Saturday, September 13, 2014

2.  Would the Real West Please Stand Up?

September 13, 2014

      Frederick Jackson Turner led the charge to define the West in The Frontier in American History (1920).  His explanations of the westernization process remained in place until the 1980s when historians began to question his tunnel-visioned ideals of individualism, exceptionalism and democracy.  In her "Claims and Prospects of Western History:  A Roundtable " (2000), Virginia Scharff  asks historians to "start a discussion . . . about the uses and limits of the West as a category for analysis" (26).  Since the West is, in my opinion, a viable region of historical study, Maria E. Montoya's query in the same article seems more pertinent:  "[H]ow can we . . . think of the West as an exceptional space that creates 'democratic, free individuals''' if we exclude "larger conversations about colonial encounters, imperialism, and incorporation?" (43).

      Growing up in Washington (the other Washington), Turner's West made sense to me.  I loved the wide-open spaces where I played (good) cowboys and (bad) Indians.  My middle-class family and friends were descendants of western Europeans.  I took for granted the presence of nearby Fairchild Air Force Base and corporate establishments like medical centers and railroads that served the Inland Northwest; wheat fields surrounded us.   It did not occur to me, as William Deverell points out in "Fighting Words:  The Significance of the American West in the History of the United States" (1994), that neither my experiences nor Turner's myth alone characterized the West.  Perhaps more than in other regions, diversity is a western hallmark:  power and dependence, pioneers and federal government, nature versus human industry, differences in time, space and circumstance. 
"[N]o single seamless narrative," according to Deverell, " . . . can possibly be truthful" (203 - 204).

      It is interesting, as David M. Emmons posits in "Constructed Province:  History and the Making of the Last American West" (1994), that eastern power elites propagated Turner's legends of "hard-working, independent people [getting] a kind of divinely granted second chance" in the West; undoubtedly, the image of rugged individualism sold better than that of drudging wage-earners (451, 455).  In Scharff's piece, James P. Ronda analogizes the West's "garden in the grasslands" to Thomas Jefferson's "rural paradise" at Monticello; in reality, it often masked "the hazards of farming life" (27).  Obviously, there were many Wests.

      The authors in this week's readings offer a plethora of factors affecting the development of the West.  Turner emphasizes settlement of the prairies, "tides of alien immigrants," and democratic excellence (210, 277, 318).  Deverell debunks stereotypes and highlights realistic diversity (195, 205).  Emmons  divides the West into eight subregions, underscoring mining and timber interests, ethnic diversity, and "what the West . . . did to the people" (449, 445, 457).  In Scarff's  roundtable, John Mack Faragher states that local western history must be viewed in the context of global history (29).  In the same piece, Kathleen Underwood asks us to incorporate interdisciplinarity into western history to encompass post-colonial and cultural studies (40). Based on such varied perspectives,  this week's class discussion promises to be energetic and enlightening!

1 comment:

  1. I liked your summation of the Deverell article, which I found much more insightful than I had initially considered. His contention that the West is characterized by the abundance of its characters, and the complexities of their various interactions. I, like you, was forced out of my previous conceptions and admitted that the West was far more diverse than even I considered. All of this weeks authors added new ideas and characters to the story that speak to diversity and tensions in the West that give life to a conversation that we can't seem to stop discussing.