I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012. The full collection is accessible here.

An American Vision: Far Western Landscape and National Culture, 1820-1920

Anne Farrar Hyde

  • Anne Farrar Hyde, An American West: Far Western Landscape and National Culture, 1820-1920 (New York: New York University Press, 1990).

In An American Vision: Far Western Landscape and National Culture, 1820-1920, Anne Farrar Hyde examines both visual and literary depictions of the West, with special focus on the evolution of vocabulary used to describe the landscape. Hyde states that she is mainly interested in tracing the changes in attitude towards the western landscape and the implication this change had on the process of cultural development in the United States. Hyde focuses on explorers, travelers, and tourist descriptions because were almost solely responsible for propagating western descriptions—additionally, the settlers had a much different experience than the one on which Hyde focuses. Resorts and their wealthy clientele play a major role in Hyde’s analysis, as she believes that these locales most effectively represent the phenomenon that she wishes to illuminate. In the west, Hyde argues, the American people sought for and successfully developed a distinctly American culture.

Central to Hyde’s argument is the contention that early nineteenth-century Americans were still very closely connected to Europe culturally and their values in regards to nature were greatly shaped by their European understandings of landscape and aesthetic values. When Americans first traveled to the west, Hyde argues, they did not have the cultural vocabulary and exemplars to fully comprehend or effectively describe the strange landscape. They traveled West hoping to find landscape that was comparable to or outshone European landscape, but what they found was quite alien, and almost disappointing. Hyde argues that artists and writers fell-back on romantic descriptions because they represented the familiar and allowed for comparison to Europe. In order for new cultural signifiers were able to be developed, Hyde contends that the West had to become accessible. Accessibility first came to the upper-class by way of the railroad. The railroad was pivotal to the development of the west, Hyde argues. Hyde’s treatment of the railroad in the American west is parallel to the experience in Canada, where the Canadian Pacific Railroad had a great deal to do with developing resorts, such as Banff. The railroads needed to commodify the land around the railroad, which they accomplished by packaging the landscape as a perfect balance of the familiar, as in the European, and the new, as in the unique American natural attractions. Resorts, such as those found Colorado Springs and California, represented this combination of new and old. With accessibility and familiarity, Americans were able to develop a cultural way in which to process the unique experience. By the twentieth-century, Hyde argues, Americans had developed this distinctively American vocabulary, and were no longer looking to Europe for reassurance of their cultural value. Once again the railroad jumped on the opportunity to make money by providing the populace with their desires. They were able to turn once feared landscapes, such as Yellowstone, into sources of national pride. The Old Faithful Inn is an example of how Americans were now seeking luxury with a uniquely rustic American edge. However, with the onslaught of the automobile and the resultant democratization of the West, the region’s tourism forever changed.

Hyde’s narrative fits nicely with the three themes focused on in Discovered Lands, Invented Pasts: discover, erasure, and invention. With discovery, Americans were unable to fully comprehend or express what they had found because they did not yet have proper cultural comparisons. The railroads heavily participated in erasure by forming the West into what the Eastern, wealthy tourist wished to experience. Native Americans were the most obvious case of erasure, as railroads attempted to expunge them from the landscape if they did not fill their proper place in the romantic scene. Hyde does an excellent job of illustrating how Americans changed their relations and opinions of Native Americans according to their own selfish whims. Finally, the Americans, by way of visiting the West, invented their own cultural interpretation of the region in order to fulfill their desire for a cultural and national independency. Hyde’s inclusion of these tourists and capitalistic-driven companies into the history of Western development fully goes against the pastoral West that Frederick Jackson Turner presented in his Frontier Thesis. In Turner’s west, the self-made farmer reigned supreme over the cultured Easterners, working in order the distance themselves as far as possible away from Europe. His West doesn’t have railroad barons, resorts, or tourists, and demonstrates that he, too, was guilty of erasure and invention.

Feature Image: Old Faithful Inn in Winter – Yellowstone, January 2019, Charles (Chuck) Peterson.

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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