Colloquium | Jed Esty
Is the American Western an Irish Genre? John Ford and Empire
"The Greeks have the Iliad; the Jews, the Hebrew Bible; the Romans, the Aeneid; the Germans, The Nibelungenlied; the Scandinavians, the Njáls Saga; the Spanish have the Cid; the British have the Arthurian legends. The Americans have John Ford." So states the philosopher Robert Pippin in his 2009 study of John Ford, who has attracted both hagiographic and revisionist attention during the long afterlife of the classic American western film, extending into the "Westworld moment" of 2016-17. Ford’s career takes on new meaning now that our own crepuscular national story is subsiding into the "westward drift of empire" – toward Asia, where the future of capitalist dynamism and technological frontiers seems fated to lie. Viewed along the long arc of history, America’s characteristic adventure stories and popular fictional genres can come to seem like repeat versions of the last great imperial hegemon’s cultural repertoire, with British frontier adventures of the 1880s and 1890s paving the way for the U.S. western in a number of ways. In the great Hollywood decade of the 1930s, for example, the British Empire film and the Hollywood western overlapped in box office popularity, in studio materiel/personnel, and in narrative conventions. It should come as no surprise, then, that John Ford’s westerns tell a double story— of British power moving East and American power moving West – but the key to that double narrative is the organizing prism of Irish-American experience. In this paper, I trace the importance of the "Irish" Ford to the genesis of the classic western, addressing two themes in particular: 1) the role of the Irish as both the working-class shock troops of empire and – paradoxically – the peacemakers at the site where imperial power meets native resistance; and 2) the law of scarcity as a governing trope for both Irish classics and classic westerns, resulting in a peculiar mode of authoritarian populism characteristic of Ford the draconian stylist and "obedient rebel."
Jed Esty specializes in twentieth-century British, Irish, and postcolonial literatures, with additional interests in critical theory, history and theory of the novel, colonial and postcolonial studies, and the Victorian novel. After receiving his BA from Yale and PhD from Duke, he taught for several years at Harvard and at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) before joining the Penn faculty in 2008. He is the author of Unseasonable Youth: Modernism, Colonialism, and the Fiction of Development (Oxford 2012) and A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England (Princeton 2004), and is currently at work on a new project entitled Cold War Victorians: How the British Imagination Shaped American Power. With Joe Cleary and Colleen Lye, he is coeditor of a 2012 special issue of MLQ on the topic of realism in postcolonial and ethnic US literatures; with Ania Loomba, Suvir Kaul, Antoinette Burton, and Matti Bunzl, he coedited Postcolonial Studies and Beyond (Duke 2005). Esty has been a fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Illinois; he has published essays in Modern Fiction Studies, Victorian Studies, Modernism/Modernity, ELH, ALH, Contemporary Literature, Narrative, Novel, and the Yale Journal of Criticism.