In this month’s “Picturing the West” forum, I want to examine three broad areas:
1) The Real West and The Imagined West
Much has been said about the differences between the Real and the Imagined West; for our purposes here, we will use the following distinctions: by the “Real West” we will mean images that provide documentary evidence of the Western past which can be corroborated with other sources, which are specifically located in a place and time, and which contain people behaving in ways that align with what would have been the everyday and typical behaviors common to the place and time; by the “Imagined West” we will mean images that illustrate the ways in which viewers have been encouraged at different times to have a specific perspective on the region, with images constructed (sometimes-but not always-outside the West and by people who have had little first-hand experience of the West) to convey embedded values about what the West “means.” The purpose of this discussion will be not simply to “debunk” certain images and to valorize others, but to identify significant differences among them and to understand the value of this distinction in teaching about the history of the West and the nation. Further, it is important that at times the same images can depict both “real” and “imagined” Wests.
2) The Frontier as a Process and the West as a Place
The debate over the so-called “New Western History” centered on the difference between using the West as a stand-in for the “Frontier process” explained by Frederick Jackson Turner-which means that the West is situated in an ever-changing location (moving westward to the Pacific) depending on local socioeconomic conditions-on the one hand, and discussing the West as a place (located since the beginning of time to the West of the Mississippi River with a history that stretches back even beyond the earliest points of human memory). I would like to examine the differences in such visual representations of the processes of the “expansion of (or closing of) the frontier” and the desire to record continuity, a deep history, and the long stretch of time in a specific (even geological) place.
3) The Nineteenth- & The Twentieth-Century Wests
When the West stops “looking Western” (when images of the place no longer show us cowboys on horseback lined up in front of a saloon, say), what does it mean to refer to “images of the West”? In this section, I would like to examine the challenges and rewards of examining the images of both the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Wests, to begin to trace out distinct “western” aspects in the images which point towards simultaneously subtler and richer evocations of the history of the West and the ways in which the region fits into the larger national narrative of U.S. history.
To start, I’d like to ask a big question, with a number of related sub-questions, of the participants.
When you think of a single image (or two or three) which “encapsulate” the visual image of “The West,” what is that image? I’ve provided a range here, both above and below, to get things going. You might imagine here that you are charged with choosing the image that will serve as the cover of a book called something like The Complete History of the West and Its Role in the Nation.
Does this image focus on a location or an event? Does it emphasize a specific moment and place, or is it “timeless” and generally-located? Are there people in it, and if so, who are they? Is the image dominated by natural or by human-made objects? In what ways must this image be “Western”- meaning it could not be a “Southern” or “New England” image? When was the image produced, by whom, and for what purpose? How did you learn about the image? What does your choice of image say about the narrative that you believe is central to telling the story of the West? What does your choice of image say about the role you believe the West has played in the larger, national historical narrative?