American Frontiers: Pathways to Masculine Identity Realization

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Hedgepath, Capron Mitchell
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Middle Tennessee State University
This dissertation explores and analyzes a recurring artistic impulse that emerges time and time again in narratives of American frontier mythology. From nineteenth-century texts such as James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans and Herman Melville’s epic Moby-Dick, through current, reconfigured representations of frontier spaces in works like Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club and Stephen Hunter’s novel Pale Horse Coming, the path to meaningful masculine identity realization occurs by entering various iterations of the frontier. In this light, each narrative in this study is characterized by a longing to flee civilization and the negative effects of navigating America’s socio-cultural norms as they relate to frontier closure, industrialization, the gendered separation of domestic and work spheres, and the proliferation of a cultural emphasis on the extrinsic values perpetuated and reinforced by American affluence. As a consequence of the trajectory of such socio-cultural and institutional progress, American society has become almost entirely de-tribalized, divorced from our human evolutionary past in ways that have done much to contribute to significant rises in anxiety, loneliness, isolation, alienation, depression, and suicide. In the realm of American fiction, this cultural and existential malaise becomes expressed through frontier narratives by characters, men and women alike, who long for the meaningful masculine identity realization that is enabled when one is part of an inter-reliant group in which the three basic, intrinsic human needs of self-determination theory are met. Through various trials of confronting the inherent chaos and hardships found in either traditional or reconfigured frontier spaces, the male and female characters in this study can be read as seeking a return to our tribal past. The relative successes and cautionary failures of their journeys reveal much about the biological and cultural influences that shape masculine performances as they are characterized, assessed, and evaluated through artistic representations. In this context, this study explores the following works: The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Hidden Hand (1888), Pale Horse Coming (2001), Moby-Dick (1851), McTeague (1899), The Awakening (1899), No Country for Old Men (2005), The Call of the Wild (1903), Song of Solomon (1977), Fight Club (1996), and Captain Fantastic (2016).