Imagine two factories standing side by side, each dedicated to turning out a product quite the opposite of what the other produces. Each works efficiently for a constituency that waits eagerly for what comes off the line. The sign above one factory could read "Western Myths" while the sign above the other could be "Western Realities." Just to confuse matters, imagine that each facility uses the same raw material as the other. And let's make it worse still. Both factories have run out of labels, so it's not clear which product came from which factory. Is that the real Wild Bill Hickok? Was there only one Custer? One Sitting Bull?
Not long ago I attended a writers conference devoted to Western Literature and Western Writers. During a panel discussion, one of the participants announced, "There's no such thing as the West." His remark did not outrage or offend or bring the conference to a halt. Everyone nodded in agreement--certainly we know there's no such thing as the West, by now everyone knows that--and then we blithely went on trying on different definitions of the West like so many hats. Most of them made by Stetson.
Part of the problem stems from the means of definition. Some want to talk about place, others soul. Others choose to base their definition on economics or annual rainfall or the distance between neighbors. Still others want to focus on whether boots are fitted with riding or walking heels. Consider the word \o7 frontier,\f7 used so frequently in discussions and depictions of the West, yet the battle over its meaning has been as intense--albeit bloodless--as any range war.
In "The Frontier in American Culture," a volume intended to accompany an exhibition at Chicago's Newberry Library, historians Richard White and Patricia Nelson Limerick survey this struggle over the concept of frontier. White and Limerick are perhaps the most notable of recent historians who have questioned and re-examined traditional views of the American West. Both historians write such lucid prose and bring so much intelligence, insight and careful reasoning to their work that it's difficult not to be persuaded by their arguments.
White concentrates on a single, strange moment in history from which sprang two contradictory definitions of frontier. In 1893, at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Frederick Jackson Turner, a historian from the University of Wisconsin, advanced his thesis that the availability in America of vast areas of so-called "free land" was the crucial factor in the nation's development. At the same time Professor Turner was delivering his lecture, Buffalo Bill Cody had his famous Wild West Show in town depicting a much different version of the settling of the West. Where Turner wanted to emphasize farmers, oxen and plows, Buffalo Bill offered scouts, horses and bullets. (Also at the Columbian Exposition was Rain-in-the-Face, the Lakota reputed to have killed Custer, but then for Native Americans, any theory of frontier made no sense and was likely only to bring them more grief.)
Neither Turner nor Cody was correct, in White's view, but he is concerned with another issue. How could these two versions of the frontier, as different as they are, manage to grab and keep such a tight hold on the American mind? Because, White says, both Turner and Cody appropriated the symbols and icons of previous events and existing myths, weaving them into new narratives.
Limerick finds not only the concept of frontier flawed, but the word itself debased in its ubiquity. She attempts to catalogue its appearances and finds it everywhere--politicians sprinkle it throughout their speeches, newspapers love to use it in their headlines, and everyone with something to sell, it seems, works it into an advertising slogan. Inevitably, a word that can mean everything means nothing. It is no wonder that many academic historians, Limerick among them, shy away from the "f-word," and will go to great lengths to avoid its use. It is not only its vagueness they abjure but also its ethnocentrism. Whether you follow the trail leading from Turner or Cody, it is obviously a road meant for white males.
Dee Brown is not afraid to use the f-word, yet one would not want to place him in the same camp as the myth-makers. Indeed, his "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" probably did as much as any book to increase awareness of the historical mistreatment of Native Americans. But Brown writes popular rather than academic history, and if he cannot keep the slightly awe-struck tone from his writing about the Old West it is because he believes it was "simply a place of magic and wonders."