Picturing the West 1

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.


Charles Schreyvogel, "Defending the Fort."


Schreyvogel painting on roof of his apartment building, Hoboken, N.J., 1903.


Frederic Remington, "Fight for the Water Hole" (1903).

Charles M. Russell, "Thoroughman's Home on the Range" (DATE).

Charles M. Russell, "Thoroughman's Home on the Range" (1897).

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.

Andrew Melrose, "Westward the Star of Empire Takes Its Way-near Council Bluffs, Iowa, 1867"

Andrew Melrose, "Westward the Star of Empire Takes Its Way-near Council Bluffs, Iowa" (1867).

Thomas Moran, "Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone II" (DATE).

Thomas Moran, "Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone II."

Charles Phelps Cushing, "Promontory Point, May 10, 1869."

Andrew J. Russell, "Driving the golden spike at Promontory Summit, Utah, May 10, 1869."

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.

Thomas Moran, "Grand Canyon of the Yellwstone" (DATE).

Thomas Moran, "Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone" (1872).

Chuck Forsman, "Point of View" (2007)-This is a painting.

Chuck Forsman, "Point of View" (2007)-This is a painting.

Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe with inset by 1872 William Bell, "Headlands North of the Colorado River Plateau and Chocolate Butte near Mouth of the Paris, Arizona (2009).

Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe with inset by 1872 William Bell, "Headlands North of the Colorado River Plateau and Chocolate Butte near Mouth of the Paris, Arizona (2009).

Poster for "Dead Man," dir. Jim Jarmusch (1995).

Poster for "Dead Man," dir. Jim Jarmusch (1995).

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?

Emanuel Leutze, "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way [Westward Ho!]" (1861).

Emanuel Leutze, "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (Westward Ho!)" (1861).

John Gast, "American Progress" (1872).

John Gast, "American Progress" (1872).

Albert Bierstadt, "Emigrants Crossing the Plains" (1867).

Albert Bierstadt, "Emigrants Crossing the Plains" (1867).

John Wayne in "Stagecoach," dir. John Ford (1939).

John Wayne in "Stagecoach," dir. John Ford (1939).


  1. Arthur Green
    Posted October 1, 2009 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    The questions enumerated in the commentary are searching and of great use in any classroom. I would say the same about the comments in terms of realism. I have often used pictures with contrasting views such as one depicting the “Trail of Tears” along with the typical wagon train with railroad in the background, progress, etc. It really comes down to questions the instructor has when he/she decides to teach the unit. What are the lessons from this past event that we should use to instruct students in the present? What happens to those doing the expanding (or conquoring) and those hapless enough to “be in the way?” How has the event affected this nation then and now?

  2. Posted October 1, 2009 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    I teach a population of English Language Learners and many of them are recent immigrants. To that end, the use of the “West” as a concept for study is based largely as a reaction to their experiences. For many of my students, the “West” is merely over the Hudson River into New Jersey, so it is very important to establish a geographic baseline from which to begin discussion. Remember that the concept of the “West” has changed over time: Upstate New York was considered in this category until the early 1800s. Thus, it’s important to make sure students have a clear definition of place.

    Furthermore, if I were to pick an iconic picture of the “West”, it has to be the Duke, John Wayne. Ever since our founding, the U.S. has always created its own mythology, and this mythology has an important place in our cultural landscape. The “West”, in American popular culture, means more than a place. It is an ideal of rugged individualism, plain talk, and straight shooting. It represents the clarity that is lost in the fog of “city folk” back East. Now this often obscures important social issues. But the effect of this mythology cannot be lost on students, for good or ill.

  3. Posted October 2, 2009 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    Many of my students are English Language Learners, as well as immigrants to this country. For them, the “West” requires a special consideration, since their worldview often does not include it as a concept. One way to show ELLs how the “West” has evolved its physical definition is showing maps of US growth–carefully noting how the term “West” has come to mean different territories since the colonial period and then delineating the 19th Century “west” as an agreed geographic expression.

    Yet for many students, the “West” is more than a place, it is a state of mind, and ethos, and an important element of American mythology. My iconic picture of the “West” has to be John Wayne. Wayne’s films may not have shown the West as it truly was, but they did detail the myth of the West in a clear, straightforward manner. For many immigrants, America is defined by this archetype: the rugged, silent individual carving a rough-hewn existence in an unforgiving landscape.

    I would even show films to students where the “West” as a myth played a central role. “Hunt for Red October” is a perfect example: the main character feels his plan will work if he can find an American willing to help, or a “buckaroo” in his words. Films like this show how the Western mystique has permeated not only American society but also views of America from abroad.

  4. Deven Black
    Posted October 3, 2009 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    My notions of “The West” originated with the cowboy-themed television shows of the 1950 and ’60s. These notions were reinforced by the limited education about the West that I received in NYC public schools during that same period.

    Both the television shows and my schooling portrayed mythic westerners and a mythic West. The West as myth continues to inform the American myth of rugged individualism, self-sufficiency and Manifest Destiny as portrayed in Gast’s painting and as used in the politics and editorials of the of the mid-19th Century.

    I ask my middle school students to try to look at the nation’s westward expansion from the points-of-view of the different peoples involved and effected. I also teach how the mythic West continues to play-out in today’s political postures and statements.

    I would think that the suggested complete history of the West would require multiple volumes. I would propose that each have a different cover illustration portraying a different aspect of the West as myth and as reality.

  5. Chris Johnson
    Posted October 3, 2009 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

    Catherine, thanks for your illuminating discussion of the west and the great set of images. I found particularly interesting the comparison of the idea of the real, that is document-based, and the imagined, which is driven by perspective. Also your point regarding the difference between debunking and valorizing is valuable. I always find fascinating the view of the history of the west with “an ever-changing location.”

    I have not one but a set of favorite images. Referring to Catherine’s discussion, they record both locations and events. They all portray what I believe to be a moving narrative. I teach an upper level undergraduate course titled “Modern America and Visual Culture” where I include readings matched to images of the west. In part, I have an environmental take on the American west. To answer Catherine’s challenging question of a choice for a book cover, I chose a black-and-white photograph of the Hoover Dam from the book “Cadillac Desert” (1986) by Marc Reisner. This photo and four others are at the following web site address.

    I’d like to mention each photo briefly and link them to ideas that Catherine wrote about. The Hoover Dam photo in black-and-white is a powerful statement on human interaction with the environment. For me it records a location and suggests a number of narratives. There are numerous images of the dam in color if you google the name. I see this one as the most dramatic. The contrast of the water behind the dam is emphasized versus the river’s flow below. The dam itself looks almost like a vessel, a craft of some kind blocking the water’s way. I thought of how the structure reminded me of a child’s sandbox shovel, stuck to hold back a torrent. There is a greater contrast, the human-made set against the natural. I am both impressed by this American accomplishment and see folly in the attempt to control our environment. Reisner writes how, due to pumping, by 1930 the water table in the San Joaquin Valley had dropped three hundred feet. During the days of the great dust bowl, the soiled winds were carried as far away as Europe. This photo is both symbolic of the beauty of the landscape and our devastation of it.

    The remaining four images focus on people in relationships with the environment of the west. The story of these photos are for me event-related. Next a photo of the signing of the papers of a tribal land sale from the book “Cadillac.” I have shown this image in the classroom as a slide and the group always falls silent at this scene. In it, a grown man cries. (I don’t have more details of this photo on hand at this writing.) The photo of the miners at dinner is from the book “Legacy of Conquest” (1983) by Patricia Nelson Limerick. The mess of large tin cans in the foreground speak as well to the human impact on the land. The following photo of native Americans posing with their attorney, from “Legacy,” suggests a kind of reversal, the use of the means of the system to defend against the system itself. The fifth photo of Chinese railroad workers is also from “Legacy.” Much like the Hoover Dam image, this photo of a Central Pacific Railroad bridge expresses the same duality, with, documentation on the hands that made the structure.

    I welcome the comments of the forum. In fact, Catherine’s image of Charles Schreyvogel painting “on location” immediately reminded me of my own image set. I don’t mean to skewer the west. My students seem to readily accept the critique that the photos imply. Are these images appropriate for all audiences? And, because they are all photos, documents, does the imagined exist here in any way?


    “Cadillac Desert: the American West and its Disappearing Water.” Marc Reisner. 1986.

    “The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West.” Patricia Nelson Limerick. 1983.

  6. Fritz Umbach
    Posted October 5, 2009 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    In contrasting the “real” and ‘imagined” Wests in the 20th century, one frequently overlooked aspect of the modern west is that it is America’s most heavily urbanized region. Of the 52+ million living in the country’s 12 western states, three-fourths live in urban areas– a pattern that’s been true for a quarter century. Moreover, even if population densities might be lower in the West, the densities of the region’s urban areas are higher. How best to graphically represent this concept to students? I’ve contrasted the iconography of tourist brochures various western states put out (readily available by calling their tourist offices) with graphs of population distribution. But I’d love to be able to use some other visual from the census data. Of course, the mismatch between the urbanized reality of the west and the romanticized vision of rural dwellers can be a springboard into revealing conversations about the self-identity of both westerners and Americans.

  7. John McClymer
    Posted October 5, 2009 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    I teach undergraduates at Assumption College in Worcester, MA, including 20th Century U.S. Some of the most striking and powerful images of the West are of the Dust Bowl. I put together a slide show of some of these images along with Woody Guthrie’s classic recording of his “Dusty Old Dust,” the song that soon morphed into an anthem of WWII, “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You.”
    I use these in conjunction with an article by Paul Taylor in the SURVEY GRAPHIC (July 1935), “Again the Covered Wagon,” at the New Deal Network,
    Most of my students have heard of the Dust Bowl. Some have seen some of the Farm Security Administration photographs of the aftermath of dust storms. Most have no idea of what the storms themselves looked like. They find the combination of the slide show, Guthrie’s song, and the stories in Taylor’s article both powerful and enlightening.
    The story of the desertification of the Great Plains is not always taught as “western” history. Often, as in my 20th Century U.S. course, it is treated as part of the Great Depression/New Deal narrative. Wherever we put it, however, it is a tragic and informative chapter of Western history, and one that cannot effectively be told without images.

  8. John McClymer
    Posted October 5, 2009 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    On the topic of the West during the Great Depression, the most iconic images of the 1930s may well be Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” photographs, available at the Library of Congress, Lange’s own account of taking the pictures is available on this site as is a link to “Photographic License.” New Times: San Luis Obispo (2002), which tells the subject’s view of the photographs and recounts some of the ironies of the popular perceptions of the images in the 1930s and thereafter. There are also useful bibliographic references.
    The subject was not, as commonly assumed, a migrant driven to California by the Dust Bowl, but a long-term resident. She was not defeated by the Depression, as her expression in the photographs led most to conclude.
    These photographs did much to shape our images of poverty in California during the Depression. I find it helpful to use them to explore with undergraduates one of the central themes of this discussion, the reality of the West at any given point in time and our imagining of that reality. Normally, we assume that we can clearly differentiate between the two. No so in this case. The photographs DO tell us a good deal about the reality of what it meant to be down and out in California during the 1930s. But both Lange and those viewing her photographs brought their own imaginings to the act of looking.

  9. Posted October 5, 2009 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    John, I think you mention some interesting points about Dorothea Lange’s work and this discussion is starting to intersect a prior posting on the blog about Dorothea Lange’s work:

    I agree that there seems to be some hope in Lange’s work, that even in the early 20th century, the frontier offered hope not just to the subjects of the photos (e.g. Towards Los Angeles) but was part of a carefully constructed narrative that perpetuated the idea of “west” as “escape” and “new chance.”

  10. Mary Niall Mitchell
    Posted October 5, 2009 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    I do like the juxtaposition of the photograph taken on a Brooklyn rooftop against more iconic renderings like Remington’s “Defending the Watering Hole”. It would make a fruitful comparison for classroom discussion. Artists in the twentieth century, and their audiences, relied upon nineteenth-century stories and characters to render a past for the West-a very short one, by their lights. But they also relied upon a certain dynamic, that is, their own movement between west and east. Remington himself moved between New York and western territory to fuel his creative endeavors. But the same movement was important to the work of writers such as Willa Cather not to mention impresarios like Buffalo Bill with his Wild West Show. In other words, I’d use these kinds of images (the Brooklyn photograph and the Remington mentioned above, along with photos from Buffalo Bill’s show) to complicate the strictly westward gaze of Manifest Destiny. (You might throw in Gast’s “American Progress” as a starting point, to make the westward gaze a foil for the more complex cultural dynamic in which the West was a central part.) These images would encourage students to think about the West as an idea that was both produced and consumed for specific historical reasons. And it would ask them to consider the West and its history as not easily separated from the larger narrative of U.S. History. (see below.) Also, these images would make John Wayne’s image a bit more meaningful, I think, by placing it within a century’s-long practice of “producing” the West.
    That said, I would like to second the idea that discussing the West as a *geographical* space with ever-shifting boundaries, is critical to determining the kinds of images we might use in the classroom. “The South” and “the West” have been similarly ghettoized within the larger narrative of American history-one had slavery, the other genocide-but of course for slaveholders in the early 19th century, these two activities were becoming inextricably linked, and the two regions not yet distinct from one another. So, an image of Texas cotton fields, for instance, would be important to include as a particular vision for the West, one that included slavery.
    As for a book cover, I would resist an image that did not include the indigenous inhabitants of the territory beyond the Mississippi River, since the visions of pioneers, developers, and their supporters so often erased native peoples, leaving them outside of the frame.

  11. Josh Brown
    Posted October 5, 2009 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Catherine, for this great start to the West forum–and also to the commenters. In addition to geographic vagueness about just what we mean by “the West,” a troublesome obstacle to conceiving, let alone teaching, about the subject is the “timelessness” that descends on its visualization. For the post-Civil War era, though, we have a rich archive of images, including photographs (such as the Russell picture in Catherine’s portfolio showing the ceremony marking the completion of the transcontinental railroad) and illustrations in the pictorial press, that recorded/interpreted specific places and–what may be even more valuable in the classroom–events. Students generally have only a vague notion about how people received information in the past and showing how their “current events” were visually depicted, and the pictorial “language” that was used to convey information, ideas, documentation, and distortion, may help them get a better sense of process, chronology, and, for that matter, causation in the origin of myths. A particular instance of myth-busting, which usefully also involves comparing different types of visual evidence–photographs and news illustrations–involves Remington’s “coverage” of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre in Harper’s Weekly. Among many studies, Estelle Jussim’s Frederic Remington, the Camera and the Old West (1983) is very helpful.

  12. Posted October 5, 2009 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    Mary, you make excellent points about the West being compartmentalized, or “ghettoized” in your words. This often gives the false impression that the development beyond the Mississippi was a linear process: Native peoples lived here, whites moved in, natives pushed to reservations, then fast forward to a John Ford movie.

    One point to make clear to students, especially using primary source visuals, is the layered nature of Western development. This is especially true with regards to various ethnic groups, native groups, and border regions that developed multi-ethnic identities in spite of prevailing prejudices.

    In terms of border regions, the “Tex-Mex” culture of the Rio Grande area comes to mind, where interaction and blending was almost a necessity. The fruits of this cultural exchange are still felt today.

    Another, and one where I have primary knowledge, is the mining communities developed in the West, particularly in Montana, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico during the turn of the century. My great-grandfather left Italy, like many of my kin, to work in the coal mines of southern Colorado, alongside other Europeans, Mexicans, and Native Americans. The mines of Montana are similar in their Irish nature, with other ethnic groups as well.

    A great link to primary sources on this is the University of Denver’s Colorado Coal Field War project, which covers the 1914 Ludlow strike, but has sources for the period before that as well. It’s linked here:

    Hope this helps to develop a more nuanced picture than simply having white people pushing native tribes onto reservations.

  13. Neil Campbell
    Posted October 6, 2009 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    As a Englishman teaching and writing on the West I have used the visual as an approach for many years – especially using the ‘West as America’ collection (where many of the Lavender images come from) as a critical focus. My books ‘The Cultures of the American New West’ and ‘the Rhizomatic West’ develop strategies of criticism around aspects of visual cultures (including film, photography and art). Indeed, in the latter book I look also at how the West is represented globally – from outside the frame of ‘America’ via European filmmakers and photographers (Wenders, Leone, Robert Frank, Michael Ormerod etc). My aim over the years has been to try to critique the ‘region’ (‘specific perspective on the region’ is mentioned by Lavender) and move towards what I term ‘expanded critical regionalism’ as a means of re-connected the insulated West to the global stage. Visual culture can aid in the process. Through it one might indeed answer some of the questions posed, or indeed, think of others, such as the relationship of these images to the West’s role in colonialism or the West as a multi-layered, ‘rhizomatic’ space (closer to ed Soja’s conceptualisation in Thirdspace).

  14. Catherine Lavender
    Posted October 6, 2009 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    Thank you all for your thoughtful and thought-provoking responses. I’m looking forward to the continued discussion!

    One of the things which comes up over and over here is the need to help students grasp an understanding of the West as a specific place while also understanding that it has sometimes been imagined to shift (as a frontier, for example) as the nation has expanded. (And this issue will be one of the main themes of the second section of the forum.) If we are going to address the place in a meaningful way, indeed, as Luciano D’Orazio, Mary Niall Mitchell, and Josh Brown suggest, we need a good solid foundation in the geography. Towards these ends, maps do good service, and I’d suggest looking both at contemporary maps which allow the concrete boundaries to be seen (the U.S.-Mexico and U.S.-Canada borders, the Mississippi River, and the Pacific), and at historical ones which show the shifting definitions of the region. More on that in the next section.

    Starting where the students *are* is always a central challenge. Josh Brown’s comments remind us about the importance of locating the West not only in a place but also in a timeline. Luciano D’Orazio, for instance, points out the significant challenge of making this all make sense in the context of a classroom where many of the students (or, indeed, all) are recent immigrants to the U.S. Others (Deven Black, for instance) have raised the already-inscribed Western mythos that must be overcome with students who have some pre-existing knowledge of the region. I am sympathetic with this – I teach the history of the West in New York City, more specifically in Staten Island, and deal with complete indifference to the region on the one hand, and the deep inscription of the cowboy story on the other.

    Thus, I would argue, one of the important things about teaching about the West (as with anything) is to know the local situation. Staten Island, until recently, had an annual rodeo, a much-loved local institution which flourished until, as one long-time resident told me, “a windstorm blew over the stable and the horse had to move upstate.” (I wanted to point out that one horse did not make a rodeo, but I held my tongue.) So the natural starting point with my students here is to ask, “Why did Staten Island have a rodeo?” from which we can move on to the fact that Buffalo Bill’s Wild West spend several winter seasons here in the nineteenth century, so New Yorkers could see a rodeo.

    The local conditions here allow me to introduce western regionalism (and exceptionalism) as an analogy of local concerns. Staten Island has attempted – quite seriously – to secede from New York City, with the secessionists making arguments that are analogous to those made by, for instance, the Sagebrush rebels in the West. Students in Staten Island are familiar with those feelings of isolation, underrepresentation, and unflattering-and-confining definition of them from outside; they can make the leap to understanding Western communities’ similar concerns and analogous histories. Recent immigrants can also understand issues central to demythologizing Western history through analogy: their experience is not the iconic “Immigrant Experience” of passing through Ellis Island (indeed, many will have come *east* to the U.S.), and they can easily understand the counter-canonical story of Asian migration to the region, for instance, via Angel Island in California. They can also understand, perhaps even better than native-born students, the way that the “cowboy” has come to represent “the American” abroad (we can appreciate George W. Bush for making this connection clearer in recent years, as well).

    Chris Johnson raises a significant issue when he asks, referring to the role of photography in the distinction between a “real” (document-based) and “imagined” (perspective-driven) West, “because they are all photos, documents, does the imagined exist here in any way?” I would say, absolutely – we need to apply the same standards of inquiry to the documents that we do to the more clearly-constructed visual evidence (paintings, drawings, and the like). Photographs (indeed any documents) absolutely carry inscribed imagined Wests. In the images presented by Johnson, for instance, there are things edited out, a point of view, objects and people placed in the forefront for various reasons, and these human interactions with the image serve an imagined history of the
    region. The act of recording is in itself a kind of imagining – “*this* is important to me,” it says. The miners at dinner with their mountain of emptied tins – this photo was taken for a reason, in addition to the simple act of recording reality (and it is presented in Limerick’s book for a reason; Limerick has written of her reaction to the iconic cowboy movie scene of a saloon bustup being “but who will clean up the mess?”) One of the challenges of this analysis, however, is that the reasons are not always clearly preserved; photographers’ own reasons were not always recorded, and their own captions, which are often revealing, commonly become separated from the images themselves. For instance, I remember how revealing it was when, looking at photographs in the archives, I read the original caption on one Arthur Rothstein FSA photographs of a herd of sheep in a Montana mountain setting: “Hooved Locusts.” I’ve seen the same image used to illustrate the pastoral beauty of Western landscapes and the prevalence of sheep raising in Montana, but never with the original caption as created by Arthur Rothstein, which reveals a certain conservationist bent (the phrase was John Muir’s) and concern for the fate of the land. To borrow a phrase from Clifford Geertz, documentatary images demands a kind of “thick description” in which we examine the production and dissemination of the image as well as the “merely factual” evidence that it conveys – something exemplified in Josh Brown’s thoughts about Remington and the camera.

    Arthur Green poses an important question: “How has the [Western] event affected this nation then and now?” I hope we will address this question in detail in the third section of the forum – which will focus on the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Wests – when we delve into the “legacies of conquest” that continue to shape the nation. I am struck, also, by the need to include linguistic imagery in the discussion (especially interesting in the ELL setting as discussed by Luciano D’Orazio), with definitions of terms from the West’s real-and-also-imagined past which remain still with us today, laden with meaning, such as “buckaroo.” To these I would add the phrase “rugged
    individualism,” mentioned multiply above. Why, for instance, is individualism so naturally paired with the word “rugged,” for instance, and rarely with other words like “antisocial” or “antifederal” or “geographically-induced”? This is especially striking when something one might call “rugged collectivism” – union struggles (such as the Colorado coalfield wars Luciano D’Orazio refers to), *companies* of overland settlers, the struggle to maintain tribal control and affiliation, the role of the federal government as military enforcers and landlords – has played such an overwhelming role in the actual Western past. Fritz Umbach’s comments about population densities and Western urbanization point this out very clearly. Census data is a great way to reflect this countermythical reality, and focusing on the iconography of tourism (“come see our wide open empty spaces!”) is an excellent way to reveal this. Another way is to illustrate the dissonance between the image of an empty, rural West with the evidence presented by both nineteenth- and twentieth-century urban booster materials, such as the bird’s-eye or panoramic maps I refer to in my essay (Figure 5). I also appreciate Mary Niall Mitchell’s pointing out the opportunities for comparison between what we might term “special regional legacies” of both the South (slavery and racism) and the West (genocide), and the ways that that can serve to erase those histories (of slavery, racism, and genocide) as a larger part of the national history as a whole, as crossing the boundaries of region, and as things which continue to shape the nation today.

    I really appreciate John McClymer’s illustration that more complicated Western histories may already exist in the national narrative, but be hidden as being “Western.” His example of the Dust Bowl (with great concrete illustrations of how to present it) is an excellent one; my inclusion of _The Grapes of Wrath_ as one of John Ford’s most important “Westerns” in my essay is an echo of my shared conviction on this point. Drawing lines between the 19th-century and 20th-century visual histories of the West (which will be the topic of the third section of the forum) asks us, for instance, to compare the iconic (and more clearly mythic) overland trail paintings with the iconic (and more complicatedly-mythic) Dust Bowl exodus photographs of the FSA photographers (Aaron Knoll suggests some interesting continuities between the two). They are both heroic narratives, I would argue, in the sense that they are recordings of heroism and bravery in the face of challenging circumstances. But we usually present them as quite different heroic narratives, with our contemporary sympathies shifting sharply among them. Let’s talk more about that in the third section. I especially would like to return to Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” who was herself a subject of one of the “rephotography” projects conducted by one of my favorite Western contemporary photographers, Mark Klett. I would also add the other striking juxtaposition suggested here by Arthur Green: The “Trail of Tears” and the overland emigrants. It is significant that the act of “westering” is almost always explained as a reaction to mid-nineteenth-century “pull” factors such as the Homestead Act and the Gold Rush, but rarely discussed as a reaction to “push” factors such as forced relocation, and earlier in the century. What a rich juxtaposition that would be, and what an opportunity for redefining the narrative in the national context.

    To conclude my responses by returning to the question which launched this, about what image might represent the history of the place, the discussion is a great example of the struggle between the “place and process” depictions of the region in the nation — and the difficulty of conceiving a single narrative that can contain it. On the one hand, several suggest place-oriented images, such as the simultaneously heroic and tragic Hoover Dam (Chris Johnson), while others emphasize the need to communicate the process-oriented meaning of the West, for instance of John Wayne as a symbol of Western values of individualism (Luciano D’Orazio). A third approach tries to bring these together (as with Mary Niall Mitchell’s argument for inclusion of indigenous peoples) or to break them apart (Deven Black), the latter response a very understandable reaction in the face of the really unnavigable territory of building a unified narrative of a contested history. The challenge, however, is that in the classroom, we as teachers are asked to provide just such a unified narrative. Do we do it by editing (or sequestering) some of the complications, or do we struggle to craft a new narrative that accounts for the complications? I think we have some good territory to mine here (to throw as many Western metaphors into the sentence as possible), and look forward to further discussion.

  15. John McClymer
    Posted October 7, 2009 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    Creating a unified narrative of the West is certainly a daunting challenge. I do not have one to share, needless to say. I do have an idea about how to frame the story, which I am borrowing from Alexis DeTocqueville.

    If the changes which I have described were gradual, so that each generation at least might have time to disappear with the order of things under which it had lived, the danger would be less; but the progress of society in America is precipitate and almost revolutionary. The same citizen may have lived to see his state take the lead in the Union and afterwards become powerless in the Federal assemblies; and an Anglo-American republic [i.e., state] has been known to grow as rapidly as a man, passing from birth and infancy to maturity in the course of thirty years. It must not be imagined, however, that the states that lose their preponderance also lose their population or their riches; no stop is put to their prosperity, and they even go on to increase more rapidly than any kingdom in Europe. But they believe themselves to be impoverished because their wealth does not augment as rapidly as that of their neighbors; and they think that their power is lost because they suddenly come in contact with a power greater than their own.

    Tocqueville was writing about the possibility that the federal union might split. But, in pointing to the unprecedented speed at which the United States was expanding, he provides us with a key theme for our narrative. It helps explain the “westering” of the five so-called Civilized Tribes; the “race,” as William Seward called it, to get to Kansas; Stephen Douglas’s insistence on a transcontinental railway as a key to Indian removal. With secession the Republican Party sought to shape westward expansion. I could continue making lists, but trust that the idea is clear.
    Look at how many of the images we have discussed emphasize speed. If I were coming up with a single image for a book cover, I might turn to Currier and Ives. This is “Progress.”

  16. Catherine Lavender
    Posted October 7, 2009 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    I posted my responses before I had read Neil Campbell’s very interesting comments, so I wanted to take a moment to reply to them.

    I do like this approach very much — placing the West into a larger, even global, perspective. It is all too easy to focus exclusively on the meaning of the region in a national context (as defining the transformation of the “European” into the “American” for instance, as Turner posited, or as
    the testing ground for American democracy, etc.). Looking at the West in a global context is an excellent way of understanding the West while escaping from many of the mythologies that obscure it, and Campbell’s “expanded critical regionalism” is a promising approach. I would argue, as well, for the need to extend this beyond the concept of European representations of the West to those parts of the world who have viewed the West as “The North” and “The East,” as well. Understanding the West as, say, a part of the Pacific Rim, as my colleague Timothy Gray does in his study of the California poet Gary Snyder, provides an excellent example of this; or, also, to look at the West from Mexico — as North, as lost homeland, etc. — also is promising. For example, scholars in Chicano history have been re-imagining the history of labor struggles in the West in the context of Mexican radicalism for decades; the chief problem seems to be that these histories end up classified not as “Western histories,” but instead as “ethnic
    histories” or “labor histories” — cordoned off from the larger discussions of the meaning of the “West.” Although, in the end, we’ve been asked here to examine the visual history of the West in the context of U.S. national history (thus the “PUSH” title for the project), thinking about the West in a larger global context is certainly a valuable heuristic device.

    AND, as I am writing this, John McClymer’s posting about Toqueville has appeared, and it’s brilliant. Sometimes the classics really do have the answers!

  17. Clarissa Lynn
    Posted October 7, 2009 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

    I cannot think of the West without immediately thinking of environmental issues. In so many of the images the land is presented as immense, pristine. However, much of America’s history in the West has been marred by exploitation of this land. Perhaps a good image for the cover would be a person on a giant redwood or Sequoia tree, unclear whether he is a logger or perhaps a scientist, an image symbolic of the crossroads we face right now in the choices we make in how we use our resources.

    The wealth of the land feeds the myth and the reality. One way to provide a unified narrative is to place the land itself as the central character. From the nomadic migration of Plains Indians to the Gold Rush to the Great Depression, the land itself moves people west, and within the west. How these people interact with the environment is crucial and sets the stage for many dramatic events in Western History. This perspective offers great relevance to the 21st century student concerned with a myriad of environmental issues, no matter where he/she is located.

    Focusing on land management will inform students of the tragic elements of western American history; for example the destruction of the buffalo severely assisting the United States in subjugating Plains Indians, over fishing and whaling in the oceans, unsustainable farming practices and the Dust Bowl, mining and the labor movement in Nevada and Colorado, oil drilling in Texas and the Pacific, and migrant farming in the California Central Valley. However, it will also bring to light Progressive Era initiatives like the conservation movement and National Parks, the more recent role of the government in regulating clean air, water, and greenhouse gas emissions, and the burgeoning slow food movement. Finally, if Mother Earth is the main character, we see humans are not the only ones capable of destruction; here students can investigate natural disasters and how people and governments respond to them (earthquakes, forest fires, etc.)

    Two powerful images I use in my classroom depicting the wanton destruction of the environment can be seen:
    Contrast these with the traditional way Cheyenne women prepared the hides:

    Through this lens a teacher can have students create maps showing geology, natural resources, then migration patterns of the various groups who followed these resources coupled with their usage of the land (mines, farms, parks, cities). Maps can be layered upon each other to show change in time, which can furthermore encompass the evolution in values associated with land management. In such a way, students can learn geography, sequence of events, and understand a more complex view of resource management.