Annual writing awards from the Center of the American West urge students to re-examine and reflect on the American West
The American West’s history—and our creation and representation of it—is messy.
That’s at least according to an award-winning essay by Josh Boissevain (Jour’06) which re-examines Cormac McCarthy’s book, Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West.
Blood Meridian is a western that focuses on a teenager known only as “the kid” as he joins a historical group of scalp hunters. The book, sometimes considered one of the best American novels of all time, is known for its extreme violence and for its depiction of the U.S. imperialism in the mid-19th century desert Southwest.
And it is those depictions that interested Boissevain, who won the Undergraduate Nonfiction category award from the Thompson Writing Awards in 2006 for his reflection on the book as an update to the mythology of the American West.
The Thompson Writing Awards, given out every year by the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado Boulder, recognize writings related to the American West. They are now accepting applications for the 2020 cycle, which closes March 17, 2020.
“It (the award) was a great opportunity because I didn’t know what I was going to do with this idea that I had and who I would give it to because I wasn’t really doing it for a class, so who was going to read it?” said Boissevain, now an attorney practicing water law and a member of the Center of the American West’s Board of Directors.
“It was great to have that as a place that I could send it off and, maybe I’d do well, maybe I wouldn’t, but at least someone would read it. And it gave me that motivation to put it together and work hard on it and make it look good.”
The Thompson Writing Awards, endowed by Jack (Hist’64) and Jeannie (Zool’64) Thompson in 2004, is open to open to undergraduate and graduate CU Boulder students. In 2020, there will be seven $500 prizes awarded to the genres of poetry, fiction, memoir, academic nonfiction and creative nonfiction. Students are welcome to apply to one or all of the categories using works they created for class or on their own.
(Re)Defining the American West
The American West is more than just a geographic region, the center contends. It’s an ethos, a foundation, a quality of “Westernness,” that permeates the American identity.
It (the award) was a great opportunity because I didn’t know what I was going to do with this idea that I had and who I would give it to because I wasn’t really doing it for a class, so who was going to read it?”
Which means the topic can mean different things to different people.
Geographically, the West is the area between the 100th Meridian and the Pacific Coast—it’s the Great Plains, Continental Divide, desert of the southwest—and all the history therein. Within that area are also regional and local aspects of life—rodeos, ranches, suburbs, mines, horses, wildlife—and then there’s the West of dreams, expectations, hopes. All of these topics are equally part “western” and fair game for students writing for the awards.
For Boissevain’s essay, there are actually two ways of looking at the West. There’s the “old” West, a kind of traditional American mythology—cowboys and Indians, pioneers, wide-open landscapes—popularized by movies, newspapers and literature of the time. Then there’s the “new” West, which emerged from the social and cultural movements of the 1960s to, in part, reject that the West simply “ended.” Instead, it looks at the West as a region that’s alive and well and one that deserves a critical eye for its violence and for leaving certain groups of peoples out of the story (including indigenous populations, women and non-white immigrants).
Boissevain claims in his essay that Blood Meridian is an attempt to revitalize the old western American myth but from the perspective of the new West.
“At the time, I didn’t know if anyone would be interested because I didn’t know anybody else who was reading Blood Meridian or Cormac McCarthy,” said Boissevain. “I was super thrilled to find out when I won.”
A full list of past winners can be found on the Center of the American West’s website.