The West and the Word: Imagining, Formatting, and Ordering the American West in Nineteenth-Century Cultural Discourse

by Steffen Wöll

Steffen Wöll, The West and the Word: Imagining, Formatting, and Ordering the American West in Nineteenth-Century Cultural Discourse, Dialectics of the Global 13 (Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 2020).

Academic studies about the western American peripheries date back to as early as 1893. In this year, a young professor from Wisconsin named Frederick Jackson Turner presented a conference paper to crowds at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition. In his study, he laid out a vision of the West not as a distinct geographical region or territory, but as an umbrella term for the social and cultural dynamics that commenced at the frontier as a contact zone between civilization and wilderness. Turner argued that the chiefly English mindsets and institutions that pervaded East Coast society were reformed through the westward movement of both true-born (white) Americans and newly arrived immigrants as they adapted to the harsh frontier conditions. New-found settlements and communities negotiated the gaps between primitivism and civilization by new means of democratic cooperation, technologies, economic practices, and patriotic feelings.

Resulting from these unprecedented spatial interactions between a malleable eastern center and a dominant western periphery, Turner argued that an exceptionally American character emerged as settlers pushed westward throughout the nineteenth century. “The West,” he proposed,

is a form of society, rather than an area. It is the term applied to the region whose social conditions result from the application of older institutions and ideas to the transforming influences of free land. By this application, a new environment is suddenly entered, freedom of opportunity is opened, the cake of custom is broken, and new activities, new lines of growth, new institutions and new ideals, are brought into existence.[1]

This so-called frontier thesis supplemented spatial narratives such as the Puritan City Upon a Hill and Errand into Wilderness, Manifest Destiny, and American Adam. Like them, it was canonized as a key part of the United States’ historiography, serving as a meta-explanation for internal colonialism of tribal territories that were designated as uncultivated wilderness, and simultaneously justifying the self-attribution of a unique status as the US embraced imperial geopolitics at the end of the nineteenth century. In the 1980s, the school of New Western History criticized Turner’s argument and offered their own historical dynamics and metaphors for the western peripheries through such concepts as “borderlands,”[2] “thirdspace,”[3] “rhizome,”[4] transnational flows,[5] or “internal colonialism,” white supremacy, and capitalist exploitation.[6] Against the background of these sometimes conflicting, sometimes overlapping models, the American West has become a fiercely contested space in which local, regional, national, and transnational approaches from various (inter)disciplinary perspectives claim the prerogative of interpretation.

Published in the fall of 2020, The West and the Word argues that although these newer approaches, with some exceptions, reject Turner’s view of the West as the central driving force of national development, they continue to stabilize ideas that sustain exceptionalist narratives of the western peripheries by formatting the marginal as central for the nation state. This book, however, aims to move beyond the supposed ideological divide between settler colonialist and frontier narratives by proposing a more spatially sensitive methodology for American literary and cultural studies. Reappraising the mobilization of people, ideas, and concepts through the lens of spatialization processes, I argue, makes visible marginalized human and cultural geographies, and calls into question established but often unidirectional interpretations. By juxtaposing canonical texts with lesser known and previously unstudied personal accounts of mountain men, female migrants, and refugees, The West and the Word uncovers a diversity of spatial imaginations, practices, and performances in the Old Northwest, Louisiana Territory, and Oregon Country in the nineteenth century. The resulting (re)discovery of a multiscalar and imaginatively assembled West puts further emphasis on spatially literate methods and their interdisciplinary utility in understanding the transregional formation and cultural narration of spaces.

The book reveals a surprising diversity of alternative spatial imaginations and human geographies that either confirm, oppose, or synthesize, but in any case complicate the epistemologies laid out by Turner and the New Western Historians. For instance, questions have emerged concerning a narrowing of imaginational diversity that seems to coincide with the emergence of the nation-state as the dominant spatial format, not only in the United States but on a global scale. By utilizing a broad bandwidth of primary sources, the book demonstrates that the supposedly organic transition towards coalesced national narratives was neither natural or predetermined. Particularly during the peripheral period before the Civil War, it becomes clear that a multitude of real-and-imagined spaces existed outside national, regional, or frontier frameworks, for example spatial configurations like an independent Pacific Republic in Oregon and California with transregional connections to Hawai’i and Asia.

In their sum, the book’s findings substantiate the goal of going back to historical sources to gain a better understanding of the West as a spatial entity whose spatialization as part of the American nation during the nineteenth century coincided with complex and often contradictory spatial imaginations that were expressed and recorded in works of literature or personal records. This imagining and subsequent making-real of the West involved its physical appropriation, federal organization, national bordering, and discursive manifestation in ideas, identities, symbols, and stereotypes, many of which continue to structure contemporary understandings of the West until today. It is important to note that examining the cultural representations of these processes is key to understanding the workings of spatialization processes in general, as well as the reasons behind their consolidation in spatial formats and orders. Finally, this is why the heuristic model of spatialization emerges as an indispensable toolset in unearthing the spatial semantics of the American West and – perhaps even more importantly – as a means to transfer the findings across disciplinary borders and into other (transregional) areas of investigation.


References

[1] Turner, Frederick Jackson. “The Problem of the West.” The Atlantic Monthly 78 (1896) 367: 289-97; 289.

[2] Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands: La Frontera. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1987.

[3] Soja, Edward W. Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-imagined Places. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1996.

[4] Campbell, Neil. The Rhizomatic West: Representing the American West in a Transnational, Global, Media Age. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.

[5] Paul, Heike. “Critical Regionalism and Post-Exceptionalist American Studies.” Towards a Post-Exceptionalist American Studies. Eds. Winfried Fluck and Donald E. Pease. Tübingen: Narr, 2014. 397-423.

[6] Limerick, Patricia Nelson. The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. New York: Norton, 1987.


Steffen Wöll is a postdoctoral fellow at Leipzig University’s collaborative research center “Processes of Spatialization under the Global Condition.” He has published articles on various topics in American Studies, including spatial imaginations, border studies, naturalism, postmodernism, as well as film and horror studies. His current research investigates the transoceanic dynamics of the United States’ imperial and literary discourses.


Citation: The West and the Word: Imagining, Formatting, and Ordering the American West in Nineteenth-Century Cultural Discourse, Steffen Wöll, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 28.01.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/26361.


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