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Home arrow Geography arrow The Myths That Made America : An Introduction to American Studies

VI Agrarianism, Expansionism, and the Myth of the American West

Why the West?

America only more so.

Neil Campbell, The Rhizomatic West

[The] West is a country in the mind, and so eternal.

Archibald MacLeish

Can the West be heard?

Walter Prescott Webb

The American West has captured the imagination of Americans and Americanists alike. It has been foundational for multi-disciplinary American studies scholarship since Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893 identified the frontier as the most decisive factor in shaping American political and social institutions and in creating a specifically American national character (cf. “Significance”). Shifting the focus away from America’s European heritage and divisions between the North and the South, Turner’s frontier thesis argued for studying America from an East/West perspective that inaugurated an exceptionalist discourse based on experiences of and with the land. At the time it was not entirely well received by his fellow historians and has been contested from various perspectives and by various groups throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, yet it has provided a host of resonant images for the American cultural imaginary, and has been highly influential in the study of American history, culture, and literature. It is thus no coincidence that one of the earliest classics of American studies scholarship, Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth, has lent its name to the first generation of Americanists: the Myth and Symbol School (cf. the introduction to this book). The construction and affirmation of the West in Turner and Smith already conveys many of the aspects of the myth of the West to be considered in this chapter: first of all, the American West is often viewed not so much as a region or an area than as a space of transition that does not necessarily have a precise geographical location, but rather changes with Euro-American settlement expanding westward. Second, the West as a transformative space has often been considered as a pars pro toto for the nation and as a special place from which its future could be built, making “the discovery, conquest, and settlement of the West [...] the dominant theme of American history” (Slotkin, “Unit Pride” 472). As part of a “homogenized national geography” (Lopez, “American Geographies” 136) and as a “nationalist West” (Dorman, Hell xii), it has been a locus, however vaguely defined, for developing epic cultural scripts of Americanness. Third, the West as a region - defined e.g. as the “17 coterminous states located on and westward of the 100th meridian” (ibid. xii) - is connected to visions of an agrarian ideal that for a long time has been seen as standing for authentic Americanness, but also, from a more critical perspective, for an “enduring provincial mentality” (Von Frank, Sacred Game 5). Pitting the rural West against the newly emerging urban centers in the East in the 19th century has shaped a whole range of dichotomies that are still at work today and that have been described as the country vs. the city (cf. Williams, Country) or the frontier vs. the metropolis (cf. Slotkin, Fatal Environment 35). Thus, the myth of the West also reflects a rural ideal that grows out of a conception of the United States as predominantly rural or as having a distinct rural past. Fourth, the attributes often given to the West reflect a number of implications regarding a particular way of life, which may be associated with notions of the pre- or anti-modern, traditionalism, folk culture, and specific cultural codes and idioms: “The West, at bottom, is a form of society rather than an area,” Hofstadter notes quoting Turner (“Thesis Disputed” 102). Lastly, the myth of the West includes a pastoral dimension; by adapting a much older European pastoral discourse to the US-American context, Leo Marx has theorized the pastoral as the middle ground between the city and the ‘wilderness’ and as a vehicle for social critique (cf. Machine). Even if the myth of the West is organized around certain recurring (stock) characters (farmers, cowboys, ‘Indians’), it is not focused on people, but on “[t]he land itself” (Fox, Void 130).

Illustration 1: The West as Symbol and Myth

Ben Shahn, cover design for Virgin Land (1957; Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Imaging Department). © President and Fellows of Harvard College

The agrarian myth of the West and the myth of the frontier can be traced back to the beginning of European settlement in North America in the 17th and 18th centuries, and connects to narratives of chosenness (cf. chapter 3) and the melting pot (cf. chapter 5). The frontier may well be considered “the longest-lived of American myths” (Slotkin, Fatal Environment 15); its scholarly treatment by Turner followed the so-called second founding of the US during Reconstruction, when “the unitary American nation became a primary focus of ideology and power” (Slotkin, “Unit Pride” 472), and the US Census Bureau’s declaration in 1890 that there no longer was a frontier. The rise of the US to world power went along with the interpretation of westward expansion and settlement as an integral part of that process and as “a westward creation story” (Campbell, Rhizomatic West 2). As the hub of this national cosmology, the frontier myth has been the object of much critical attention - most notably from Richard Slotkin, who is the author of three singularly important critical monographs on the frontier myth (Regeneration through Violence, The Fatal Environment, and Gunfighter Nation).

My discussion of the American West will focus on agrarianism and expansionism as two basic tenets in cultural history and the cultural imaginary. For one thing, I will address the West as a space of residence and settlement that is often imagined as a kind of garden or even Edenic paradise symbolizing pastoral simplicity and economic independence based on subsistence farming. This semi- ‘civilized,’ “domesticated West” (Smith, Virgin Land 138) is imagined in popular culture, for instance, in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book Little House on the Prairie and the television series of the same title that was adapted from it, and in the lyrics of contemporary country music. Second, the American West is constructed as a site of individual and collective quests for land and dominance. Violent conflict between settlers and Native Americans often is the focus of narratives that represent the West as a still ‘uncivilized’ space yet to be conquered and controlled, as is the case e.g. in classical Westerns. It is useful to distinguish between the two versions of the West as peaceful garden (agrarianism) and as conflicted frontier (expansionism), even if, of course, both versions overlap in most representations: a Western may e.g. tell the story of a farmer and his family (agrarian version of the West) but may for their protection enlist the masculinist, individualist, classical Western hero (expansionist version). The Western may also present the second as a precondition for the first, or use images of the agrarian West to legitimize the violence that is at the heart of expansionism. We may thus think of them as sequentially connected, yet not in any straightforward way. As David Wrobel has pointed out, “[t]he two sentiments, the hope for a postfrontier future in the West, followed later by a longing for the frontier past, have played an important part in the formation of western identities” (Promised Lands 1) - and of US national identity, one should add. It is the cultural work of the myth that apparently has neutralized these contradictions and paradoxes of the West.

In this chapter, I will address both versions of the mythical West separately, but also show how they interconnect. The figure of the American farmer as ‘American Adam’ and the rural, agrarian myth as found in the canonical writings of Thomas Jefferson and J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur will serve as my point of departure. Second, I will focus on the concept of the frontier and notions of expansionism and manifest destiny. Revisionist approaches have contested the rather idyllic and often one-sided images in these two conceptualizations of the West, third, from a gender perspective, and fourth, from an ethnic (more specifically, Japanese American) perspective. Fifth, I will look at popular culture that has represented and affirmed the myth of the West by developing and using the formula of the Western. Sixth, using the war in Southeast Asia popularly known as the Vietnam War as an example, I will point to the role and symbolic power of the frontier myth in political rhetoric and political culture. Last but not least, I will point to the West in discourses of transnationalism and globalization, as the American West has become a preeminent symbol of exceptionalist ‘American- ness’ around the world.

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