1800-1860: The Arts: Overview
1800-1860: The Arts: Overview
The Rise of Empire and the Arts. “There shall be sung another golden age,” prophesied the poet George Berkeley in 1752, “westward the course of empire takes its way.” With the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, and subsequent explorations by Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, Stephen Long, and John C. Frémont, the West captured the American public’s imagination. To many Americans, the new territories and the lands beyond stretching to the Pacific Ocean held great promise. No longer would America be subordinate to England and Europe. The new lands heralded, as Berkeley’s verses put it, “the rise of empire and of arts.” The golden age seemed on the verge of realization. As the American empire spread West, the arts followed; artists and writers such as George Catlin, a Philadelphia portraitist who traveled the interior for eight years, began to explore and report on the new frontier. Others, such as the Eastern novelist James Fenimore Cooper, never went West but did much to shape the image of the West in the American imagination. Some of these artists, in the tradition of Berkeley, sang a new golden age, celebrating the spirit of progress and national fulfillment. Others questioned the greed, racism, and violence that seemed to fuel the Westward expansion. Nevertheless, each of these artists, in their own ways, sought to answer the same fundamental question: What was the West? Was it, as many promotional tracts promised, a new garden of plenty, a land of untapped beauty and wealth? Or was it a desolate wasteland, demanding hard labor in crude, harsh conditions? What of the Indians who lived in the West? Were they hostile “savages,” children of nature, or sovereign nations victimized by American imperialism? And what of the first hunters and trappers who ventured into the wilderness? Were they the virtuous and brave builders of a new civilization? Or were they men debased by the freedom and liberty of the wilderness? Each of the artists who documented the West in the first half of the nineteenth century struggled with these questions, questions that would shape—and continue to shape—America’s vision of itself.
American Icons. The arts of the West produced some of the most enduring icons in American culture. Daniel Boone, the famed backwoodsman and settler of the state of Kentucky, became a legendary figure as the subject of countless biographies, poems, and paintings. The various interpretations of the Boone legend suggested different visions of the West. To some, Boone was a heroic man of action; to others, a romantic figure of solitude and freedom. Still others portrayed Boone as a threatening figure of radical democracy. Influenced by the Boone legend, Cooper, the Eastern novelist, created one of the most enduring of Western characters, Leatherstocking. In Cooper’s novels Leatherstocking appeared as a humble and skilled man of nature, free but disciplined in the arts of the wilderness. Cooper contrasted Leatherstocking’s wisdom and virtue with the laws and excesses of American “civilization” as it advanced westward. Kit Carson, who served as a scout and soldier under Fremont, also became a legendary figure. In popular accounts Carson appears as a gentleman-hunter, skilled as a horsebackrider and marksman. Novelists such as Charles Averill exaggerated the Carson legend ever further, claiming that it was Carson, prince of the wilderness, who discovered gold in California. Recently, however, some historians have called into question the heroic image of Carson, suggesting that he may have been responsible for the needless and indiscriminate slaughter of Navajo Indians.
New Lands, New Voices. The West inspired not only new American icons but also new American voices. German American writers, led by Charles Sealsfield, immigrated to the Midwest and, in novels and travel books, documented the life they found there. Some found Americans to be crude philistines; others, such as Sealsfield, saw America as the herald of a new global democracy. Women who traveled west also found new opportunities for self-expression. Authors Catherine Stewart, Rebecca Burlend, and Catherine Soule celebrated the beauty they found in the prairies. Many women who did not have the opportunity to write documented their experiences in the quilts they painstakingly crafted. Native Americans also began to address American audiences; George Copway, an Ojibwa who converted to Methodism, recorded the history of the Ojibwa and critiqued American attitudes toward Indians. John Rollin Ridge, a Cherokee exiled to California, wrote essays advocating Indian rights, and in 1854 he published The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, a novel depicting American racism against Mexicans.
Gold Rush. In 1848 James Marshall and his employer, John Sutter, discovered gold particles in the tailrace of a sawmill. As news of the discovery spread, the gold rush lured thousands of fortune hunters to California. San Francisco, a popular port of entry, was transformed virtually overnight. By the mid 1850s the city supported newspapers, prestigious literary journals, public libraries, and an opera. While newspapers trumpeted sensational stories of fortunes made overnight, for most miners it was only a matter of time before they, as the popular song put it, “saw the elephant.” Seeing the elephant meant recognizing that one was never going to strike it rich and deciding to pack up to return home. Popular newspaper writers, such as Dame Shirley and Old Block, wrote with sympathy and humor of the hunger, exhaustion, backbreaking labor, and chronic disappointment endured by most miners. The San Francisco newspapers also nurtured other talents. John Phoenix, with his satirical sketches and mock news items, became the first of the Far Western humorists, setting the stage for later authors such as Bret Harte and Mark Twain. Phoenix’s sardonic sense of humor and the spirit of laughter amongst despair and hardship became trademarks of Western culture.
East v. West. Not everyone, however, found humor in the sometimes difficult and crude conditions of the frontier. Some Easterners looked with disdain upon the West. Francis Parkman, a Harvard student who traveled West, found some of the backwoodsmen he met “uncouth, mean and stupid.” In her novel A New Home—Who’ll Follow? (1839), Caroline Kirkland, a New Yorker transplanted to Michigan, portrayed the residents of a Michigan frontier village as boorish degenerates. In response some Westerners mocked Eastern standards of propriety. Tall tales, featuring superhuman heroes such as the “helliferocious fellow” Mike Fink, celebrated rather than censured the aspects of Western life Easterners found so objectionable. Fink vowed that he could outshoot, outfight, and outdrink any and all, especially effete Easterners. Sut Lovingood, the hero of George Washington Harris’s humorous sketches, proclaimed himself “a nat’ral born durn’d fool” and delighted in exposing the empty authority of parsons, circuit riders, sheriffs, and prudes. Other Westerners responded to Eastern disdain by affirming the respectability of Western culture. In the 1850s San Francisco devoted itself to becoming a capitol of grand opera. Lavish productions, luxuriously decorated opera houses, and full audiences attested to the cultural status of the West.
A Question of National Destiny. At its core the questions surrounding the status and nature of the West were really questions about America as a whole. In 1845 John L. O’Sullivan, editor of United States Magazine and Democratic Review, declared that it was “our manifest destiny … to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” Many others echoed O’Sullivan’s sentiments. Hudson River School painters such as William Sontag and Asher B. Durand celebrated the spirit of progress embodied by expansion. Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School, was much more skeptical. He found the Mexican War “vile,” and warned, in his series of paintings called The Course of Empire, that empires ended in ruin. George Catlin, in his travels, discovered that American policy toward Native Americans was often brutal and ruthless. He found Indians’ “rights invaded, their morals corrupted, their land wrested from them, their customs changed.” In his view such injustice called for “national retribution.” For these and many other artists there was much at stake in the Western images they created. Their visions of the West reflected larger debates about national character and values. As the course of empire took its way, the arts followed, not only westward but also to the heart of America.
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