The American West as Idea, Not Fact

The Hoover Institution Policy Review has a good article re-visiting the myth of the American West and concludes that while the ideas the West supposedly represents exist more because of artists than actual pioneers, it doesn’t matter: the "geography of hope" still inspires Americans to reinvent themselves even in this modern, post-frontier era. Excerpts:

To [Frederick Jackson] Turner, the “free land” of the frontier defined the American spirit. “This fluidity of American life, this expansion westward — with its few opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society — furnish the forces dominating American character,” he said. “To the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics.”

And it was true: Most Americans shared a belief in the power of nature as a source of renewal. Physicians prescribed the “West cure,” a hunting trip meant to rejuvenate weary Eastern men. By going outdoors, shaking off the shackles of civilization, men could return to their authentic selves….

As the Western frontier closed, was America in danger of losing no less than its national identity?                 Roosevelt feared as much. In his 1899 address to the Hamilton Club, he warned against letting America collapse into decadent Orientalism: “We cannot, if we would, play the part of China, and be content to rot by inches in ignoble ease within our borders . . . heedless of the higher life, the life of aspiration, of toil and risk, busying ourselves only with the wants of our bodies for the day.” …

So while McMurtry’s revisionism insists that the traditional Western depicts a tragic, unattainable way of life, he also celebrates those virtues that the traditional Western was meant to inspire….But he still recognizes the nobility of Western myth…In this way, McMurtry completes the revisionist project by looking past the cobwebs and discovering that the real West was always more an idea than a historical fact.  But the idea, though it exists in the national mind rather than the historical record, is no less real — and even more important.

7 Responses to The American West as Idea, Not Fact

  1. Vince Williams says:

    Speaking as a white man with Cherokee blood, I laugh, and then I cry, when I hear the self congratulating war-whoops of the new robber barons and their web-steading barbarian settlers in cyberspace.

    As Larry McMurtry hinted, the real story of the myth of the Great American West–that ever-receeding horizon of our dreams–is a tale of destruction.

    Destruction of the cultures of the peoples whose land the U.S. government stole.

    Destruction of the environment by the clearcutting of vast swaths of forest land and the poisoning of the soil and its very watershed by mining leachates and tailings.

    Destruction of the souls of those who so greedily exploited the resources of the land without regard for the consequences to their posterity.

    This sick ‘Ideal’ of the American West is an anti-myth–a life blueprint for misery to the displaced peoples victimized by the insatiable hunger of the ‘Great White Hunter’ (Bully, Teddy) and every new ‘conquistador’, who in his mad chase for the new fool’s gold,
    runs right by the greatest treasure of all.

  2. Ben Casnocha says:

    “Speaking as a white man with Cherokee blood, I laugh, and then I cry,
    when I hear the self congratulating war-whoops of the new robber barons
    and their web-steading barbarian settlers in cyberspace.”

    Huh?

    “This sick ‘Ideal’ of the American West is an anti-myth–a life
    blueprint for misery to the displaced peoples victimized by the
    insatiable hunger of the ‘Great White Hunter’ (Bully, Teddy) and every
    new ‘conquistador’, who in his mad chase for the new fool’s gold,
    runs right by the greatest treasure of all.”

    Say again?

  3. Vince Williams says:

    I find the glorification of the Westward movement of white settlers into lands seized from their rightful owners to be strange, and the wellspring of the arrogant presumption of jingoists like George W. Bush.

    It’s a smug hubris that emboldens him to breach the restraints of civilization and go swaggering abroad, loosing the dogs of war, just as Andrew Jackson’s soldiers did when they drove my ancestors out of their homes, and protected the white settlers who seized their lands and moved into the very houses my grandfathers built.

    I applaud the so-called ‘revisionism’ of writers like McMurtry who have tried to deconstruct an insidious myth that is nothing more than the ‘doctrine’ of manifest destiny dressed in romantic clothes.

    I think it’s obvious that the landscape of web 2.0 is the playground of the new Billy the Web Kid and Jesse Jukin’ James, playing dress-up in the garb of old bandits.

  4. Dave says:

    >>I think it’s obvious that the landscape of web 2.0 is the playground of the new Billy the Web Kid and Jesse Jukin’ James, playing dress-up in the garb of old bandits.

    whah? how’d you get from the first 2 paragraphs to the last one?

    i get the part about glorifying the old west and forgetting the part about decimating native american indians…

    but wtf does that have to do with Web 2.0?

    seriously.

  5. Dave says:

    Dave, I know it’s a jarring transition, but I intended it to be.

    It’s a little joke I stuck on for the intended recipients of the message. I know they’ll see it here.

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