Mild WestI wrote this article at university on American myth of the wild west. Unfortunately I lost the works cited section. Therefore I don’t remember who Fink was to whose work I refer several times in the article.Apparently the West had some sort of wildness. It was the region where “civilization” arrived later. It had been the direction to go. And, in a sense, it had been what the young American nation fought for. It was also the factor that kept the American ideals alive. They had long looked to it for confidence, for as long as there was a west, a frontier, there was still ground for unity and struggle, which consolidated the foundations of the American society. So it is no surprise that “For many easterners in the late nineteenth century, the spectacle of the Wild West served as an antidote to the increasing routinization and bureaucratization of industrial culture.”(Fink, 70) In this case it would be safe to argue that the wildness of the West was, this way or another, exaggerated. ‘Wild’ was how easterners thought, hoped, and wanted the West to be. It was a projection of their hope that the American nation still retained some of its energy and enthusiasm, which found expression in the word ‘wild’.

“Sharp began to manufacture these rifles as fast as he could in various lenghts and this gun, as it afterwards proved, was the cause of the extermination of the buffalo, as before this they had increased faster than killed out as it took too many shots to get a buffalo.”(Fink, 72) Supposedly easterners, who admired and loved the West because it was wild, would not imagine buffalo hunting to be like this. They would like to see it more natural, such as men struggling more, and thus displaying more energy and enthusiasm, and at the same time, to make it more romantic, more in correspondence with nature. A man’s success in the West should have depended on his own courage, strength, skill, and wildness rather than a machine. So things out in the West were not so ‘wild’ as many easterners envisaged. The intrusion of machinery in the West into people’s lives was having the same sort of effect as in the East: people got more dependent on machinery.

Even Indians by the late-nineteenth century were not so wild as imagined by many in the East. President Chester A. Arthur talks about dealing with the Indians with a new policy in 1881. Until that time no need had been felt to pursue and implement this kind of a policy. This was partly because the conventional policy of pushing Indians further into the West as white settlement expanded was easier, and partly because they were considered to be “separate nationalities”(Fink, 74). The US government could afford these policies since the conditions were suitable for that. Now conditions had changed. The limits of the West had been reached, and there remained nowhere else to push Indians. The government thus had to find a policy to deal with them; one such policy the President offered in this speech. This new policy was apparently less appealing to the easterners, who were indulging themselves in dreams of a wild West, than the former policy. This was because Indians and the fight against them had been one of the major elements of the wildness of the West. But now, the President of the United States was talking about turning them into US citizens! What a shock it must have been to those wild-West-dreamers!

The frontier had usually suggested somewhere in the west. The fact that American expansionism generally worked in that direction corresponds to this idea. Frederick Jackson Turner pointed out in 1893 that “Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line.”(Fink, 82). In other words, the limit of the frontier in the west was finally reached. Turner worried about this because he thought the American culture owed a lot to the traits of the frontier. He counts those traits in a long list: “that coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes from freedom…”(Fink, 82). Even the manner in which he listed these traits sounds very enthusiastic. These were the qualities that easterners attributed to the wildness of the West. In other words, these qualities effectively summarize what they meant by wild. In a sense just like the Indians, what these qualities represented was moving/escaping westwards away from civilization, or was forcibly moved to there, because civilization would not allow it to survive. Now that the ultimate frontier was reached there was nowhere to run. Civilization would absorb the West and then civilize it like the Indians. This was what it had done previously when the line of the frontier lay further east. And this was what easterners believed, or wanted to believe, was not and would not be happening in the West. But, however unbelievable they might have found it, it was happening. As Turner sadly concluded: “And now, four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.”(83)

However wild the West might have been either in the past or in the dreams of easterners it was surely getting mild at the same time as the East. As easterners, bored and disappointed by the routinization brought by industrialization and confined to monotonous and colorless lives, were dreaming of a wild place out there in the West where the lively spirit of the American nation still found expression, the West was becoming more like the East and leaving behind whatever it had of that mythical wildness. While easterners were seeking consolation in their dream of a wild West, “the western tableau in fact represented a projection of the same forces of development that were simultaneously reshaping the more densely settled areas of the country: industrialization, migration, immigration, acculturation, and race, class, and gender conflict.”(Fink, 70)

4 thoughts on “MILD MILD WEST

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