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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Mysteries and miseries : the racial uncanny in the American West

  • Author(s): Dominguez, Andrea Marie
  • et al.

"Mysteries and Miseries : The Racial Uncanny in the American West" considers the use of the mystery genre in Western narratives as a representation of multi-layered histories and cultural ghosts that haunt a mythic and racialized discursive past. Through a case study of San Francisco mystery narratives, I argue that questions of race and blood signal layered and fragmented histories that suggest unstable ethnic-American identity categories. Placing the genre narrative form of the mystery at the center of this historical lens provides a re-reading of methods of cultural empire in San Francisco, California, and the American West that underscore a relationship to national conceptions of whiteness as related to constructions of racialized "others." Thus, this project goes beyond critical regionalism to suggest that San Francisco literature complicates discussions of California's relationship to the American ideology of the frontier by re-reading racial/ethnic formation in relation to past and present forms of American empire building. I begin with a juxtaposition of the first known mystery novel set in San Francisco, The Mysteries and Miseries of San Francisco, by A Californian and the rise of anthropological study in California as related to American Indians in the West. In this chapter I argue that while these popular narratives suggest that the definition of San Francisco as an American city is contingent on the social and racial mixing of Spanish Californios and white immigrants, these constructions are in fact contingent on violent cultural forms of erasure. The second chapter, "Ghostly Ruins : Disaster and Collective Memory," further considers shifting definitions of whiteness by examining narratives of the 1906 earthquake and fire. Here I consider "disaster romances" such as Gertrude Atherton's The Avalanche (1919) and Alan Crosland's 1927 film Old San Francisco, in relation to the tension between erasure and memory. In Chapter 3, "Finding the ̀Falcon' : Hammett and Hard Boiled San Francisco", I consider the racial unease developed in Chapter 2 in relation to modern forms of cultural empire. I begin with The Dain Curse in order to complicate my reading of both Hammett's novel and Huston's filmic version of The Maltese Falcon. My fourth chapter, "Uncanny San Francisco : Urban Space and Haunting Iconography," examines the classic noir film, Vertigo, through a more feminist oriented lens to consider the relationship between race and agency in historical constructions of California

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