American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations

(Dis)Articulating the Frontier Body: Artifacts, Appendages, and Spectres in the Discourse of the American West

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies/English

First Advisor

Ellen Berry (Committee Chair)

Second Advisor

Scott C. Martin (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Donald McQuarie (Committee Member)


(Dis)Articulating the Frontier Body examines the discursive formation of the body in the history and mythology of the American West. This project examines the body as a "myth-artifact," or a latent site for the prefiguration and emergence of myth, and an apparatus for refracting and compounding ideas. From the colonial period through the nineteenth century, paradigms for both interpreting and representing the body promoted the expansion of empire, defined bodily alterity, and constituted a burgeoning national popular culture. Bodies and their disassembled parts entered into circuits of capital accumulation, transatlantic entertainment, and narrative networks. Harnessed as scientific specimens, entertainment commodities, disciplinary spectacle, and political propaganda, bodies and bodily appendages performed vital cultural work in legitimating and narrating the movement of the western frontier.

Central to this dissertation is the value of the body as both an artifact and metaphor which signified the parameters of racial and regional identity, contributed to the formation of the American character on the frontier, and provided a commercially and scientifically validated narrative of civilization and progress. Themes of bodily dismemberment, prosthetic reassembly, and macabre exhibition symbolized violence and established an exportable national myth of the heroic settlement of the West.

Bodily artifacts, prosthetic appendages, and spectral bodies augmented ideas about progress, territory, technology, and identity. They were engaged in the politics of racial difference and hierarchical entitlement to knowledge and power, as well as signifying the colonization of unruly territories and subjects. In the discourse of the frontier West, the body both conjured and denatured reality, contributing to the legacy of a chimerical regional history. This project concludes by challenging the legacy of the frontier as a postmodern vanishing point marked by the successive diminishment of materiality and affect, showing how contemporary authors such as Cormac McCarthy and Robert Coover counter the purported disappearance of populations and tangible history with a residual historical memory experienced through the body.