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Unsettling Frontiers: Property, Empire, and Race in Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams

Davies, D. ORCID: 0000-0002-3584-5789 (2020). Unsettling Frontiers: Property, Empire, and Race in Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. Critique - Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 63(4), pp. 385-400. doi: 10.1080/00111619.2020.1841724


This article explores the “unsettling” qualities of American writer Denis Johnson’s 2011 novella, Train Dreams. It explores the book’s engagement with environmental crises and indigenous cosmologies to show how the metaphysical insecurities, common to much of Johnson’s fiction, come in this context to challenge the very concept of American nationhood itself–or as the novella’s title parodies, the “American Dream.” Train Dreams unsettles what I call the narrative infrastructures undergirding the story of the American frontier-becoming-nation-state: the transcontinental railroads, and the colonial property regimes that those railroads both pursued and opened up. In three central sections, the article explores Johnson’s unsettling of notions of property, then empire, and finally race. Through these readings, it shows how the novella finds its way to an indigenous critique of America as a settler-colonial state. While previous critical discussions of the “unsettling” qualities of Johnson’s work have until now meant that word affectively, in this article my aim is therefore to emphasize its decolonizing momentum as well.

Publication Type: Article
Additional Information: This is an Accepted Manuscript version of the following article, accepted for publication in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction. Dominic Davies (2020) Unsettling Frontiers: Property, Empire, and Race in Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction. It is deposited under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License (, which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Subjects: G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GE Environmental Sciences
J Political Science > JV Colonies and colonization. Emigration and immigration. International migration
P Language and Literature > PR English literature
P Language and Literature > PS American literature
Departments: School of Communication & Creativity > Media, Culture & Creative Industries > English, Publishing & Creative Writing
SWORD Depositor:
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Text - Accepted Version
Available under License Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial.

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