Globe, Region, and Periphery: The Spatialization of the American West in Nineteenth-Century US Literature

by Steffen Wöll

What kind of spatial imaginations and place-making processes can be identified in nineteenth-century American literature from and about the western peripheries? What is the relationship between local, regional, national, and transnational imaginations? How do fictional stories confirm or subvert the dynamics between actors in areas with divergent spatial imaginations at the so-called frontier? How did Native, British, French, Creole, African American, Spanish, Mexican, Russian, and Euro-American understandings of space and place interact, collide, and merge together and what role did literary representations of spatial imaginations play in these processes?

These are some of the central questions I am tackling with my current research, which is part of the Collaborative Research Center 1199 (“Processes of Spatialization under the Global Condition”) based in Leipzig [1]. My dissertation project examines spatial imaginations of the western American peripheries and their representation in US literature throughout the nineteenth century. The texts that interest me are fictional and non-fictional literary accounts, including travel narratives, diary entries, exploration reports, as well as (pseudo)scientific geographical and anthropological writings. The selection of primary texts ranges from the regional Northwestern log-cabin romances of James Hall to the metaphorical and transcendental mapping of nation and globe in Moby Dick. Hence, I am aiming to achieve some discursive balance by cutting across an abundance of nineteenth-century sources that either discuss or are set in the American West. This selection includes both popular and elitist views, female and male, as well as minority and white perspectives. Importantly, texts are not viewed as isolated case-studies with regard to their own discrete visions of the West; instead, focus is put on intertextual dynamics that result in the discursive construction, affirmation, contestation, deconstruction, hierarchization, or synthetic negotiations of imagined and actual spatial formats and orders. Besides identifying and describing these processes, an additional goal is to work towards the creation of a ‘discursive map’ with whose help the heterogeneity of the American spatial imaginary during the nineteenth century may be visualized.

Charles M. Russell, Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia, 1905. Watercolor on paper, 1961.195, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas (Public Domain).

The American West between character-shaping frontier and internal colonialism

It is important to remember that academic studies concerning the western American peripheries have been performed as early as 1893. In this year, a young professor from Wisconsin with the name of Frederick Jackson Turner presented a conference paper at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition. In his talk to historians, he laid down his own 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 suggested that the chiefly European and English mindsets and institutions that pervaded the East Coast had been reformed through the westward movement of both true-born Americans and newly arrived immigrants as they adapted to the harsh frontier conditions. Western settlements and communities were challenged to negotiate the gaps between primitivism and civilization by new and unique means of democratic cooperation, technologies, business models, and religious morals and practice. As a result of this unprecedented spatial interaction between a malleable Eastern center and a dominant western periphery, Turner argued that an exceptionally ‘American’ character emerged as an entirely new ‘breed’ of people—mainly through their relationship to the peripheral space they traversed and settled—continually pushed westward throughout the nineteenth century:

“The West […] 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.”[2]

This so-called “Frontier Thesis”, bolstered by older concepts like the Errand into Wilderness, Manifest Destiny, American Adam, and the Puritans’ City Upon a Hill, was canonized as a central part of America’s national historiography, serving as a meta-explanation for domestic expansionism and territorial appropriation of tribal territories that were designated as uncultivated wilderness, and simultaneously justifying the self-attribution of a unique status as the United States entered the geopolitical and colonial arenas at the end of the nineteenth century.

Beginning in the 1980s, the stability of this homogenous spatial narrative was challenged by scholars who deconstructed Turner’s argument and proposed other imaginations and metaphors for the western peripheries, for instance as “borderlands” (Anzaldúa), “thirdspace” (Soja), “rhizome” (Campbell), site of transnational flows (Giles; Paul), or victim of “internal colonialism” and capitalistic exploitation (Limerick). Against the background of these sometimes conflicting, sometimes overlapping conceptions, the American West has become a contested space, in which local, regional, national, and transnational approaches from various (inter)disciplinary perspectives claim the prerogative of interpretation. Although these newer approaches, with some notable exceptions, do not agree with Turner’s view the West as the central driving force of national development, they nonetheless also participate in a discourse that unhinges the marginal status of the West by writing the marginal as central for the nation-state. The myths and symbols of the West, it seems, constantly return to occupy American cultural and academic imagination by effortlessly attaching themselves to historical and contemporary topics, themes, and ideologies.

Reappraising western diversity in the light of alternative spatial orders and identities

My intent of ‘re-historicizing’ the West by going back to the analysis of primary sources is based in the conviction that the West was factually spatialized during the nineteenth century as a part of the American nation. This process of imagining, making-real or “worlding” (Spivak) involved its physical appropriation, federal organization, national bordering, and concurrent manifestation in images, identities, symbols, and stereotypes that remain influential until today and first appeared in the nineteenth century. Looking at the representation of these processes in the literature of that period then becomes a productive strategy in examining the spatial imaginations, patterns, processes, and their discursive interactions that revolve(d) around the peripheries. In fact, engaging with these sources reveals a surprisingly high degree of alternative spatial imaginations that often undermine or complicate any clear-cut approaches of the West, prompting questions about the reasons behind the narrowing of this imaginational diversity, which coincided with the consolidation of the nation-state as the dominant spatial order.

In engaging with the aforementioned research questions, it becomes apparent that in many literary depictions the western peripheries appear not just as future parts of the Union, but as transnational (or even ‘anational’) territorial assemblages that contain diverse cultural and ethnic identities, which more often than not appear averse to demands of nationalization or the legalized racial hierarchization that organized the eastern parts of the United States. Some of the examples of spatial imaginations that demonstrate the fluidity of peripheral spatial politics include the Neutral Ground of Texarkana that touched on parts of Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Here, the US government, Spain, and parts of Native Caddo tribes all claimed this region for themselves and established the Neutral Ground as a new spatial order and political compromise in order to avoid open conflict. Moreover, the clash between American and French views in the vast territory acquired via the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the colonially contested Pacific Northwest with its profitable trade connections to Asian markets and regional independence efforts—whose ideas live on in contemporary movement like YesCalifornia and CascadiaNow!—emphasize the relevance of understanding the differing apprehensions of space that are reflected in literature, ultimately complicating the canonized narratives of the frontier and manifest destiny that allegedly preoccupied the imaginations of nineteenth century authors and audiences.

 

 

References

[1] Teilprojekt C02 (“Raum-Fiktionen. (Re)Imaginationen des Nationalen an den südlichen und westlichen Peripherien der USA im 19. Jahrhundert”) of SFB 1199. See http://research.uni-leipzig.de/~sfb1199/about/research-programme/ for more details.

[2] Turner 1896, 289.

 

Bibliography

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

Giles, Paul. The Global Remapping of American Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2011.

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

Paul, Heike. The Myths That Made America: An Introduction to American Studies. Bielefeld: Transcript, 2014.

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

Spivak, Gayatri. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. “The Problem of the West.” The Atlantic Monthly 78.367 (1896): 289-97.

 

 

Steffen Wöll received his master’s degree at Leipzig University in the summer of 2016 with the thesis “American Spaces: Renegotiations of Cultural Geographies and Counter-Drafts to Spatial Master Narratives of the American West in Jack London’s Short Stories.” His research interests include historical imaginations and representations of national and cultural metanarratives, the literary construction of agency and Otherness, as well as religious and subcultural radicalism in the US. He is currently employed as a research fellow at a Leipzig research center that examines processes of spatialization from various interdisciplinary perspectives and pursuing a PhD with the working title “Globe, Region, and Periphery: The Spatialization of the American West in Nineteenth-Century US Literature.”

 


Citation: Steffen Wöll, Globe, Region, and Periphery: The Spatialization of the American West in Nineteenth-Century US Literature, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 10.04.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/9636.


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