Book review: Western Places, American Myths, ed. Gary J. Hausladen

Peter Goin, “Intersecting Tracks” (1998)
(Source)

The power and importance of the American West, ambiguous or not, cannot be overstated. Not just a real geographical region, the West is a mythic concept that repeatedly transcends simple historical-geographical description. For Americans, the West is part of our psyche, an essential part of who we are as a people. (Gary J. Hausladen, Introduction)

Western Places, American Myths: How We Think About the West is a fascinating anthology of essays dealing with the American West, with topics ranging from historical geography to regionalism to art history and analyzing both the myths and realities that signify the “West.” Despite the leaps and bounds that contemporary scholarship has made in analyzing the West, this does not seem to have extended outside of academia, meaning that people still look at its history from a white, masculine perspective that glorifies the notion that it is a fundamentally different place from the Midwest and the East Coast. This notion identifies it as a freer, wilder place that in turn verifies larger ideas of individualism and American nationalism, though it is overall seen as distinct from the rest of America. Physically, it is a different place than the East Coast– drier, generally more mountainous, and greater distance between urban centers– but it is also psychologically and historically more complex than it is given credit for.

John Gast, “American Progress” (1872)
(Source)

There are three inherent dichotomies when it comes to discussion of the West: it is seen as a separate or exceptional place as opposed to an inherent part of national culture; there is a conflict between the real West versus the mythic West (though the essays I read implied that real and mythic are really tied together and feed off of one another); and the juxtaposition of West as a region and West as a process. Scholarly debates about the West are now imbued with considerations of race, ethnicity, gender, and class. It is no longer seriously regarded as one big American West, but rather a set of distinct regions that are defined by different peoples and subjective histories. The idea of regionalism is becoming increasingly important as debates about nationalism and globalization take over: the region maintains an important place in historical and geographical inquiry. Geography examines three main ideas: location, or “spatial extent”; locale, or the place “where interactions between individuals and society and between society and the environment occur in continuing cycles” (6); and sense of place, which are the feelings people have towards a place or region which are based on social relations. Region is a process that is constantly being reinvented and redefined. Furthermore, the invisible border that separates the West from the rest of America seems to be moving further east as more plains states become less populated.

While there were a variety of topics covered by the essays in this book, I would have to say that most of them were written from the historical geographic perspective. Therefore, I focused on three essays that were either relevant to my own studies or thorough overviews filled with great sources: “Understanding Western Places: The Historical Geographer’s View” by William Wyckoff, “Narrating Imperial Adventure: Isabella Bird’s Travels in the Nineteenth-Century American West” by Karen M. Morin, and “Magical Realism: The West as Spiritual Playground” by Peter Goin. Wyckoff’s “Understanding Western Places” was an exhaustive overview of the progress in the field of historical geography, tracing the history of the discipline with the history of the West itself. To be totally honest, this essay was kind of mind-numbing because it crammed so many bits of information into a relatively short essay, not to mention that there ended up being 101 footnotes. However, I found some great sources in there that I have either ordered from the library or will be downloading (on my new iPad!) from JSTOR. Wyckoff has done a variety of work pertaining to Denver history, so I recorded every source– his own or others– that he mentioned.

Isabella Bird
(Source)

Morin’s essay, “Narrating Imperial Adventure,” was absolutely riveting, as feminist historical geographies are only recently being recognized. Morin sought to emphasize the importance of new feminist work in historical geography and the need to examine how gendered differences were produced within or through “particular landscapes, places, and spatialities” (205). Specifically, it examined the writings of British explorer Isabella Bird– who I should mention was the first woman admitted to the Royal Geographic Society in 1892– and the conflicts of the “subject positions” that were produced by Victorian gender relations and imperial British/American geographies which were evidenced in her writing. Her book A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains was originally based off of letters she had sent her sister about her life in Estes Park, CO, which were then serially produced in the British magazine Leisure Hour.

Colorado was a popular destination for wealthy Brits at the height of its empire, what with the healthful effects of the climate and the abundances of sports and recreation. Approximately 1 in 3 ranch owners in Colorado at the end of the 19th century were British, and they invested in a wide variety of capitalist ventures (such as the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad) which helped deepen the state’s entry into the global market. Bird came from a wealthy British family herself and produced paradoxical versions of herself in A Lady’s Life: she took great pride in executing domestic tasks usually assigned to servants in her home country, such as cleaning and fieldwork, yet only in the context of her cabin in Estes (it was completely unacceptable elsewhere, as everywhere else was more “civilized”); at certain points, she presented herself as strong and courageous in her mountaineering adventures, yet she occasionally included details such as fear and fatigue, reaffirming her “feminine weakness” that was expected of proper Victorian women. Thus, her writings much more complex than originally credited and drew on rhetorics of emergent feminist empowerment, conventional femininity, and British nationalism/imperialism. The West was not only a place to be tamed, but a place that encouraged emotive attachment and therefore personal empowerment through the overcoming of fear and rigorous exercise. She was able to grow far beyond the limits drawing for women by Britain’s hegemony, yet she still proved the lack of civilization of the West. Out of the entire anthology, this essay has proven to be the most useful to me because of its relevance to my minor question dealing with how the perceived freedom of the West helped advance proto-feminism.

The last essay, Peter Goin’s “Magical Realism,” was less of an essay– it was only three pages– and more of an artist’s statement, which was then followed by 16 of his own photographs (Goin is a photographer and professor at the University of Nevada- Reno whose work frequently revolves around the Nevada landscape). Most of these three pages are dedicated to an exhaustive sensory description The Great Basin, a depression in the land that encompasses most of Nevada and parts of Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon, and eastern California. He speaks of “ancestral blood” and the “magic” and “spiritual of the land.” His photographs “offer evidence of the experience of feeling the spirit of the earth, of being compelled to record in a visually technical and complex language of the visceral seeing” (255), fusing the ordinarily and extraordinary through the following of poetic faith. Despite the lack of “officialness,” I enjoyed the inclusion of the essay in this anthology because it reaffirms the pervading myth of the West.

This book has excited me for my history class (despite the fact that the class will likely kick my ass and shorten my lifespan by another 10 years) and even makes me think that I’m more of a history buff than an art history buff. However, the latter’s primary advantage is that art history has more pictures.

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