no more. And success usually proves him right: when finally no more reprieve is possible for the villain, fate does the job for the protagonist: suicide, natural disaster, or horrible accidents dispose of the villain, revealing a patient but just providence underlying this universe.
Old Shatterhand thus prevails because he has civilization and education, not through a natural, innate nobility independent of civilization. While the American Western creates a West where civilization is brought in by uncivilized means, by violence and a prelegal or extralegal morality, May establishes a region where victory is the result of civilized standards and behavior: nonviolence and middle-class education, qualities dear to the hearts of his German readers.
Old Shatterhand therefore regularly flaunts his piety and his superior education. His math and geometry skills put to shame the Yankee surveyors when he is hired for the team surveying for the Southern Pacific Railroad. He foils a conspiracy by some Chinese coolies because he has studied Chinese and thus can listen in on their planning session; and when he and his party are stranded without water in the Llano Estacado his knowledge of physics and meteorology allows him to create rain. May's Southwest is thus not a region that is somehow better because civilization has not reached it, but rather a region where civilization, as education, can still show its natural superiority, a superiority invariably embodied by Germans.
Judging from May's image of the Southwest Germans were even more numerous there in the late nineteenth than in the late twentieth century. Some of them are naive, somewhat obtuse settlers, farmers to be rescued by Old Shatterhand and his German "westmen." But the more prominent ones generally turn out to be exiles who have left Germany to give their life meaning by carrying civilization to the Southwestern frontier, a region whose primitive savagery is embodied by the Indians. Observing an Indian battle the narrator remarks ...

It was an exciting view for the three onlookers, Indians against Indians in a life and death struggle. Here two of them fought with horrible howls, there others slaughtered each other in diabolical silence. Whenever one warrior fell, the victor was immediately upon him to take his scalp and possibly lose his own in the next instant.3
But this savagery is not representative of the Indians' nature, only of their cultural development, which could and should be changed. This makes it possible for May and his readers to enjoy both a melancholy admiration for the courageous but doomed savage and the sense of pride in their own superior culture, a culture that includes the obligation for benevolent efforts to raise the savage to the level of middle-class gentility.
The most notable success of this educational mission is Old Shatterhands's Indian companion Winnetou, a young chief of the Mescalero Apaches:
Whoever looked upon him saw immediately that this was an important man. The cut of his earnest, manly, beautiful face, the cheekbones of which barely stood out, was almost Roman, and the color of his skin was a dull light brown with a breath of bronze floating over it.4
It is easy to recognize the noble savage here, particularly in the stock allusion to his "Roman" appearance. But Winnetou qualifies as Old Shatterhand's companion not because of what he is as an Indian, but because he has added to that all the best cultural traditions of Europe and rejected savage practices such as scalping. It is Win- Netou's "taste for culture" that immediately draws Old Shatterhand to his future blood brother:
He was dressed in a light linen robe, wore no weapons, and held a book in his hand. On the cover of the book, in large golden letters, the word Hiawatha was legible. This Indian, the son of a people that many count among the "savages" could apparently not only read but possessed the mind and taste for culture.5
Fourteen years and countless adventures later Winnetou completes this promise of a "cultured Indian" when, dying in his blood brother's arms, he confesses that he has finally become a Christian like Old Shatterhand.
He has acquired this Christian faith and this "mind and taste for culture" from his mentor, a former German revolutionary who has tried to expiate the sins of his rebellious youth by teaching the Apaches Christianity and other liberal arts. He has labored to rid the Apaches of their savage customs, because he sees in them the same danger as in the revolutionary fervor of his youth. By showing that careful moral, religious, and intellectual education is an antidote to savagery–Indian or revolutionary–May manages to soothe the underlying fears of his readers in the newly emerging German empire. Not only can they observe savagery in action from a safe distance, they also see it tamed successfully by gentle Christian virtue as taught by the reformed revolutionary.
But Winnetou remains an exception, a potentiality for which there is not enough time left. On the whole May shows the Indians as doomed to extinction. But not because they are inherently inferior; they are just not given the time to acquire the culture and education that would allow them, for instance, to see through and resist the nefarious schemes of the villains who are smart enough to exploit the Indians' savage energy for their own plans.
These villains are invariably white and non-German, "skinny, tall and thin necked ... with genuine Yankee features."6 A few are half-breeds, Mexicans, or hypocritical Mormons, but all of them are recognizable by their lack of good manners: they curse, drink, spit tobacco, etc. But above all they are driven by greed. They scheme elaborately to obtain gold mines, hidden treasures, money transports, even to corner the oil market: capitalistic pursuits much more elaborate than those of villains in the typical American Western. Only the white antagonists are subject to this compulsion; their Indian allies are easily cheated out of their part of the loot, because they are not really interested in profits. Winnetou and his Apaches, for example, have known of a hidden cache of nuggets for generations without feeling the need or desire to cash them in. But Winnetou's father and sister are killed when whites try to steal this treasure.
Since we never learn of any individual motivation for this greed in either the psychology or the social circumstances of the villains, they appear as quasi-normal representatives or products of an American capitalist culture which threatens the values of polite middle-class society. May and his audience, of course, observed that same conflict in their own society in the boom years of imperial Germany. But by projecting it far across the Atlantic, he puts it not only at a safe distance, but also into a mythical region where its threat is safely contained. "The prairie has a sharply developed sense of value," Old Shatterhand explains,
Its measure is not a man's purse, but a man's ability. Give that pistol which you handle so well to one of your pretentious oil barons and send him out West. He will perish in spite of his millions. Ask, on the other hand, one of our famous frontiersmen, who rule the plains like sovereign princes, how much money he possesses. He will laugh in your face. In a place where each man is worth exactly as much as his ability to survive the dangers of the wilderness, riches lose all importance.7
Thus May uses the Southwest to offer his readers an escape to a world where the demonic energy of savagery/revolution can–with time–be controlled by culture and education, where individual ability and righteousness is reliably rewarded, and where the pursuit of money does not negate the humanitarian values also professed by middle-class ideology. It is a world where the profit motive is a cultural aberration successfully combatted by a German superman, a world in which "uncouth" reliance on money is not only unnecessary but even inimical to survival. May's West is not so much a moral battleground as a cultural one, an arena where the German upholders of middle-class morality and culture fight uneducated savagery and greed, and win. Thus, May uses an established mythical region–as distinct from the geographic region–prepared for him by his predecessors in the genre on both sides of the Atlantic. But he makes changes that adapt this model to his and his audience's special needs and respond to their unique historical situation.
For, needless to say, Old Shatterhand always prevails, not because of what he is by nature, but because of what he has learned. He is careful to point out that he has, through instruction and practice, acquired mastery in boxing, swimming, riding, shooting, fencing, and wrestling. Likewise he has learned some forty languages as well as mathematics and sciences. But only in the West, not at home, does all this work pay off. So does his Christian training. Not only in the final conversion of Winnetou, but more practically when he charitably spares the son of his archenemy, the Kiowa chief. Later the gratitude of the son saves Old Shatterhand from yet another seemingly hopeless situation. The Apaches, on the other hand, decline when Winnetou's death leaves them without the Christian guidance to protect them from Yankee greed and the destructiveness of their savage ways.
May thus makes adjustments and additions to the image of the Southwest that allow it to embody a world in which idealized visions of himself and his readers as courageous, honest, intelligent, and genteel Germans prevail, in which the fears and threats to the values of the Old World are contained and defused, and where those values still professed but rarely rewarded in the booming German empire of the 1890s still prove themselves superior. His work is an example of how extraordinarily adaptable the Southwest is to the embodiment of concepts and connotations that ostensibly are far removed from it.
About a century later Tony Hillerman turned to the same region as a source of images to revitalize the popular fiction genre he was writing in, the detective novel. The detective novel came into being at about the same time as the Western, the popular literature genre conventionally associated with the Southwest. Both genres share certain formal features: the quest, the moral nature of the conflict, and the opposition between the forces of evil and a lonely upholder of righteousness. But the settings, and therefore the nature and the conditions of the struggle, are each other's opposites. The openness of the setting symbolizes the clarity of the Western conflict: the bad guys–and girls–are immediately identifiable and the right course of action is never in doubt. The action takes place in broad daylight. The detective, on the other hand, does a good deal of his work at night, in the "underworld," and typically in the big city. His bad guys look deceptively like good guys, and vice versa, and the major job of the detective is to identify the criminal among the look-alike innocents. When he does, the right course of action is often not at all clear and involves moral ambiguities. Fictional detectives have, therefore, become more and more doubt-ridden, and detective writers are hard pressed to convince their readers of the detective's motivation for risking his life, when he can expect neither honor from society nor the certainty that he has done the right thing. It is in response to this "crisis" that Tony Hillerman turns to the mythic qualities he and his readers associate with the Southwest.
In one of his first detective novels, The Fly on the Wall, before HiHerman discovered the Southwest as a setting, this dilemma–of a protagonist who is supposed to uphold right but operates in a world of moral ambiguities–is still prominent. The investigator, here a reporter, has to decide between insuring the election of a scoundrel by exposing past corruption in the administration of the otherwise honest incumbent or remaining silent and breaking the journalist's obligation to report the truth. When Hillerman switches to a Southwest setting and a protagonist rooted in Navajo culture, such dilemmas no longer arise. When Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee need direction, they can always turn to their Navajo sense of balance and harmony for guidance. Like the Western hero, they can always listen to their inner sense of "rightness" to sort out the apparent confusion and mystery of the situation.
Confusion and mystery are of course the exact opposite of the symbolic meaning we have learned to associate with the icons of Western landscape. Hillerman, therefore, goes to considerable length to make the necessary adjustments. His Southwest is a landscape full of boulders, shadows, and canyons. When there are wide vistas, they tend to be too wide, that is, too wide to recognize what is truly happening:
[Luis Horseman] looked carefully across the plateau, searching the foreground first, then the mid-distance, finally the great green slopes of the Lukachukai Mountains ... suddenly he stopped. The comer of his eye had caught motion on the floor of the Kam Binghi Valley. Far below him and a dozen miles to the west, a puff of dust was suddenly visible ... it might be a dust devil. But it was windless now. Must have been a truck, and the feeling of dread returned.8
He studies the puff of dust for another page and a half, finally concludes it is harniless, but shortly after this he is ambushed by the driver of this truck. Instead of clarity the Southwest landscape has meant deception; it is a dangerous labyrinth, an image which reoccurs frequently in Hifterman's novels:
To the north, northwest and northeast, the ground fell away into a labyrinth of vertical walled canyons ... through a wilderness of eroded stone. A reasonably agile man could climb off this bench to the canyon floor, but the canyons would lead him nowhere. Only into an endless labyrinth–deeper and deeper into the sheer walled maze.9
Hiflerman, in effect, replaces the urban maze of walls and houses, the normal setting for a detective story, with a Southwest of natural labyrinths and mazes. They are the emblems of the baffling incidents that confront Leaphom and Chee, just as the urban mazes symbolize the disorientation traditional detectives from Sherlock Holmes to Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer have to overcome. Indeed, in his recent novels Hillerman has partially returned to the traditional setting by sending his detective off to the city in search of the clues that will point the way out of the seeming confusion.
For that is invariably their job: to find the way out of the maze, the labyrinth. Often literally, as in Listening Woman, The Blessing Way, and A Thief of Time, or at least figuratively. The urban detective usually professes reliance on reason, but, in fact, is more often helped by luck or his intuition. Hillerinan's detectives, on the other hand, are guided out of the confusion by their Navajo cultural heritage.
Leaphorn never counted on luck. Instead he expected order, the natural sequence of behavior, the cause producing the natural effect, the human behaving in a way it was natural to behave. He counted on that and upon his own ability to sort out the chaos of observed facts and find in them this natural order. It was a talent which caused him, when the facts refused to fall into the pattern demanded by nature and the Navajo Way, acute mental cfiscomfort.10
"I know you, Joe," his superior tells him in another novel, "You've got to have everything sorted out so it's natural."11 A few pages later Leaphorn confirms this. "Somewhere in this jumble of contradiction, oddities, coincidences, and unlikely events there must be a pattern, a reason, something that linked a cause and effect, which the laws of natural harmony and reason would dictate. It had to be there.12 Chee, generally less given to philosophizing and articulating his thoughts, draws certainty from the same source. Searching for a long-lost witness from the past "he was confident. Finding Tsossie involved things purely Navajo–a pattern of thinking and behavior with which Chee was in intimate harmony. For all enterprises, such harmony was essential." This insight reminds him of a Navajo prayer for harmony, and of his uncle's, a Navajo "singer's," wisdom, which in turn, leads him to the key that unlocks the whole mystery, that the villain accomplished his evil, his "witchery," by a successful but "unnatural" change of identity.13
Such change of identity, of hiding an evil nighttime identity beneath a daytime mask of respectability, is, of course, a central motif in the detective novel. In the Navajo belief in "witches," skinwalkers, and Navajo wolves, in humans who change into death-bringing animal shapes, Hiflerman finds a way to give a fresh embodiment to this motif, a motif which connects perfectly with another convention of the detective novel, namely that the source of evil is the immoderate pursuit of riches. The Navajo emergence myth, Hillerman reminds his readers repeatedly, equates witchcraft with greed:
When the water rose in the Fourth World and the Holy People emerged through a hollow reed, First Man and First Woman came up too. But they forgot witchcraft and they sent Diving Heron back for it. They told him to bring out 'the ways to get rich' . . . And Heron brought it out and gave it to First Man and First Woman and they gave some to Snake. But Snake couldn't swallow it. And that's why it kills you when a snake strikes you.14
Witchery thus involves both greed and killing. It is, therefore, a central motif in all Hillerman novels. Through it he manages to give a new explanation of the two traditional evils in the detective novel, an explanation based on the culture popularly associated with the Southwest region. In addition, this also explains why his Navajo detectives have the motivation and the skill to defeat these evils, while the more sophisticated and better equipped Anglo detectives fail.
The only times Chee and I&aphom become temporarily vulnerable is when they are faced with "false" Navajos, Navajos who, like witches, are disguised. Hence the recurring motif of the "relocation Navajo," a Navajo who looks like one but has been separated from the reservation and the Navajo Way and fallen into Anglo ways (e.g. in Listening Woman or The Ghostway). If not such pseudo-Navajos, Hillerman's villains are Anglo neurotics equally cut off from any traditional cultural pattern, as epitomized by the recurring ice-blond, methodical killer (e.g. in People of Darkness). In an odd way pitiable, they have turned to the opposite of the Navajo way, that is, to witchcraft. Hillerman thus manages to revitalize the conflict between good and evil by creating a Southwest that yields a symbolic setting as well as a cultural ideology to reinforce and clarify this struggle, a result that has become difficult to achieve in a purely Anglo setting where "greed is good" and not "witchery."
It goes without saying that this is not a "realistic" portrait of the Southwest or the Navajo reservation. Hillerman knows the reservation too well to be unaware of corrupt Navajo officials. But that is no criticism of Hillerman's works. All we can and should expect of them is that they be good detective novels, and it is not the fault of the novelist if his readers, ignoring his disclaimers, mistake novels for anthropology, sociology, or geology textbooks. What the success of both Hillerman and May demonstrates is that the Southwest is an extraordinarily adaptable and fertile literary region. For a long time it has served as the locale for imaginative escapes, and both these authors have contributed to this phenomenon. That two writers from vastly separate cultural contexts, looking to embody different fears and hopes, successfiffly took possession of this region, suggests that these literary conquests are likely to continue.


  1. An English translation of Winnetou and two other of May's novels set outside of the American West were published in 1978 by Seabury Press, New York.
  2. "Karl der Deutsche." Der Spiegel (March 26, 1962) p. 176.
  3. Der Schatz im Silbersee (The Sliver Lake Treasure) (Frankfurt, Germany, 1970), p. 37. All translations from May's German are my own.
  4. Winnetou I (Frankfurt, Germany, 1969), p. 128.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Sdbenee, p. 37.
  7. Winnetou II (Wien and Heidelberg, n.d.), p. 197.
  8. The Blessing Way (New York: Avon Books, 1978), p. 9.
  9. Listening Woman (New York: Avon Books, 1979), p. 136.
  10. Blessing Way, p. 177. Emphasis added.
  11. Listening Woman, p. 30.
  12. Ibid., p. 86.
  13. People of Darkness (New York: Avon Books, 1982), p. 161-62.
  14. Blessing Way, p. 88.