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.

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