07 August 2011

Identity and Rhetorical Landscape in Annie Proulx’s That Old Ace in the Hole

Identity, both individual and collective, is a central component to Annie Proulx’s novel That Old Ace in the Hole, and one that authors and writers continually grapple with. The vast discourse of what may or may not constitute identity encompasses multiple disciplines and opinions spanning social, economic, historic and cultural issues. Attempting to grasp the sheer complexity and diversity of identity as a concept is no simple task. In his frontier thesis, Frederick Jackson Turner describes a national American identity as being directly informed and shaped by the American settlement and development of the western frontier. Turner’s suggestion that our national identity is literally defined by the western frontier has since been hotly debated and widely dismissed. Clearly the formation and establishment of both individual and collective identity extends beyond Turner’s singular vision, which describes a clearly defined and finite historical epoch. Benedict Anderson, for example, cites language and its dissemination by capitalist printing and publishing industries, as essential to the origins and development of national consciousness: “Why within that type, did the nation become so popular? The factors involved are obviously complex and various. But a strong case can be made for the primacy of capitalism” (37). Turner’s writings on the American west however, do reveal the undeniable significance of the mythologized landscape of the western frontier, and its rhetorical power in shaping and informing cultural identity. Annie Proulx utilizes the rhetorical power of the land to both shape and inform the individual and collective identities in That Old Ace in the Hole. These identities are defined, in their rural locality, by the antagonizing presence of urban global corporate interest, which continually threatens the literal, and historical, erasure of both individual and collective rural identities.

Before local and global conflicts of identity are examined, a closer look at Proulx’s rhetorical use of landscape is necessary. Ace certainly taps into the mythical and nostalgic rhetorical well of the old frontier landscape. However, use of rhetoric is not blatantly or overly romanticized. In fact, the landscape reflects a rural existence that is often unforgiving, harsh, and difficult. Repeated stories of past ancestors, ranchers, cowboys, and other rural western inhabitants are not tales of carefree romantic adventure; they include hard work, loss, and survival, all of which stem from or are linked to the landscape. A sign that Bob reads while driving through the Texas Panhandle perfectly captures the rugged identity and mentality of the land and its inhabitants: “TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT SURVIVORS WILL BE PERSECUTED” (44). The wind, a recurring component of the rural landscape, is another example of this harshness. It spreads the putrid stink of manure (Oklahoma Rain), and slams tumbleweeds into Bob’s car, cracking his windshield. Muted, unlovely grays and browns also bolster the unforgiving mood, which is engendered by vivid descriptions of landscape.

Landscape is the foundation on which conflicting issues of identity play out: “The sky was dead grey, a match for the withered grass around the railroad tracks where a chemical spill years before had killed off all the soil organisms” (43). In one sentence Proulx visualizes and symbolizes the juxtaposition of the local and natural with the global and corporate. Grass, a symbol of the natural freedom and openness of the old western frontier, withers under the effects of modern corporate technology. The relationship between grass and chemical is emblematic of the struggle between the citizens of Woolybucket and Global Pork Rind. It also reveals the change that Frederick Jackson Turner’s western frontier has already undergone and continues to undergo.

Throughout Proulx’s novel there is a simmering tension between the almost mythical rhetoric of the western landscape and the globalized postmodern world of corporate pervasion. The first page of the first chapter (Global Pork Rind) establishes this juxtaposition: “NPR faded from the radio in a string of announcements of corporate supporters, replaced by a Christian station that alternated pabulum preaching and punchy music. He switched to shit-kicker airwaves and listened to songs about staying home, going home, being home and the errors of leaving home” (1). Here the idea of home, an integral component to issues of personal and collective identity, is introduced in sharp contrast to pervasive corporate advertisements on the radio. Radio, a modern development integral to globalization and the dissemination of information, is not anchored in a specific locality. The corporate announcements on the radio are emblematic of the larger conflict between Global Pork Rind and the local inhabitants of Woolybucket.

Global Pork Rind exerts its power and influence on numerous local communities from a detached and foreign location. Ribeye Cluke, the corporate boss at Global Pork Rind disingenuously suggests that his companies dealings are beneficial to all: “And if it were put to a general vote, time and again it has been shown that the public supports such moves because they benefit the greater community” (303). Such proclamations are clearly motivated by a singularly selfish corporate interest and are not representative of any individual or collective identity in Proulx’s novel.

Global Pork Rind is a representation of the postmodern effacement of historical and cultural context and significance. Fredric Jameson elaborates on this issue: “or on the other hand, elegiacally laments the passing of the splendors of modern: the glories and possibilities of modernism in the arts, the disappearance of history as the fundamental element in which human beings exist” (55). Such historical erasure is in direct conflict with the historical and rhetorical local identity of Woolybucket and its inhabitants which thrive within a developing historical and cultural context.

Portrayed in pointed distinction from the postmodern corporate pervasion of Global Pork Rind is the local community of Woolybucket, in which the protagonist Bob Dollar maneuvers. Woolybucket and its inhabitants have not only an acute awareness of their community’s cultural history, but an intimate familiarity of its members and their individual histories as well. An entire chapter “Pioneer Fronk” is devoted to the telling of local Woolybucket history and ancestry. This shows the depth and significance to which frontier landscape rhetoric lends to the concept of identity. Much like Bob Dollar, Martin Fronk is an outsider who travels to Woolybucket and finds a sense of home and personal identity. Fronk’s tale is a reflection of Bob’s, revealing a somewhat foolish character who is kindly accepted by the Woolybucket community. Both stories end with the protagonist finding a sense of home, utility, purpose, and identity. Stories such as the Fronk Pioneer tale are a large part of Woolybucket’s collective identity. Such accounts are historical, but they also possess a rhetorical weight that informs the collective social and cultural identity of Woolybucket.

Storytelling, conversation, and local history are central to Woolybucket’s collective identity. It is useful therefore, to introduce an informative working understanding of identity. In her essay on identity and Islam Jillian Schwedler helps to flesh out this understanding:

In sum, identity is indeed how individuals and groups define themselves and their relations to others. But it is not a fixed set of characteristics; it is instead the product of historical processes and experiences through which individuals and groups come to see themselves, their place in the world, and their relationship with those around them (5).

As an outsider Bob Dollar establishes relationships with the local inhabitants through the telling of personal history and family stories which are steeped in western frontier rhetoric. The larger communal identity is built upon the shared experiences and histories of individuals, which are perpetually related, shared, remembered, and discussed throughout the community.

Once again this larger identity is defined in its contrasting antagonism to global corporate interest. As a postmodern corporate entity, Global Pork Rind seeks to literally erase these shared experiences, which are engendered in large part by the rhetorical power of the land. The vast introduction and permanent occupation of the panhandle by putrid hog farms literally destroys the land on which rhetorical significance is based.

Another way in which Woolybucket’s larger identity is revealed and informed by the rhetorical significance of the landscape, is Ace Crouch’s plan to return the panhandle to its previously natural state. This plan is a literal reversion to the modernist rhetorical past of the open frontier, which Frederick Jackson Turner refers to in his frontier thesis. Crouch, as well as most of the wider Woolybucket community want to actualize this rhetoric. This is the most direct way in which Proulx’s novel utilizes the “sheer physical fact” of the country to shape and inform both personal and collective identity.

Proulx paints a vivid picture of Bob and Ace sitting on top of a windmill taking in the land as far as the eye can see in every direction. This imagery resonates powerfully because it artfully depicts the central relationship between identity and the rhetorical value of the land. Contemplating the actual and rhetorical significance of the land Ace Crouch spells out its importance:

You think it’s just a place. It’s more than that. It’s people’s lives, it’s the history of the country. We lived through the droughts that come and we seen the Depression and the dust storms blowin’ up black as the smoke from a oil fire. We seen cowboy firin’ squads shootin’ half-starved thirsty cattle by the thousand. Yes, that’s who had a do it, the men who took care a cows all their lives was the ones had a shoot them too (333).

Ace’s speech is reminiscent of Turner’s opinions on the vitality of the western frontier. Land is suggested to be more than a merely physical boundary broken into properties. It is much more than a simple place to live. Instead, land connotes a litany of attributes and values, including a rich and complex history, all of which makes land home. In talking about living through shared experiences Ace’s dialogue also directly mirrors Jillian Scwedler’s comments on identity as a lengthy and gradual historical process in which identity, and a sense of home, evolves and develops through experiences of hardship, solidarity, and survival.

The juxtaposition of the local and global is not the only division found in Ace in the Hole, which directly concern issues of identity. Proulx also draws lines between sparse rural country and a more populated urban existence. Global Pork Rind is certainly established as an urban institution. There is a lack of intimate familiarity with urban environments and the majority of characters who inhabit them; this is indicative of their global nature. Global Pork Rind, for example, is a vaguely obscure presence in the novel with little in terms of identity beyond corporate self-interest. Bob’s childhood friend from Denver, also an urban character, possesses superficial traits and concerns, which include an obsession with sleazy B movies. This trait may constitute an element of personal identity, but a sense of larger community and identity is otherwise absent. Conversely, Proulx establishes an intimate familiarity with the Woolybucket characters, providing detailed accounts of their former experiences and relationships, in some cases going back as far as childhood.

Many of the individual identities in the local Woolybucket community not only derive from historical and rhetorical perspective, but are also carved out of utility. Each member of the local community is defined in part by the utilization of a certain set of skills. His diner and detailed descriptions of his cooking, for example, largely reveal Cy Frease, through Bob Dollar’s perspective. Bob also sees opportunity for utility in Woolybucket with the bookstore. These individual utilities and characteristics are shaped and informed by the land and its rhetorical resonance. They are also part of the gradual historical process of shared experiences that shape Woolybucket’s collective identity.

There is an interesting contradiction concerning the use of utility in Proulx’s novel between the way in which it functions in Woolybucket, and how it is used rhetorically by Ribeye Cluke and Global Pork Rind. Cluke espouses disingenuous rhetoric about the American way, free enterprise, and utility: “You will find, Bob, as you mature, that lip service to the rights of the property owner is just that, lip service. What rules the world is utility, general usefulness. What serves the greater good will prevail” (302). Whereas Ribeye Cluke uses utility as empty rhetoric to rationalize his corporate self-interest and the effacement of identity, in Woolybucket utility is an unspoken yet fully understood practical component to rural life; another part of the collective identity. Cluke’s use of utility is a rhetorical counterpoint to the rhetorical resonance derived from Turner’s suggestion of the importance of the open and free western frontier landscape.

Bob Dollar reveals much of what Ace in the Hole says about personal and collective identity. Until the end of the novel, Bob is lost, has no self-purpose, no conception of self, and no sense of belonging to a home. As an employee of Global Pork Rind sent to Woolybucket’s rural community, Bob is caught between global and local interests. Therefore, he is utilized in the novel as a blank slate of identity with which conflicting issues of global and local, rural and urban, personal and collective are contemplated, commented on, and finally filled in.

A singularly distinct and richly complex identity is what is at stake in That Old Ace in the Hole. This identity is gradually shaped and informed by a long historical context that is firmly based in rhetoric of land and landscape. As we have already established, this process is one of unforgiving difficulty, in which the rhetoric of the old western frontier is grounded in human struggle and sacrifice that is tied directly to the land. Such hardship (Ace mentions drought and depression) enrich the value of and reverence for the freedom of an open and free landscape. An identity formed and informed by arduous shared experience and solidarity is distinct because it derives specifically from qualities and experiences in one small rural locality. Such an identity, that gives weight and credence to the value of land, history and shared experience, is emblematic of a changing American landscape in which global corporate interests such as Global Pork Rind bolster the erasure of land, history, and experience. Such erasure is achieved by the simultaneous declaration of an illogical corporate ideology, and a purposeful disconnection from reality. Essentially a struggle between the modern and postmodern, That Old Ace in the Hole, a conflict fought directly and literally over the land and its rhetorical resonance, proclaims unwavering support for the former and unapologetic contempt for the latter.

Annotated Citations

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of

Nationalism. London: Verso, 1991. Anderson’s book is a historical analysis of

Nationalism and its social, economic, and cultural effects. In chapter three he writes

about issues of national consciousness in relationship to language and print capitalism,

which relate to issues of community and identity.

“Frederick Jackson Turner.” http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/people/s_z/turner.htm. PBS,

2001. Web. 26 March, 2010. This web page contains a concise summation of Frederick

Jackson Turner’s most notable works and achievements. A brief historical context for his

work, as well as a summation of its critical reaction and reception is also provided.

“Frederick Jackson Turner 1861-1932.” http://www.bgsu.edu/departments/acs/1891s/turner.html,

Bowling Green State University, 1997. Web.026 March 2010. This web page is another

brief account of Turner’s major writing’s, opinions, and historical critical perception.

Biographical information is also included.

Jameson, Fredric. “Notes on Globalization as a Philosophical Issue.” The Cultures of

Globalization. Duke University Press, 1998. In his essay, focused mainly on the discourse

of globalization, Jameson describes postmodernity as being almost entirely consumed by

capitalism. He also refers to the loss of historical significance, as well as the increase of

communication technology without new or enlightening information being created or


Schwedler, Jillian. “Islamic Identity: Myth Menace, or Mobilizer?” SAIS Review vol, no 2

(2001): 1-5. Web. Schwedler’s article is concerned mainly with political and historical

aspects of identity in regards to Islam. However, a considerable portion of her writing

devoted to looking at identity generally, and how it is informed by historical experience

and process.

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