The Elusive West: Jumping into a New Narrative Midstreamhist

The Elusive West: Jumping into a New Narrative Midstream

American History has always been a struggle for me. Typically, my interest in it wanes quickly following the French and Indian
War, so my familiarity with the majority of the topics presented in this course has been surface at best. Environmentalism is close to my heart, and that was what convinced me to make the leap, and take this course. Honestly, it has been like jumping midstream into a narrative that I never knew existed. I was a bit frustrated to learn that this scholarship has been going on for so long, and I had never been introduced to it. I figured Environmental History might better inform my hobby interest in environmental topics. The topics and arrangements of this course have gone a long way toward changing my mind about American History, particularly after 1800, and I think that it has certainly changed the way which I would approach teaching the subject.

The most profound change for me was the difference in both method and information available in the course. The last American History or even American Art History courses I took were still stuck in a sort of time warp. The Great American Narrative was the main focus, and if your interests lay outside of that almost mythic narrative, you were pretty much out of luck. Gender History amounted to a single or perhaps two historic women given a half page or less in the text book. No coverage at all was given to any race other than African Americans, and that was cursory at best. Native Americans were never mentioned in my Post-Civil War History course; I literally learned more of their modern history in my Anthropology courses than in any history course I had taken prior to this one. I don’t think textbooks were written with those kinds of things in focus (they may still not be, I’m not sure).

Concepts of Agency (real or imagined), Gender, Environmental History; all of these were things which I was obviously interested in, but had no idea what they were. I began to be introduced to most of these concepts after I had completed my undergraduate degree and was simply reading on my own. A Sorrow in Our Heart: the Life of Tecumseh by Allan W. Eckert is one of the first American History books I read after completing my undergraduate work. While not perhaps historically perfect, Eckert’s narrative style really captured my imagination for a time. This course has had the same effect, but of a more long term nature. Instead of just a brief spark, I feel better informed. I come away from the course feeling like I have just scratched the surface of something much deeper, but am now equipped with the tools to dig deeper on my own, and in the classroom with my students.

My understanding of “The West” has also been changed profoundly. Western History is another one of those narratives which was never really breached in the classes I had taken in the past. In my History courses, the closest we might come is mentioning the railroads or the wagons west. The West as a place was never really considered; The West as an “entity” or force in American History was given even less than that. The Grand Narrative of the American Government was all that was really deemed necessary. Even in American Art History the closest we came was the art of Frederic Remington, and that was rather derisively treated as a sort of Art Historical fiction. Like most American youth, the majority of what I knew about “The West” came from movies and matinees—not the best place to pick up new ideas on gender or any other kind of history. Clint Eastwood’s great and all, but The Good, The Bad and The Ugly isn’t exactly in the same vein as Frederick Jackson Turner.

I think that the breakdown of this course has also been refreshing in the breadth of the information presented. By taking the course in multiple directions at once, it served to keep my mind moving and searching for connections that I wouldn’t have considered otherwise. While we were moving forward through chronological time, we were also moving spatially, introducing places and ideas which challenged our “lens”. I hope to use this method to “shake up” my students; in order to move them to greater inquiry. By beginning the course with the essays by Turner, Webb, and Aron & Adelman, it gave me a sense of direction, but it also immediately challenged my prior views of the subject by looking at it in three very different ways, before the course had even begun.

Of the three essays, I feel that Aron & Adelman’s was the most thought provoking for me. It seemed to integrate some of the arguments of the previous two narratives into a bigger picture, and I LOVE the big picture. I also am intrigued by the concept of borderlands and liminality. Prior to this reading, I would have been hard pressed to consider US History through this particular lens. Liminality was something that I found in Medieval History, US History had always seemed like such an open book, and yet over and over during the course of the term, liminality kept creeping in. The Frontier had become a new and moving space for me, not just the place where Daniel Boone lived. Another thing this essay heightened for me was the idea of turning points in history. I would argue that most American History courses are taught with a view of inevitability; the rise of the nation was what God wanted for us and Manifest Destiny was going to happen no matter what. Aron & Adelman quickly point out that this isn’t true at all, unless of course you’re a revisionist historian with an agenda. I also appreciate the way in which they break down the big chunks of imaginary history; “The Indians” become separate peoples with their own agendas and desires, “Europe” becomes a diverse grouping of powers, likewise with separate agendas and modes of thinking, even the “Frontiersmen” are given a new face in this treatment. Their idea of “discrete turning points” was more nuanced than either Turner’s or Webb’s approach; it gives a strong sense of the difficulty and struggles which took place in “the frontier”. It is no longer one big adventure book, but people gaining and losing ground in a struggle for survival. I no longer feel like I’m trapped in a bad misreading of James Fenimore Cooper when I approach that period of history; it is far more grounded than any approach I have seen previously.

I also have a deep appreciation for the use of Mann’s book early on in the course. A very different approach from the first two readings, it still integrated well, and served to further broaden my view of The West. His narrative style is close to my heart, and I thoroughly enjoyed the read. I also was forced to consider it in a different way, in light of the ideas brought forth in Turner, Webb, and Aron & Adelman. Mann’s ability to move back and forth between personal narrative and deep history was striking, and kept my mind moving back and forth between points. I came away from it with a new appreciation of the cultures which were present in the pre-Columbian Americas, and also with a new horror at the thought of such a mass human death. Even if the high counters are wrong, the low counters brought the point home well enough. A deep history of The West provided an excellent counterpoint for me to Webb’s work in particular. I have never really understood the need of some people to separate people from the land, and Mann’s book countered this ideology for me in a profound way. Humans cannot be separated from the environment. Even in Cronon’s great Chicago, people are in the landscape, not separated from it. Webb seemed to only see a correlation between geographies; people were something all together different. I hope to bring this broadened awareness to my students as I begin to teach.

I think it would be interesting to use this sort of model to teach a course on some specific aspect of Western History, as well. War of a Thousand Deserts by DeLay prompted me to think of a series of other works I read during my internship at Tom Brown, Jr.’s Tracker School. Tom’s teacher was an old Southern Lipan Apache, and so Tom strongly recommended that we read up on Apache history during our internships, to have some grounding in his experiences as a young man. I picked up copies of Thomas Mails’ The People Called Apache, Eve Ball’s In the Days of Victorio: Recollections of a Warm Springs Apache and Indeh: an Apache Odyssey, along with Grenville Goodwin’s Western Apache Raiding and Warfare and The Apache Diaries: a Father-Son Journey. I think that these works could be woven together into a fascinating place/people specific history of The West. We have such deeply fictionalized views of peoples like the Apache and Comanche that such a course might be well received; and certainly needed.

The use of Gender and Social History over the course of the term was also very important for me. The role of women (both white and native) throughout the term gives a much more complete picture of The West than I had seen before. Ronda’s use and exploration of Gender in Lewis and Clark Among the Indians was brilliant. I was unaccustomed to the sort of details which he brought out, particularly for when that book was published. Johnson’s Roaring Camp and Faragher’s Overland Trail also really brought home the ways in which women, or conversely, the lack of them, could shift the culture and direction of a place so profoundly. I think the most moving, and also most disturbing book we read (Gender History or otherwise) was Gordon’s The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction. I was deeply disturbed by the actions and reactions of people throughout the book. It developed early on, a deep sense of how race and gender shift and move. These are constructs which most of us take for granted as a given, not something that can or will ever change. Gordon’s work hammered home just how quickly they can, given the right environment.

I think the biggest change this course has brought though, is in how I would choose to structure a class. It had given me a much broader lens with which to consider my topic, and much greater confidence in choosing my materials. As an example, I will use the “Apache Course” I suggested above. Before now, I would have only included books on the Apache. It would have never occurred to me to bring in works like Weber’s Spanish Frontier in North America. It would be an excellent book for providing context and to bring the course into the larger stage of American or even World History. I also would have been unlikely to bring in works on Geography or Environmental History; I just wouldn’t have considered them to be truly relevant. I feel that by broadening the selection of books makes for a deeper understanding of the topic at hand. By bringing in books on the Spanish, works on American movements into the area, and on place geography, I feel like I can actually bring students closer to the people they would be studying. I would also have to bring in some Anthropology, particularly on clothing of the Apaches. It is a topic which fascinates me, and I would be interested in engaging my students in attempting to “decode” the clothes favored by the Apache peoples. I think that a week or so spent working with their clothing and the environment would also deepen their understanding of how strongly both environment and tradition shape a people. I would particularly focus on bringing out how some Apache clothing is traditional, some brought in from the Spanish and/or Anglos, and some from their history before becoming a raiding people.

I also will use discussion much more in my class than I would have before, even in a regular class. Discussion deepens for me, my understanding of the book. I get points which would have been totally lost on me as we unpack a book in class. As an example; I would have never considered The Virginian as a social commentary; in fact, I would have never considered it at all. It would have always been “one of those books my dad liked to read”, and ended there. It makes clear to me that I need to reevaluate how I look at the fiction, and other writings which cover the period. I think I will probably add in a piece of short fiction which cover the period we’re working on in class. Preferably, one from the period itself, or near to it (within 50 years), most likely romanticizing the subject, and the other reading would be something to play in counterpoint against it.

The way in which this class breaks down the deeply rooted mythic narrative of “The Old West” has also been immensely powerful for me. It is most certainly another tool to add to my arsenal. It will perhaps be more difficult to work into an undergraduate course; it seems that most textbooks are still very enamored of keeping that narrative alive. By bringing in some outside readings, I feel like I will be able to at least give them a taste of the deeper, richer history which is available. I was shocked to learn how quickly and completely the environment of The West was changed, and that is also something which I will bring into my class over the course of the semester. From the beginning, this class has pointed out how intimately connected Man is to the environment, and that is certainly something that must continue to be brought into the classroom.

The West has been presented to me over the years as many things, most often quietly introduced, as a place, as a frontier, as an environmental entity. All of these ideas were present in some unformed way, but never something I could flesh out. I had never before been forced to reckon with it in a logical or deep way, in any sense, however. The myth of history was just too powerful. The West was always that place past Arkansas, with Cowboys, oh, and Jackalopes. When I was four, my father took my brother and me out to Colorado with him on an elk hunt, so we could see The West, before we started to school. We went to Pike’s Peak, The Royal Gorge, we even got to go to Dodge City, KS (which was a huge treat for my dad, he loves gunfights). I remember one of my uncles telling me before we left that there were dinosaurs out west, and jackalopes (and for some reason, I was convinced that jackalopes were Just as real, and as dangerous as dinosaurs; they had to be, I had seen them in a book), and I was terrified of going into that wild place full of shoot outs, Indian raids, and feral horned jack rabbits (I still have a whole collection of post cards my parents have bought me over the years of jackalopes). It’s funny to me how that mythic past is still getting in the way of the real history of The West. Perhaps some people don’t want to see past it, but I suspect that many of us are just never fully introduced to it. I’ve had a few good chuckles over the course of the semester as my rather incomplete understanding of The West has been shifted around, filled in, and “re-placed”. I think it is important that the mythic history be acknowledged alongside the “real” history of The West, but that it be replaced in our understanding of the subject matter. I guess little boys always need cowboys and gunfights, but it sure is disappointing to learn how rare they actually were.

I felt at the beginning of the course like I had jumped into a completely new narrative midstream, and that feeling is still with me. I have a ways to go before I feel completely comfortable with this new narrative, but The West certainly is clearer to me than it was before. Now a series of flashing pictures, mythic heroes, and wild places are beginning to be pulled together into some semblance of a history, but I know I have just scratched the surface. My feeling is that I will be exploring this new found territory along with my students for many years, before I feel like I really have a firm grip on things. I feel like I am walking away with a better set of tools to deal with the exploration, though. America suddenly became a lot more than a resolute press from sea to shining sea. The stops and starts in between are where the most interesting things occurred, and I think it time that those small border skirmishes are given a place in the sun.