American Essay West

Not too long ago, historians of the American West joined their artistic brethren in celebrating what we now think of as the “Old West.” For historians and artists, the “winning of the West” was a glorious achievement that heralded the triumph of “civilization” over “savagery.” Indeed, by the conventional scholarly wisdom and orthodox artistic vision, the vanquishing of Indians and the march of manifest destiny made America great and made Americans special.

In recent decades, however, most historians—and many Americans—have rejected this perspective. Dismantling cherished fables about the Old West and stripping the romance from the history of “Westward Ho,” newer studies have exhumed the human casualties and environmental costs of American expansion. Offering little glory, these interpretations of how the West was lost have accented the savagery of American civilization.

The de Young Museum’s exhibition, “Ed Ruscha and the Great American West,” and its companion, “Wild West: Plains to the Pacific” at the Legion of Honor—both in San Francisco—invite us to scrutinize both the celebration and its demise. In many ways, this revisioning of western American art parallels alterations in the content and meaning of western American history. In both art and history, longstanding and powerful myths have fallen as subjects have broadened and contemporary viewpoints have shifted.

Back in the 19th century, celebrations of territorial expansion were commonplace among American historians. In his multi-volume account of The Winning of the West and other historical writings, Theodore Roosevelt admitted that the shedding of blood was not always “agreeable,” but deemed it the “healthy sign of the virile strength” of the American people. As president of the American Historical Association and as president of the United States, Roosevelt exulted in “our manifest destiny to swallow up the land of all adjoining nations who were too weak to withstand us.” He judged it “desirable for the good of humanity at large that the American people should ultimately crowd out the Mexicans from their sparsely populated Northern provinces” and wrest the rest of the West from Indians.

Popular as Roosevelt’s histories were in his time, it was his contemporary, Frederick Jackson Turner, who put forward the interpretation that gained enduring scholarly traction. Most prominently in his 1893 essay on “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Turner assigned westward expansion the central role in the history of the United States. He contended that it had not only enlarged the nation’s territory, but had also accounted for the individualistic and democratic character of its people and its institutions. In Turner’s view, the process of moving west separated Americans from their European roots (and in Turner’s imagination, the designation “American” referred exclusively to people of European ancestry). From what Turner and his contemporaries referred to as the “Great American West” then sprang the sources of American exceptionalism and American greatness.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966).

Subsequent generations of historians of the American West took their cues from Turner’s “frontier thesis.” Some echoed it. Some extended it. Some amended it. Through the first half of the 20th century, however, few sought to challenge Turner’s belief in the fundamental importance of the frontier to American development or to question the exaltation of westward expansion.

That has changed over the last half century. Protests against the Vietnam War and the spread of various civil rights movements had a profound impact on the interpretation of American history in general, and western American history in particular. If American expansion led to Vietnam, a conflict that drew frequent metaphorical comparison to the supposed lawless violence of the “Wild West,” then it was not something to be cheered. At the same time, liberation struggles at home inspired historians to look beyond the white, male protagonists who had previously dominated frontier epics. In step with other American histories, scholars of the American West turned their attentions to the expectations and experiences of the unsung and the undone.

With a wider cast and an anti-imperial angle of vision, interpretations of the western past veered from the triumphant to the tragic. The titles of the two most influential surveys of what came to be called “the new western history” attested to this shift in orientation: The Legacy of Conquest by Patricia Limerick (1987) and It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own by Richard White (1991). Synthesizing scholarship from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, these books asserted that conquest and its legacy brought misfortunes aplenty to the defeated and even to the supposed victors. The more general misfortunes traced to the environmental blowback that followed efforts to turn the land into what it was not, to transform a mostly arid and sparsely populated region into an agricultural “garden” and a home for multiplying millions of residents.

In the revisionist mirror, the Great West didn’t look very great anymore, a gloom and doom view that not all historians, and certainly not all Americans, embraced. Critics claimed the new western history overlooked the achievements and exaggerated the evils of American expansion. The unbalanced exposition, complained the novelist Larry McMurtry, unfairly presented the western past as an unrelenting course in “failure studies.”

Similar debates erupted among art historians and grabbed much public notice in 1991. That year, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art presented “The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the American Frontier, 1820-1920.” In the exhibition, the curators challenged both the realism and the romance of western art. According to the exhibition’s gallery guide, the assembled works—which included masterpieces by the most renowned artists of the American West—were “not so much records of activities or places” as they were “a means of persuading people that westward expansion was good for the nation and would benefit all who participated in it.” This proposition put western art and western artists in the service of manifest destiny, an ideology that led painters, sculptors, and photographers to mask “the problems created by westward expansion.”

“The West as America” exhibition was quite controversial. Some visitors limited their vitriol to the comments book in the gallery. Others vented their outrage in op-ed pieces. In response to the uproar, several congressmen demanded that the National Museum of American Art be defunded for allowing this blasphemy to be perpetrated against western art. That campaign failed, but the planned national tour of the exhibition was cancelled.

Prop western town used in Dances With Wolves (1991).

In terms of public notice, by far the greatest impact of changing views about the history of the American West registered at the movies. The social currents emanating from the 1960s that rewrote western histories and reinterpreted the meaning of still images also dramatically upended the art of motion pictures. For decades, “Westerns” ruled Hollywood. “Epics” and “B-westerns” filled movie theaters from the 1920s to the 1950s—and dominated American television programming in the 1950s. But during the 1960s, traditional, heroic Westerns began losing their popular appeal. Far fewer were produced. Those that were often inverted the genre’s conventions about heroes and villains and the righteousness of violence and manifest destiny. In landmark films such as Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970), and Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (1971), the Old West became a stage on which 1960s critiques of American capitalism and imperialism played out. Arguably, though, the reversing of traditional western roles did not reach its apotheosis until 1991 when Dances with Wolves won eight Academy Awards.

Dances with Wolves reigned at the box office and at the Oscars, but over the last quarter century, the best historical scholarship has aimed at more than mere inversion of old myths about the Old West. One important direction has been to compare and connect what happened in the American West with parallel places and processes elsewhere. Departing from Turner’s claim that the frontier set the U.S. apart from its European roots, historians of the American West have instead emphasized the commonalities between American and other “colonialisms.” More specifically, the construct of “settler colonialism” has emerged as a key to situating the American experience in a broader global context. Further depriving the American West of its uniqueness, historians have adopted the lens of “ethnic cleansing,” or worse “genocide,” to understand American expansions and the accompanying displacement and sometimes devastation of indigenous peoples.

The most compelling western histories written in the last quarter century confront the complexities of past and present. This begins with the recognition of how deep that past is, with histories that commence well before the West was American and with excavations that reveal the diversity and dynamism of Native America prior to the arrival of European colonizers. From archaeological and other sources, historians have now recovered rich precolonial worlds and complex societies that continued after Indians encountered people from Europe and Africa, weaving a fascinating new understanding of how natives and newcomers met and mingled.

Rescuing indigenous people from the condescension of New Age romanticism that turns them into ever peaceful, perfect ecologists, newer histories have shown how Indians not only resisted European colonialism, but also in some parts of North America carried out their own expansions. The best of these newer western histories detail as well how prolonged interactions resulted in ethnic crossings as well as ethnic cleansings. Most visibly, this intercourse produced mixed-race offspring, but historians have also tracked a wide range of exchanges that led to a blending of cultures. Such amalgamations have remained a hallmark of western American cultures in the 20th and now the 21st centuries

The history of the American West, like the art of the American West, isn’t what it used to be. No doubt, many lament the changes and pine for the myths that western histories (and western art) once celebrated. But if we are to make sense of the West’s multi-faceted evolutions and figure out how we can live together, and live sustainably, in this region, we don’t need one-dimensional tales. Rather we need histories and art that respect the past, wrestling, as historians and artists must, with the complexities that challenge us still.


The keyword “west” typically has two referents. On the one hand, it refers to the western United States or the area west of the ninety-eighth meridian, where arid country begins; on the other hand, it invokes a global geographic division between the “West” as a center of global colonial powers in Europe and North America and the non-West, or the “rest” of the world. The two referents—the “American West” and Western colonialism—intersect in a system of narratives and images popularized in U.S. literature, visual culture, and especially cinema: Monument Valley, the Oregon Trail, cowboys, Indians, pioneers. Mainstream understanding of these narratives and images position them as wellsprings of Anglo-American nationalist character, as sites where the “Old West” or “Wild West” of the nineteenth-century masculine frontier becomes the West, a place frequently believed to be “more real” or “more authentically western” than the actual environs where novel readers, television viewers, and moviegoers live their lives. Critical approaches to the same archive reposition these artifacts as belonging to a larger history of colonial thought. The term “west” becomes, in this context, a badge of identity, conflating geopolitical and topographic space with cultural belonging and matters of style. To take up the keyword “west” is to contend at once with its national as well as its global genealogies.

Older usages of the word “west” reveal its Teutonic, Aryan historical character. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “west” occurs in Old English only as an adverb, indicating directional movement or map area, coming into later use as a noun and an adjective. By the early modern period, “west” denoted the Americas or the New World. Two additional figurative senses of the word, noted in the OED, are significant. One is to die, to disappear, or to be destroyed. This figuration becomes a recurrent feature of the conclusions of film and literary Westerns, as protagonists as different as Alan Ladd of Shane (1953) and John Grady Cole of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses (1992) fade into the sunset. The other sense, gaining currency over the past two centuries, conflates the noun “West,” now capitalized, with colonial projects headquartered in western Europe and North America. It is this conflation that both Raymond Williams (1976/1983, 333–34) and Naoki Sakai and Meaghan Morris (2005) characterize as Eurocentric and mythical. “The West” or “the Western World” is posited against some presumed non-West, a world of Others. The category “westerners” conceives a unity of peoples who share residential origins, racial heritage, and civilization. “Westernization” maps a specific geographical referent onto notions of progress, modernity, scientific achievement, and processes of capitalist development. The non-West, by definitional contrast, lacks these things; it is presumed to need colonization and the benefits of the imperial force of civilization.

During the major period of U.S. imperial expansion westward (loosely 1830–1890), the meanings of “west” slipped and slid between those associated with the “civilizing” processes of European colonialism and new meanings emerging with U.S. nationalism and linked to “the frontier.” The injunction “Go West, young man, go West,” often attributed to the journalist Horace Greeley, linked Old World claustrophobia and the utopianism of colonial ventures toward an ideal of rugged masculine individualism. Opportunity belonged to the man who pursued it, and its location was west, at the frontier. Such urgings were crucial to nation-building efforts since the frontier regions were war zones, requiring settlers to secure them, and other political destinies were yet still possible (LeManager 2004). Britain, France, and Russia vied for territorial control of regions not yet dominated by the United States. Indigenous peoples fought to retain land, language, culture. The vast territories of the northern frontier of Mexico were impractical to govern and vulnerable to appropriation, as revealed by Mexico’s loss of the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846.

Making explicit the ideological links between the westering experience and processes of Americanization, historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 “frontier thesis” argued that the challenge of settling “the wilderness” had created a society of men of action who embraced populist government and rejected class hierarchies and religious and aristocratic authority. By contrast, the close of the frontier or running out of “free land” (Turner disregarded indigenous occupancy claims) endangered the nation. Turner looked back with imperial nostalgia and found hope in the vision that “American energy will continually demand a wider field for its exercise” (1893/1920, 26). Turner’s approach informed early twentieth-century usages of the term by incorporating older meanings of “west” (the “West” of “Western Civilization”) and bending them toward U.S. national and imperial designs. “West” is understood to fall west of the Mississippi but also, when politically expedient, to exceed it by expanding across new frontiers. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn famously “lit out” for the territories, as did Twain himself, eventually writing about Hawai‘i, in the same years that Teddy Roosevelt used the west to fashion his manly political image and imperial military projects. Roosevelt was a sickly northeastern boy, an avid reader of popular Western dime novels, and eventually a rancher. His masculine vigor was recuperated by western cultural embrace, energizing the cowboy-cavalryman and providing an ideological rationale for leading his Rough Riders up San Juan Hill and into Panama (Bederman 1995).

The scholarly field of American studies was founded, in part, through critical engagements with these types of representations. Early American studies scholars such as Henry Nash Smith (1950) pointed to the popular misconceptions that Turner’s frontier myth fostered about democracy, and offered important theoretical contributions to the new field by developing new interpretations of the past. Feminist scholars, in turn, critiqued both Turner and Smith, noting the masculinist legacies of the frontiersman figure as a national archetype, the gendered implications of the “virgin land,” and the unconscious masculinity of American studies scholarship in general (Kolodny 1984;Baym 1985). The highly regarded writer Wallace Stegner showed Turner’s influence when he famously defined the West as the landscape forming national character, “hope’s native home” (1992, xxi). In turn, Stegner was sharply rebuked by the Native American writer and scholar Elizabeth Cook-Lynn (1996). She disputed the erasure of Native presence in Stegner’s conceptions of western history and demanded that writers and readers demonstrate awareness in matters of cultural authority and of who gets to speak for the western United States as a “native.”

Despite these correctives, the conventional notion of the west has so conditioned the keyword’s global reception that powerful counternarratives are not widely perceived in popular or scholarly circles. To date, the scholarship that has most dramatically advanced such counternarratives in the United States is the New Western History—a multiracial, feminist, environmentalist, urban-embracing, class-conscious, and anti-imperial academic and public history project that astonished even its own spokespeople by becoming an overnight media sensation (Limerick 1991). New Western Historians claimed the mythical West as a real place and redefined the terms clustering around the keyword during the 1980s and early 1990s. New terms and analytic categories animated the keyword, with conquest, empire, and realism becoming more central than discovery, frontier, and myth.

Literary, film, and cultural studies scholarship of the 1990s contributed significantly to this shift in critical conversation by drawing on poststructuralist thought and postmodern geography to interpret the cultural works inspired by the feminist and civil rights movements. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn (1968),Maxine Hong Kingston’s Tripmaster Monkey (1989), and Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands / La Frontera (1987) are only a few examples of literary works that gained popular and critical stature, forming a counter- or “New Western” canon in which white nationalist masculinity and regional insularity were no longer caveats (Comer 1999;N. Campbell 2000). An emphasis on poetics, philosophy, and questions of literary and cinematic form brought increased sophistication to a field that was considered overly historicist (L. Mitchell 1996;Tatum 1997;N. Lewis 2003). Literature itself was shown to be more important to history making than historians had acknowledged (F. Robinson 1997). Groundbreaking work emerged on indigenous issues, representation, and activism (Vizenor and Lee 1999;C. Allen 2002;Bernardin 2007). In the process, “west” became a keyword in studies of sovereignty, given that the majority of extant American Indian reservations intersect with western geopolitical spaces, making conflicts between tribal treaty rights and U.S. national claims inevitable. “West” is also a significant category in studies of displacement, exclusion, border culture, and cultural revitalization (Paredes 1958;M. Davis 1990;Lowe 1996;Limón 1999). These developments point to a new critical regionalism, a term used in architectural theory to describe the productive tension between local/regional factors and universalization (Frampton 1983) and in social theory to characterize cultural formations that move between borders and beyond the nation-state (Spivak and Butler 2007).

Current usages of the keyword are diverse and in transition. Even as the policies and personas of both Presidents Bush revived understandings of “the West” as a space of nation formation and imperial consolidation (merging the two usages of the term once again), these meanings are less active today in a political economy that is best characterized as postregional (Tatum 2007). Under globalization, national borders are porous, and regions function less as feeder economies for national centers than as autonomous units redirected toward “suprastate regionalisms” (EEC and NAFTA) and “city-region states” such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, and Houston. This new mobility of regions has given rise to hemispheric and transnational versions of American studies and to richer intersections with anticolonial scholarship in cultural studies. Social spaces and aesthetics signaled by the keyword “west” today are completely structured by the presence of global capital, raising questions about the fate of local geographic sites and about postregional style, affect, tropes, and ethics. Rhetorics of Ground Zero and the Homeland organize American exceptionalism after 9/11 more than Turner’s Free Land does (Pease 2009a).

Scholarship on the transnational West has responded to and catalyzed these shifts. It notes that the keyword has always been mapped as much by “routes” (of commerce, culture, ideas, and people) as by “roots” (of communities with competing claims for land occupancy). Neil Campbell (2008) powerfully maps the keyword from its transnational outsides through the concept of “the rhizome,” drawing from philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, to show how the idea of a rooted West, or the West as a stable place, is persistently contradicted by the rootlessness (or rhizomatic spreading) characteristic of western life and apparent in literature, film, and visual culture. The promise of the “rhizomatic West” as model for critical thought is challenged, again and appropriately, by feminist and indigenous critical regionalisms, which note parallels between rhizomatic spreading, the flows of contemporary capitalism, and the liberty of masculine movement assumed by settler colonialist projects (Comer 2010;Byrd 2011;Alex Young 2013). In the future, the concept of “postwestern”—which highlights the dynamism of the keyword and does not assume that “West” is known in advance—may offer enough flexibility to keep in productive tension shared scholarly interests in memory, space, and representation (Kollin 2007;K. Klein 1996;N. Campbell 2011;Comer 2013). The edge of critical thought will be honed through debate about what constitutes a sufficiently critical regionalism, what counternarratives it can sustain, and what efficacy it can have in decolonizing space and knowledge.

Disciplinarities, Histories, Places

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