Wednesday, May 26, 2010

1a Introduction to American Studies 101

Welcome to American Studies 101. This is an introductory online course for students at California State University, Fullerton, and anyone else who stumbles on this website. CSUF students have a separate, private space for writing comments, but all readers are also welcome to leave comments here.

This is a theoretical course, but, because theory makes most sense in practice, we will focus on the subject of the frontier. You may have studied the frontier as "Manifest Destiny," or you may think of it as "the West" or "the Marlboro Man myth." Thase are overlapping yet distinct terms. We'll use all of them, but we'll start with the idea of the frontier -- partly because a lot of interesting American historians have been thinking about the frontier for a while. I believe that if you can understand the last century of scholars' varying approaches to the frontier, then you will understand American Studies theory.

We will begin with a classic speech by Frederick Jackson Turner that crystallized the myths that many people lived by. Then we'll consider alternate views of the frontier, doing theory in practice by circling around “the frontier,” considering issues of race, gender, region, environment, economics, government, popular culture, and the politics of public memory. If you do not already have the syllabus of assigned readings, you can click on this link for an older copy of the syllabus.

In order to consider the frontier from multiple angles, we will be using multiple sources, including photographs, paintings, postcards, amusement parks, advertisements, newspapers, movies, memoirs, music, and more. We will read an ethnography of rodeo queens and culminate with an investigative journalist exploring the fast food industry, because fast food has more to do with the frontier than you might think at first.

This is a course about learning to ask questions and learning critical thinking about ordinary Americans. So here's a taste of what's to come.

When I taught American Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, I spent the first day of class showing my students images of diverse Americans, trying to persuade them that not all Americans resemble the Marlboro man. I don’t think I ever persuaded them, really.

As Cal State Fullerton students, you already know that this image is just an image. Still, it’s a powerful portrait of America's myth of itself: a lone man, independent, self-reliant, noble, conquering the great wilderness, and maybe getting throat cancer. I assume this image is familiar to many of you. It is not just an isolated advertisement but actually a pervasive mythic discourse, a collective conversation that frames the story. In this class, we will be examining this mythic discourse in its sources and its consequences.

Here are some questions to begin with.

RACE: why is the Marlboro man always portrayed as white, not Latino, Black, Native American, or Asian? Historically, one-third of American cowboys were actually Black or Latino. Why isn't that diversity part of the remembered myth?

CLASS: Why is the Marlboro Man always portrayed alone, or with  one or two other workers, and never a crowd or a boss? What conditions of labor are implied here? Historically, cowboys were low-paid wage laborers driving cattle to the railroads to Chicago stockyards: why are cities and corporate industries rarely part of the picture?

GENDER: Why are there never (as far as I know) any women in any images of the Marlboro man? What sexuality is implied here? And what would be different if the Marlboro man were female, or even a little less John-Wayne like in his macho handsomeness?

GOVERNMENTAL POLITICS: Historically, the American west was largely undeveloped until there were government subsidies for railroads, irrigation, and other infrastructure. What would an image looked like that included the large role of government?

It is one assumption of this course that the stories we tell about ourselves matter. These stories may come in advertisements or novels or history textbooks or films or other pieces of popular culture, and they may seem trivial, but ideas like the Marlboro Man set up a standard of who is a noble American. The Marlboro-man standard is working-class, white, male, self-sufficient, macho. It leaves out a lot of people, but it affects us all, even if (maybe especially if) you are one of those people who are left out.

1b The Deep History of the Marlboro Man

Beginning in the 1820s, James Fennimore Cooper wrote popular stories about Leatherstocking, a genteel explorer who was ambivalent about civilization and loved the freedoms of the forest. James Fennimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking,” may not look much like the Marlboro man to you, but notice that even by 1820, Americans were romanticizing their frontiersmen. They were already nostalgic for a sweetened version of their past. Leatherstocking lived on the frontier of upstate New York, instead of the Great Plains where the Marlboro Man roams, but Leatherstocking was still a figure of independence, a figure who lived close to Indians, a figure who became more civilized by living close to what was then called savages.

Thus, the character of Leatherstocking (or the Marlboro Man, or Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, John Wayne, and the many others in this post) is a patriotic figure who also reveals ambivalence about "civilization" as well as questions about which class is most noble and most American, questions of whether we should most admire plain workers or rich leaders. This is one important lesson of cultural studies: culture is powerful partly because it is ambiguous, offering multiple meanings to different readers.

George Caleb Bingham painted this oil on canvas painting called "Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers Through the Cumberland Gap" in 1851. Think about what this painting communicates. What is lit up, and why? What is this vision of American settlement? Why does the natural environment here look more menacing than inviting? And who gets left out?

To think deeply about culture, you can continually ask yourself the same questions raised in post 1a: what is the role of race, gender, class, and politics here?

The actual Daniel Boone settled the Kentucky frontier, tried to sell real-estate to others, and then ended up dispossesed and poor. When visitors asked about his exploits killing Indians, he said, “I am very sorry to say that I ever killed any, for they have always been kinder to me than the whites.” If he had to choose, he said he would “certainly prefer a state of nature to a state of civilization.”

This was painted long after the actual Daniel Boone had died. Bingham doesn’t show Boone's failed work as a real-estate investor, his ambivalence about invading Indian lands, or his stated reluctance to commit violence.

The actual Daniel Boone was never painted. He wasn’t a hero in his own lifetime. He was heroized later, in the 1850s, during an era of sectional strife, of north and south fighting vehemently over whether each new state would be slave or free. It was an era of growing industrialization, when factory work was beginning to spread across America. It was an era of tragic Indian policies, when thousands of Cherokees died during the brutal relocation of the Trail of Tears. This painting doesn’t show any of that messy reality. It looks back, nostalgically, to a time of supposedly-noble settlement. That is one message to take from these early myths of the American frontier: even in 1851, Americans were already longing for a past that they already simplified.

The other message is that images of the past are often actually about the present -- even if only in what they choose to ignore about the present. History is about current events.

A final lesson is that, like all popular myths, the myth of the frontier is deep. It seems to glorify America but also expresses ambivalence about who gets money and admiration.

Here is actor Fess Parker playing Daniel Boone -- or maybe Davy Crocket: honestly, I confuse the two in the 1950s television version of the frontier myth. My point in showing you this image is to remind you that the myth of the frontier was particularly popular in the 1950s, when your parents may remember playing “Cowboys and Indians,” wearing coonskin caps, or spending their Saturdays watching Tonto and the Lone Ranger. This is an image that seems to be about the 1820s or 1880s, but even in this television-still, you can see that the actors were really dressed in 1950s styles.

They were also reacting to 1950s issues. That was an era of growing civil rights strife – but this all-white image of the frontier pioneer ignores that. It was an era of the Cold War, when separating “good guys” from “bad guys” seemed especially important, and when the cowboy seemed to express part of what made Americans different from Russians. It was an era of narrowing gender roles, that the cowboy myth seemed to fulfill. It is an image that is easy to smile at now, but its power is actually profound and, when we think about it, can tell us as much about the 1950s when it was made as about the 1800s that it pretends to describe

"Little House on the Prairie" is a 1970s-era television show, based on a 1930s-era set of novels. Some of you may think that you learned about the frontier from "Little House on the Prairie." You didn't actually learn about the frontier: you learned Laura Ingalls Wilder's version of the frontier, which includes women and children instead of only the men like Leatherstocking or the Marlboro Man -- but Wilder's story is still an all-white version of the frontier tale, emphasizing independence over corporate or government or urban issues. Wilder actually wrote the books as part of her libertarian politics. It is quite far from the full version of the frontier -- and that is part of what makes it fascinating. That is also why we have 15 more weeks of class, to think about what other versions we can use to replace these now-hoary myths.

I love Ansel Adams's 1965 version of a Nebraska Highway. It doesn't include any people, so the American Studies questions about race and gender may not seem to apply, but there are still issues to analyze. It makes me think of the optimistic hope in Horace Greeley’s famous 1865 advice: “Go west, young man, go west and grow up with the country.” It makes me think of all the great American road strories, from Huckleberry Finn to On the Road to "Thelma and Louise." It also makes me wonder about how many westerners balance an anti-government individualism with a reliance on government to build roads like these.

Even though I don’t much care for the Marlboro Man, I still find this image enticing. I am still intrigued by the open spaces of America, by the promise of a road-trip with friends, by the beauty of the natural environment -- and I have to keep reminding myself that I usually get to nature by driving a gas-guzzling vehicle on too much concrete, and that all of this is not natural but cultural.

Here is a final image of the west: James Doolin's painting, "The Flow" (2002). This may be closer to the west that many of you live in. The rest of this class is going to investigate how this image is connected to the others here.

The rest of this class is going to be one extended analysis of what’s at stake in all these frontier images.

2a Turner's Frontier Thesis

This week's reading is Frederick Jackson Turner's "Frontier Thesis" (1893).

Turner delivered his thesis lecture at the Chicago World's Fair Columbian Exposition of 1893, at one of the early meetings of the American Historical Association. Outside the gates of this fair, Buffalo Bill re-enacted his Wild West Show, in a piece of pop-culture entertainment that was also part of the frontier myth. That is not to denigrate Turner: he was a great writer and promoter. But like all historians, he was also drawing from the larger culture, including the Leatherstocking, Boone, and Buffalo Bill myths that preceded him. Turner's frontier thesis helped him become a professor at Harvard, the president of the American Historical Association, and the leading trainer of at least a generation of American historians.

"Turner's essay is the single most influential piece of writing in American history," John Mack Faragher wrote in Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner. "The frontier thesis became the most familiar model of American history, the one learned in school, extolled by politicians, and screened each Saturday afternoon at the Bijou." So what is Turner's frontier thesis?
“The frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization," Turner declared. “American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character....

“Stand at Cumberland Gap and watch the procession of civilization, marching single file – the buffalo following the trail to the salt springs, the Indian, the fur-trader and hunter, the cattle-raiser, the pioneer farmer – and the frontier has passed by....

“And to study this advance, the men who grew up under these conditions, and the political, economic, and social results of it, is to study the really American part of our history."
Before Turner, many history students had memorized European monarchs. Many Americans did not think there was much American history to study. Turner proposed a framework for studying the uniqueness of America through examining the character of America's pioneers.

Here is Turner, photographed next to his books. He had grown up in Wisconsin as it turned from a place for hunting and logging into a place for farming, and that experience affected his views. 

As the quotes above show, Turner believed there was a sort of evolution, visible at Cumberland Gap: from the buffalo to the Indian to the fur-trader, cowboy, and then farmer. He believed that the force of westward expansion forged the American character. He believed there was such a thing as an American character, and that that character was individualistic, practical, militarily-skilled, and formed by economic opportunity and social mobility. He believed that westering American character helped secure our democracy.

“In the crucible of the frontier the immigrants were Americanized, liberated, and fused into a mixed race, English in neither nationality nor characteristics...." By "race," here, Turner means a general white American, instead of a British-American, French-American, or Irish-American. Turner lived at a time when "Irish" and "French" were considered races. Turner doesn't seem to be speaking about Asian-Americans or Mexican-Americans or African-Americans, only about what we would now call Ethnic European Americans.

In 1893, Turner was worried because the 1890 census had declared the frontier closed. What would now provide the character-forming melting-pot of Americans? What would now provide that "opportunity for a competency" that had kept Americans from having many poor people? "So long as free land exists, the opportunity for a competency exists, and economic power secures political power," Turner wrote, in another important sentence. 1893 was the beginning of a depression, it was a time of immense immigration, it was a time to worry about the closing of the frontier. Turner hints that we might need to find new frontiers:

“Movement has been its dominant fact, and, unless this training has no effect upon a people, the American energy will continually demand a wider field for its exercise.”

In some ways, Turner's theory is an extended prose caption to the painting we saw in post 1b, George Bingham's "Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through the Cumberland Gap" -- except that Bingham included women, and Turner doesn't.

There is much that Turner didn't see:
* He didn't consider the perspective of anyone not crossing Cumberland Gap; anyone for whom the west was actually the east (as it was for Asians) or the north (as it was for Mexicans) or the south (as it was for Canadians and some Russians), or just home (as it was for Native Americans).
* He didn't see that it was groups who settled the west, more than individuals: families, religious sects (especially Mormons, but also various utopians), and especially corporations (especially railroads).
* He didn't see that America's west relied on government subsidies for irrigation, transportation, and other infrastructure.
* He didn't see that cities were such an integral part of western expansion that Chicago and San Francisco came first, before the pioneer cowboy.
* He didn't notice women, children, or racial minorities
* And he didn't know (he couldn't know in 1893) that the government actually gave away more free land after 1890 than before.

Why am I assigning you something that has been subject to almost a century of debunking? Because Turner’s thesis still matters. Even if you had never read Turner’s thesis, you are probably familiar with the general story he tells: the nobility of the cowboy, the adventure of settlement, the importance of open space to the American character. It’s in every Marlboro Man ad, every western movie, every Boy Scouts meeting, every wilderness campground.

The myth is still with us, whether we are fans of John Wayne, fans of the anti-Wayne “Deadwood,” or bored by our culture's continual re-creation of westerns. The myth is with us in our assumptions about who is an average American, what is noble, who is trusted, how much government is good, what is our relationship to the environment. It is one of our founding myths and versions of it can be found everywhere from Disneyland to the daily newspaper.

It is a myth that has had powerful consequences, as we can see by considering Teddy Roosevelt, our 26th president -- the subject of the next blog post.

2b Teddy Roosevelt's Frontiers

One way to think about the power of Turner's frontier thesis is to examine Teddy Roosevelt, our 26th president, who was in the White House from 1901-1909.

Here is a photo of Teddy Roosevelt, age 4, when he was sick from asthma. He wore glasses, but even at age 4, refused to wear them in portraits. His mother often dressed him in flowing pants or even skirt-like toddler clothes. He was a child of privilege, as this photo suggests, and a sickly child. Think about what image of masculinity is communicated in this portrait of TR and compare it to the next image.

This is TR when he was a student at Harvard, circa 1887, wearing his “sculling outfit.” Think about the choices he made: why is he topless and barefoot, why are his arms crossed and his mouth unsmiling, why has he grown himself this bushy mutton-chop beard? After his many feminized childhood portraits, TR chose, as a young adult, to emphasize a specific version of masculine toughness.

When TR started his political career as a New York state legislator, he was accused of being a “weakling,” “Jane-Dandy,” “exquisite” “Punkin-Lily,” and, in the most sexually explicit insult, “given to sucking the knob of an ivory cane.” He was accused of being what our current Governor might call a “girly-boy.” Photos like the one of TR at Harvard in his sculling outfit were part of his attempt to show that he was, in fact, a manly man.

In the mid-1880s, Teddy Roosevelt bought himself a ranch in South Dakota and wrote a book, Hunting Trips of a Ranchman (1885), which exaggerated how long he actually spent on his ranch: it was only a few months at a time, but he made it seem like years. This is a photo of Theodore Roosevelt on his ranch. He wrote,
“It would electrify some of my friends who have accused me of representing the kid-glove element in politics if they could see me galloping over the plains, day in and day out, clad in a buckskin shirt and leather chaparajos, with a big sombrero on my head.”

Think about his choices in this photo as well as that quote: he used a Mexican hat and saddle along with Indian-fringed clothing in order to assert his white manliness. He asserted his closeness to “savagery” in order to proclaim his ultimately civilized masculinity. He chose to promote this version of himself, instead of, say, his legislative work in New York.

After Turner, Teddy Roosevelt wrote a historical essay, “The Winning of the West” (1896) that adapted Turner’s thesis by declaring that “the American race” was forged on the frontier. According to TR, virile frontiersmen descended into savagery in order to defeat Indians and then rise up again to civilization, evolving a higher American civilization because of their experiences on the manly, savage frontier.

In 1899 he gave a lecture on "The Strenuous Life":

“In a perfectly peaceful and commercial civilization such as ours there is always a danger of laying too little stress upon the more virile virtues – upon the virtues which go to make up a race of statesmen and soldiers, of pioneers and explorers… These are the very qualities which are fostered by vigorous, manly out-of-door sports, such as mountaineering, big-game hunting, riding, shooting, rowing, football and kindred games.”

Like Frederick Jackson Turner, Roosevelt was concerned that the apparent closing of the frontier in the 1890s might affect the American character. To compensate, he promoted sports that were new in the 1890s, like football – and he eventually promoted US invasion of Cuba and the Philipines and beyond, in order to forge a “virile” “race” of Americans on some new frontier.

In 1898, the American battleship “Maine” exploded in Havana harbor. It may have been due to improperly-stored gunpowder on board, but American newspapers, eager to sell copies, trumpeted the theory that evil Cuban Spaniards had attacked us. This media attention and Roosevelt’s own personal yearning for a new frontier helped launch the Spanish-American war, a 100-day-long war which John Hays called “a splendid little war.” It was a war that promised to heal the nation after the divisiveness of the Civil War, while it also promised to return health and vigor to the national body. Arguably, it was the war that launched US imperialism.

Here is a political cartoon from 1898, stirring up sentiment for the Spanish-American war. Think about this depiction of Spanish Cubans. What race are they shown as? What version of masculinity? What state of civilization? How does this racist caricature compare to TR’s own self-portrait of himself as a manly frontiersman?

To fight the “Spanish Brute,” Roosevelt rounded up a volunteer cavalry regiment of the manliest American men he could find. Where did he look for manly men? On the western frontier and at Harvard. This regiment was a combination of students and cowboys, educated Easterners from Harvard and “primitive” Westerners from ranches and mines, in a combination that Roosevelt hoped would express the heights of civilized vigor, what he called the most “peculiarly American” of Americans.
Roosevelt named his regiment “The Rough Riders,” after a fictional component of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and the Buffalo Bill dime novels that preceded the show. Here, life literally imitates art.

This photograph is by William Dunwiddie, titled “Colonel Roosevelt and His Rough Riders at the Top of San Juan Hill” (1898). Roosevelt brought reporters along with his Rough Riders for their adventure in Cuba. Today, we would call these “embedded reporters.” They publicized Roosevelt’s exploits in a way that helped promote his political career, launching him to become Governor of New York and then President of the U.S.

This lithograph by George Harris and Sons is titled, “Roosevelt and the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, July 1, 1898.” It is also a lie. Roosevelt wasn’t at the front of his regiment, waving his sword phallicly. In his own memoir of this battle, he describes being lost in the back of the pack, confused by the chaos of battle. His regiment’s flag was not waving gloriously in the background: the flag-waver was one of the first to fall in battle.

Think about what image of battle is communicated here, and how it contradicts with the murky reality that TR himself described. In his memoirs, TR wrote that it’s “astonishing what a limited area of vision and experience one has in the hurly-burly of a battle.” Roosevelt trumpeted his regiment’s triumphal advance up San Juan Hill, but they actually weren’t the first U.S. soldiers up that hill.

Here are the soldiers who actually won the battle of San Juan Hill. This is the U.S. 10th Cavalry, photographed in 1894 in Montana. They were a group of African-American soldiers who had been nicknamed “Buffalo Soldiers” because they fought against Indians on America’s western frontier. Battle-hardened, they were the ones who picked up Teddy Roosevelt’s regiments' flag when it fell. They were the ones who first reached the top of San Juan Hill.

TR complained that, somehow, it was backwards for blacks to be better soldiers than the white manly men he had hand-picked from ranches and Harvard. There are no images of these black soldiers at San Juan Hill, despite the reporters who were there, repeatedly portraying Roosevelt. These African-American soldiers were not promoted in their own time the way Roosevelt promoted himself. These heroic soldiers were uncomfortable reminders to Roosevelt that the manliest of men might not be the white Harvard students or rich ranchers whom Roosevelt favored, that America might not be entirely unified around a single hero.

They remind me to be careful of sources, of the lithographs and news dispatches and even news photos of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders,” to continually ask, who’s left out, and why?

They remind me, ultimately, to think about who Turner’s frontier thesis – and Roosevelt’s popularization of that thesis – ultimately left out.

As president, Theodore Roosevelt led invasions of the Philipines, Panama, and the Dominican Republic, all to advance civilization and give a new generation of manly men a frontier experience, while triumphing over what TR considered effeminate “brown” races. This photo of Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 shows him resting his hand on the globe as if he owned it.

As president, TR was also concerned with immigration, especially limiting the number of Japanese allowed into America.

He worried about what he called “race suicide.” By that, TR meant that he feared that overcivilization would lead to over-restraint, which led to a declining birthrate among the wealthiest whites, while the “lesser” races of Italians, Irish, Russians, and others whom TR considered non-white kept having more children, threatening to overtake those whom TR considered white. We ourselves might say that urbanized middle-class people of any race tend to have fewer children than rural or working-class people, simply because it’s harder to raise middle-class children. It’s harder to pass on a higher class status to a next generation, so middle-class people in many times and places tend to have fewer kids. Roosevelt thought this was a terrible problem and urged wealthy white men to have a little less restraint and a lot more children. He called it “the warfare of the cradle.”

He wasn’t simply a blustering racist. He also helped found the American national park system and to promote Progressive policies of environmentalism. He is, ultimately, an example of what it looks like to take Turner’s frontier thesis as a guide to living life.

This final photo shows TR and son Kermit, on safari in Africa, in 1909 or 1910. After being US president, TR faced the problem of what to do next. What new frontier to conquer, to make himself a manly American character? He went to Africa to hunt big game. This photo shows him and his slightly-less-manly-appearing son, sitting atop a dead water buffalo. It does not show the 40 African porters they had hired to carry the equipment they required in order to be civilized hunters, including a porcelain bathtub, an assortment of literature, and enough ginger-snaps that TR could eat a cookie every night, during his bath.

I tell you these details not to mock a great president, but to realistically face America's past. I love it that TR ate a gingersnap before bedtime, even on safari. I regret it that TR himself couldn't see the manliness of the African porters who made his gingersnap-eating possible, or the African-American soldiers who actually conquered San Juan Hill. I wonder about TR's son, Kerwin, and what kinds of choices of masculinity poor Kerwin was limited to. I wonder what it smelled like, sitting on top of that water buffalo -- and who else, among Americans, are also overly driven by their own versions of Turner's frontier thesis myth.

3 Frontiers of Conquest

This week, we're reading Patty Limerick's Legacy of Conquest, a spirited response to Turner. “Turner’s frontier rested on a single point of view; it required that the observer stand in the East and look to the West,” Limerick writes. What happens when we shift points of view? Limerick herself was born in the west, in Banning, California, one of the struggling desert cities that you may have driven past on your way to Palm Springs or Joshua Tree. Limerick’s parents ran a roadside stand selling dates to tourists. They encouraged her to dress as a cowgirl, so that passing tourists would pay to take her photo. What do you think: does any of that personal history enter into her view of the frontier west?

Limerick writes about all that Turner left out: non-English speakers, women, miners, urbanites, railroads, banks, and the problem of defining whenever "the frontier" closed. Patty Limerick chooses to avoid the term “frontier” altogether, preferring the term “conquest.”

In a preface to her re-issued book in 2007, Patty Limerick explains,

"The fuzzy and forgiving term ‘frontier’ had drawn our attention from what westward expansion had meant to native people, as well as citizens of the Mexican North, and to the natural environment. But a quick dose of honesty could cure this problem: accept the applicability of the sharp and honest term ‘conquest’ to the United States’s westward expansion, and national self-understanding would be beneficially enhanced."

What do you think? Is "conquest" a more "sharp and honest term" than frontier? By "conquest," it is important to understand that Limerick does not only mean the oft-depicted violence between whites and Indians, but also the far-less-binary contests between Anglos, Spanish, Mexicans, Asians, Blacks, Russians, Canadians, Mormons (I know, Mormons aren't a race or ethnicity like other groups on this list, but they faced their own discrimination in the west), different Indian tribes who fought each other (often allied with various Europeans who also fought each other), Portuguese, Chileans, and many other sub-groups who fought for claims to the American west. That list does not even include the many mixed-race mestizo settlers of the West. It is a huge challenge to comprehend the West's diversity, but understanding that diversity may help you understand the West's long history of competitions over who is a "real" Westerner.

While Patty Limerick uses the term "conquest," more recent scholars tend to prefer the term borderlands. To understand that term, consider one of many photos from Robert Runyon who photographed the Texas borderlands in the 1910s. This photo shows Mexican-American women standing in front of a Catholic church built with Native-American-inspired architecture in the desert southwest. What would Turner say? Nothing in this picture shows the “germ of American character” that Turner wrote about, at least not the British-German-Protestant version of the American character that Turner believed in. Instead, this is an image of cultural overlaps, borrowing and adapting. It is an image of women, religion, interracial cooperation, and the complexity of the actual frontier.

Like later borderlands scholars, Limerick emphasizes America’s west as a “meeting ground” of cultural diversity, where there were contests for legitimacy and cultural dominance and land-ownership (page 27), a place where the federal government first expanded its role, and a place where boom and bust economic cycles dominated. Think about that Limerick Thesis: does that fit with your own personal experience of California, or does Turner’s thesis fit better?

Limerick begins with an image of a frontier-woman eating endless cans of food because this image highlights connections between the frontier, corporate culture, and environmental degradation. Limerick ends her introduction with the parable of Louis L'Amour touting western “progress” in his Turner-style novels, while actually using a lawsuit to fight Indian-led development that threatened environmental degradation in his backyard. This reflects her belief that the west was settled not by lone, manly pioneers but by governments, legal rules, and contests over who was -- and is -- legitimate.


In later chapters, Limerick emphasizes that "The two key frontier activities - the control of Indians and the distribution of land - were primarily federal responsibilities" (p. 82), contradicting the popular image of lone pioneers independent of Eastern government. Instead, "in Western affairs, business and government were interdependent and symbiotic" (p. 84), in a way that is not quite corruption only because it was so common and so central to the whole goal of settlement. In the nineteenth-century west, businessmen often became politicians, and even when they didn't, both businessmen and politicians aimed to exploit Western resources and so saw no real distinction between helping themselves to make money and helping America to expand. This overlap between big corporations and big government is still evident in many aspects of America, but I urge you in your responses to name what you mean, whether it is business or government or both. It is worthwhile distinguishing between public and private and big and small. Specifics grounded in evidence are more thoughtful than political cliches.

Between 1850 and 1875, the federal government gave the railway corporations 131 million acres of land. That means that the government gave away land as big as one-third of the entire state of California. To encourage the construction of transportation infrastructure, the federal government also gave the railroads bonds and loan-guarantees (meaning that the corporations took almost no risk, but reaped almost all the profit), along with right-of-way lands (400 feet of land beside all the tracks), and, most controversially, large land grants of sections of land within ten miles of each track, to sell or to hold without paying any taxes. This shifted the tax burden from giant corporations to smaller farmers and ranchers.  Some of the people who passed laws favorable to railroad-owners -- such as California's former governor Leland Stanford -- also happened to be railroad owners. He became rich while his workers complained of receiving starvation wages.

This is part of what Limerick is thinking of when she writes, "In the early development of the Far West, five principal resources lay ready for exploitation: furs, farmland, timber, minerals, and federal money" (82). Even today, the West receives more federal aid than the rest of the U.S., although westerners often declare that the West has a tradition of small-government independence. Such declarations are part of the historical amnesia of America.


When it first came out 20 years ago, Limerick’s book made many Americans, especially many westerners, astoundingly angry. Limerick was pilloried for being a “Revisionist Historian,” revising Turner’s “frontier” into her story of “conquest”. Limerick defended herself, explaining that all history is revision.

Every normal human being is forever recalculating, reorienting, reorganizing information and reaching for new understanding. Thus, if you know a historian who is not a revisionist, indeed, if you know any human being in any line of work who is not rethinking, reappraising, and revising his or her previous assumptions, then charity requires you to summon the paramedics and get that nonrevisionist examined fast, on the chance that there might still be time to get this party’s heart restarted. [Patty Limerick, Something in the Soil: Legacies and Reckonings in the New West (W W Norton, 2002), page 17.]

In addition to accusations of writing “revisionist history,” Limerick was also accused of being “bleak,” emphasizing the dark spots of history over the glory. She replied that she actually intended to write an optimistic book about our messy, pluralistic past, hoping that it would help us face our messy, pluralistic present. Consider her concluding sentences: “We share the same region and its history, but we wait to be introduced. The serious exploration of the historical process that made us neighbors provides that introduction.”

What do you think: is there room for optimism in Limerick's work?

Limerick's work is a synthesis of new western history, relying on the research of scholars from Asian-American studies, African-American Studies, Chicano Studies, History, Native American Studies, and Environmental Studies. Thus, Limerick is an example of the interdisciplinarity of American Studies -- but the story she tells is not as straightforward a story as Turner's. When you studied "Manifest Destiny" in school, you probably learned a version of the story closer to Turner's than Limerick's. When you learned about the "Big Four" railroad leaders, you probably did not also hear about the mostly-Asian workers who risked their lives to build America's railroads, or the story of the government granting huge land-grants to a few millionaires. What do you think: could the schools possibly teach Limerick's multicultural, multi-perspective version?

4 Western Settlement

This week, you are reading the early chapters from Robert Hine and John Mack Faragher's Frontiers: A Short History of the American West. These chapters raise interesting questions about when & where American history begins, who matters for history, and who the "savages" were during the era of European conquest.

Hine and Faragher show that the first parts of the current United States to be settled by Europeans were Florida and New Mexico, not New England as the story is often told. This basic historic fact helps reveal that the frontier was not only a westward movement, but a movement north from Mexico, south from Canada, and east from Asia. In their early chapters, Hine and Faragher highlight the role of governments and imperial contests; the role of racial diversity and mestizo mixing amongst many borderlands populations; and the role of women as guides, interpreters, wives, prostitutes, frontier businesswomen, and also justifications for conquest. They raise interesting points about various "frontiers of inclusion" which absorbed conquered people into citizenship versus "frontiers of exclusion" which sought to expel or exterminate conquered peoples, as well as frontiers that fell somewhere between those two poles. It's fascinating stuff.

Your task this week is to try to figure out what the story of western settlement should be.

The main question to consider is: does the information in Hine and Faragher support Turner's thesis, Limerick's thesis, or possibly a third thesis?

  • Does the information here concur with what you already knew, or add some new details or perspectives that change the story?
  • Think about what perspective Hine and Faragher take. Are these authors standing at Cumberland Gap like Turner, standing at a tourist-stall in Banning California like Limerick, or standing somewhere else? Whom do they pay attention to: politicians, business-people, or non-elites; whites or other races; men or women or children or some combination thereof?
  • Do Hine and Faragher depict western settlers as independent (Turner's view), or also dependent on government (Limerick's view), or perhaps some third way?
  • Do they depict the western settlers as Turnerian heroes or Limerickian conquesters or something else?
  • Do they show a frontier with Turner's opportunities for class mobility or a frontier of economic inequality?

Your earlier training may have taught you that academic writing should be objective, but here's one important insight to learn in college: no one is entirely objective. Everyone has biases. Good historians strive to thoughtfully consider evidence, but we cannot help but selectively choose our evidence, framed by the questions we ask, the people we consider to be important, the evidence we think most important, and the perspectives we each hold.

Hine and Faragher are attempting to tell a complete story of the frontier, but you should understand after reading Turner and Limerick that the complete story is in question. Learning to be a college-level critical reader means learning to think about the choices each author makes.

Your earlier history classes might have given you the impression that history involves memorizing names and dates, but college history is not about simple memorization. Especially in American Studies, college history is about learning to ask questions. 

At CSUF, no American Studies class ever has a scantron test because we are not teaching you to memorize something for a multiple-choice exam; we are teaching you, instead, to analyze. This means that American Studies can start to feel frustrating. "Just tell us the answers," students sometimes tell me. "What was the frontier really like?" Hine and Faragher attempt to describe what the frontier was like, but it is up to you to analyze: what story are they telling? How else could this story be told? Do you believe their version?

Let me be clear: this does not mean that there are endless answers to the story of the frontier or to any past event. All history depends on evaluating evidence.

The difference between the authors we have read so far is that they ask different questions about the frontier and so they use different sources to look for answers. Like most historians in the 1890s, Turner didn't notice the evidence left by women and non-whites. Turner quotes politicians, government reports, and famous leaders of his time, and that means that he only ends up seeing white men. After the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, historians like Patty Limerick wanted to add in evidence from other races. Limerick used evidence discovered by scholars speaking languages other than English. As you read more Hine & Faragher, you will find they sometimes use sources that earlier historians used to assume were unreliable, sources like slang or tourist guidebooks, because they want to answer questions about daily life. Considering the contrast among these authors means understanding that history is not so much a set of permanent facts but a story that changes over time depending on who is asking the questions and choosing the evidence. We call that insight historiography.

As you read Hine and Faragher, think not only about simply memorizing their information, but also evaluating it by analyzing where they are historiographically.

5a California's Frontiers

This week, we are reading about California's frontiers in mines and cities.


To think about mining in ways that gets beyond simplistic stereotypes, I find it useful to think through some of the main categories of American Studies analysis introduced in post 1: race, gender, and class.

You might not know it from popular-culture representations of the Gold Rush, but California's gold-diggers included Mexicans, Chileans, Chinese, Miwok Indians, various Europeans, and Anglo-Americans -- each of whom brought important mining techniques from their homelands. The Anglo-Americans were newer residents of California than the Mexicans or the Miwoks, but those newcomer Anglos, with astounding arrogance, leveled a heavy "Foreign Miner's Tax," on the Mexicans who were older residents. That racist tax meant that whites profited from mining far more easily than non-whites, leading to an intersection between race and class.

While biology usually makes us female or male, culture makes us feminine or masculine. By “feminine” or “masculine” I mean the whole array of habits and norms that get associated with female-ness or male-ness, and those norms change over time and are also often disputed. Sex is biological, but gender is cultural.

In her terrific work, "Domestic Life in the Diggings," Susan Lee Johnson points out that the Miwoks and Mexicans tended to arrive at the gold-diggings with whole families and an established gender division of labor. Miwok women gathered acorns, Miwok men hunted for meat, and they enjoyed a decent diet. Anglo men, on the other hand, arrived with almost no Anglo women. This presented a problem: who would do the cooking, cleaning, and laundry? Many Anglo miners solved this problem by living in groups of 3-5 men, taking turns each week when one of those men would do the "women's" work. I feel as if that should become the plot of a tv sitcom, but it's not just a quirky piece of history: it reveals much about nineteenth-century gender roles. Male gold-miners found "women's" work so odious that no one did it for more than a week at a time. They did this "women's work" so poorly that many of them suffered from scurvy, a painful vitamin deficiency which left them exhausted, covered in sores, bleeding from their gums, and eventually losing their teeth. Scurvy happens when anyone does not eat enough fresh food.

Johnson notes that some French and Swiss gold-miners did plant lettuce. It's a simple, quick crop to grow and an easy cure for scurvy. None of the Anglos had thought of doing that, though, because lettuce-planting was considered women's work. Instead of bending their ideas of masculinity, they let their teeth fall out. The French and Swiss, apparently, had more open ideas of masculinity, so they avoided scurvy. I find this fascinating.

Male miners also fed themselves by buying tortillas and tamales from entrepeneurial Mexican women. Remember that detail the next time someone says, "There were no women on the frontier" or the next time someone says, "Traditional women were housewives." Frontier women were, actually, often, businesswomen: running farms, ranches, brothels, restaurants, boarding-houses, laundries, groceries, midwifery practices, textile businesses, and more. Mexican businesswomen sold tamales to the goldminers. Businesswomen and businessmen were actually some of the most successful people in the Gold Rush. It was more consistently profitable to sell shovels to gold-diggers than to actually dig for gold.

This leads us to the next area of analysis, class.


After only a few years, almost any gold that an individual could pick up had been picked up. After 1854, it took huge amounts of capital to afford the advanced equipment for deep mining. Individuals ceased making gold-rush profits after 1854, when corporations took over, as discussed in blog 11.

Very little of that gets into the popular memory of the Gold Rush, but, to me, it's important to remember the corporate side of the gold rush. It's important to remember it all, because ideas about race, gender, and class overlap. The racialized Foreign Miner's Tax kept non-whites poor. Whites also justified their oppression of non-whites by pointing to what they saw as "uncivilized" gender roles: they thought Indian women worked too hard, and they thought this justified imposing white culture on Indians. Asian men found an economic niche -- after being violently persecuted out of most other jobs -- by performing work that had been seen as feminine: cooking and laundering, making a living in a harsh environment while also gaining a reputation as effeminate.

Susan Lee Johnson concludes that the Gold Rush's racial mixing and gender-boundary-crossing can provide us with “a useable past,” perhaps offering models of more flexible gender roles today. As Blake Allmendinger write in Over the Edge: Remapping the American West, “Today, although the West may be settled, its meanings and boundaries remain unfixed and unsealed,” affecting issues from gender roles to immigration to environmentalism. Re-examining our past, truly looking at the cultural boundary-crossing of our history, means that, to Allmendiner, “Imagining the West is a transgressive act” (6).

That last quote is the key, but you need to think it out for yourself: what is transgressive about the chapters you are reading this week?


In addition to reading about California mines, chapter 13 also introduces the idea of California cities. Some students consider this week's readings and conclude that the frontier progressed to cities and diversity, but that actually misses the point: cities were there first and diversity was there all along. In fact, there was more mixing on the earlier frontier than later.

It was Richard Wade who first had this insight: "Towns were the spearheads of the frontier." Think about that for a moment. How does it change your image of the west to imagine cities like San Francisco instead of the open range of the Marlboro Man? How does that inside overturn Turner?

In a reading I used to assign this week, Barbara Berglund calls cities "cultural frontiers." She analyzes the fluidity of race and class in 1840s San Francisco, gradually replaced by stricter hierarchies as San Francisco became American by becoming more racist. Berglund writes:

"As one of America's first truly multiracial cities, San Francisco bequeaths a mixed legacy .... It requires acknowledging America's imperial past as well as its democratic past, its social conformity as well as rugged individualism, its hierarchy as well as egalitarianism...." (Berglund, 224-225)
"My hope is that taking a journey back into an exploration of the stories generated on San Francisco's nineteenth-century cultural frontiers will spur greater mindfulness about the power of twenty-first-century cultural frontiers that continue to shape the meanings we make about the human diversity that surrounds us" (Berglund, xiii).
Think about this: do those ideas apply to the chapters you are reading in Hine and Faragher? Do those ideas help explain what is transgressive about truly understanding the urban frontiers and mining frontiers of California?

6 Frontiers of Industry

This week, you are again choosing among several chapters in Hine and Faragher's book. All these chapters focus on the economics of the frontier from the 1850s to the 1920s. This week's blog will focus on chapter 10, since cowboys have come to dominate the image of the American west. You get to think for yourself whether these themes apply to the other chapters you are reading.
First, notice the borderlands "mixing and mingling" (page 121) of vaqueros and cowboys. I love the way that this week's reading points out that lariat, lasso, and rodeo are all Spanish words, while dogie is a West African word: the very language of cowboying shows the borderlands melange of American settlement. It wasn't always a peaceful intermixing, as you will see in the discussion of the destruction of the buffalo and the Indians who relied on buffalo, as well as the violence between Anglo cattlemen and Latino and Basque sheepherders. Still, this borderlands crossculturalism is part of the American story.

Notice also the role of gender: as we learned in post 4, diverse women were present on the frontier not just as wives but as businesswomen, in this case "Cattle Queens." It wasn't always easy for them. In his study of diaries of settlers on the overland trails, Faragher has "found not a single woman who initiated the idea of moving, while nearly a third actively objected." Yet women were there. In the early twentieth-century, 20% of all homesteaders were single women. They suffered social isolation and domestic violence, but some of them prospered, too.

Notice the gender roles of men, too: carrying guns they mostly didn't know how to use, so that most gunshot wounds were accidental (Hine and Faragher, page125). It's fascinating what historians can learn from careful research.

Notice the theme of boom and bust cycles of the western economy, deeply intertwined with corporate industry, including the huge cattle companies, market towns, railroads, and meatpacking corporations. Notice how small cattle ranchers and some unionizing cowboys fared in the face of the power of big business. This, too, is part of the story of the west -- and one that perhaps applies best to other readings this week.

Finally, notice the complex issues of race, issues that keep reoccuring in this course.

Hine and Faragher inform us that blacks and Hispanics comprised approximately ONE-THIRD of America’s cowboys in the 1880s. Think about that for a moment: one third of cowboys weren't white.

How does it change your image of cowboys to bring these men back in to the picture?

There is more than just racial diversity to understand here. Cowboys are icons of rugged American individualism (remember how the Marlboro man is not only always white, but also almost always alone) -- but actual cowboys depended on technological inventions: especially refrigerated railroad cars and industrialized meat-slaughter. Cowboys were tied in to a complex corporate capitalism: they were driving meat to giant stockyards, where the pigs would be made into versions of sausage and Spam, to help feed the growing residents of cities, who didn’t have time or space to raise and slaughter their own meat.

Cowboys are wage-laborers, glamorized by popular-culture memory, but hardly glamorous in their own time. If you have ever met an actual cowboy, you may already know this. The hardships of the work are far beyond the nostalgic mis-remembered myth that gets promoted on Dude Ranches to this day

Here are a couple comics based on movies and tv shows of the 1950s. Think about it: why don’t any of these show the black or Hispanic cowboys? Or any groups? Or businesswomen? Or the stockyards factories? Or the corporations of railroads, meatpacking, and stock-raising companies that supported this lifestyle? Why don’t these pictures look more like the historically diverse families who actually worked the range?

Think about what’s at stake here. What if the pop-culture view of the west was closer to Faragher's and Hines's research than to Turner’s historical mythmaking? What should a more accurate comic-book western look like?

John Sonsini has recently painted a series of paintings of day laborers in his Los Angeles neighborhood, called Los Vaqueros. These are images worth considering, now that you know the history of actual cowboys. These modern-day vaqueros may be much closer to historical cowboys than the comic-book pop-culture images above.

5b The Cultural Construction of Race

This may be the most important thing you ever learn in college: race is culturally constructed. 

Americans often think that race is physical, stable, and real. But race is actually imagined. Babies are not born knowing their own race. Someone needed to tell you what race you were, and the first time you had to fill out a census form, maybe at the beginning of some standardized test in elementary school, someone probably needed to tell you that the name you had learned for your own race (white, maybe, or Vietnamese) mapped on to some other official name (like Caucasion or Asian) – even though those categories aren’t exactly the same. Americans have never agreed on where the lines between races are. Are Mexicans white? Is Latino a race? What race is a Middle Easterner? What about someone from Guam or Hawaii? No one has ever absolutely settled these questions, because these categories are fluid.

In the early 20th century, when citizenship was legally limited to "free white persons" or anyone born in the United States, U.S. courts actually tried to define race and found that they couldn't. In one case, a Japanese immigrant claimed he had pale skin and therefore deserved citizenship. The judge ruled that although the law said "white," it really meant Caucasian. Then a man from the Caucasian mountain range in India claimed that he was certainly Caucasian, and a different judge ruled that what the law really meant was white-skinned. It would be funny if it weren't so important: it kept non-European immigrants excluded from U.S. citizenship for far too long. Immigration law eventually changed between 1924 and 1965. But those earlier cases remind us that it is impossible to draw a fixed line around who counts as "white."

We are all part of the human race. We all share common ancestors with the first humans in Africa. We have created lines that divide us. Those lines of race pretend to be natural but they are artificial. They change over time and they change in between cultures. 

Here's the second important thing to understand: Even though racial categories are imaginary, they have very real consequences. Ideas about race affect who gets what jobs, lives in what neighborhoods, gets tracked into which school classes, and more. In the past, ideas about race affected who got to vote, testify in court, marry, own land, or have other rights of citizenship. 

Limerick, Hine, Faragher, and Berglund all challenge us to think about the many races who interacted on America's borderlands and frontiers. Consider the official 1781 census list of "Los Pobladores de Los Angeles," the original non-Indian settlers of Los Angeles:

Manuel Camero, age 30, race Mulatto, born in Nayarit, married to Maria Tomasa, a 24-year-old Mulatta. Jose Fernando de Valasco y Lara, age 50, race Spaniard, born in Spain, married to Maria Antonia Campos, a 23-year-old Indian; they had 3 children. Antonio Mesa, age 38, race Black, born in Sinaloa, married to Ana Gertrudis, a 27-year-old Mulatta; they have two children...

The list goes on. There was also a Filipino settler, Antonio Rodriguez, who arrived a few months after the census. There's a lot to think about on this seemingly-dry list. The racial categories (Mulatto, Mestizo, Spaniard) are different than the categories that are common today, and that is one reminder that race is cultural, not biological. Race changes: different cultures draw different racial boundaries between people. On this list, we see older racial categories, but we also see that only two of the 43 original settlers (the two "Spaniards") were what we would call white. All the others are what we might now call Mexican, Latino, Hispanic, African-American, Native American, or mixed-race. The founders of Los Angeles were mixed-race and largely dark-skinned. The more you think about that, the more you may begin to understand that history matters for the present, for who we call an "immigrant" or a "newcomer" or a "true Californian."

As Steve Pitti explains in his book The Devil in Silicon Valley, California history is a particularly good place to see the cultural construction of race. In California in the 1800s, people sorted themselves into racial categories that most of us probably no longer recognize: “Gente de razon” was a Mission Indian, distinct from “Gente Barbaros,” literally, a barbarian. “Californio” was a Mexican who claimed descent from Spanish settlers, even though many Californios had quite dark skin.

Consider this photo. What race do you think he is? His name is Pio Pico. He was governor of California in the 1840s. Do those details help you choose a race?

If you remember your 4th-grade California history, you may recall that California was part of Mexico until 1849. Pio Pico was a Mexican governor of California. But he didn't call himself Hispanic or Latino or any of the racial terms we use today. Pio Pico called himself "Californio," which to him meant descended from Spaniards, Europeans, whites. Pio Pico was considered white although his skin was quite dark, as you can see in this second photo of Pico alongside his pale-skinned wife and nieces. 

Census records list his grandparents as "mestizo" and "mulatto." His darker skin and his facial features make me think he was part African-American, maybe part Native American, certainly what we would now call mixed-race. But he was also wealthy and politically powerful. He once owned more than half the current town of Whittier, along with portions of Camp Pendleton and more. You've probably noticed spaces near Fullerton named after him. There is a saying, "Wealth whitens," and in Pio Pico's case, it did -- at least until 1849, when Anglos took over the state and launched land disputes and legal cases, that, along with gambling debts, led Pio Pico to die in poverty.

Nowadays, few people use the term “Californio,” while many think of “Californians” as blonde surfers, not the Mexicans who first claimed this title. The racial categories have shifted over time. Race is culturally constructed. Pio Pico was white, and then he was not white.

Here's another example, this one drawn from Karen Leonard's Making Ethnic Choices. This is a wedding photo from 1917 of two sisters marrying two brothers. Their mother stands in the back, and their youngest sister sits in the front. What race are they? It's impossible to tell just by looking, of course. Their names may help: Anita Alvarez and Antonia Alvarez are marrying Gopal and Sher Singh. From those names, you may deduce that the women are Mexican-American. But what are the men?

The men in this photo are Sikhs from the Punjabi region of India and Pakistani. What racial category is that? In California in the 1910s, they were called "Hindoos", though their religion is not Hindi. They had traveled, following the routes of the British empire, seeking work. Like many immigrants, single men traveled first. Hundreds of Punjabi men settled in California's central valley in the early 1900s, finding work on California's giant farms. Like many immigrants, they hoped to later help bring over women -- but World War I interrupted immigration from the Punjab.

These men were in California, interested in getting married, but with no Punjabi Sikh women nearby. Their problem was exacerbated by anti-miscegenation laws that prohibited interracial marriages in California then. So who could they marry? Several hundred of them all reached the same conclusion. They married Mexican-American women. We might consider that a different race, and therefore illegal under California's anti-miscegenation laws, but on their official marriage licenses, the clerk wrote, for both the Singhs and the Alvarez's, "Race: Brown."

You might think that's just silly. There is no race of brown. The point is, there is no race at all. We do not have a clearer understanding of race than any of the people in the past whose racial understanding now appears ridiculous to us. We keep imagining race and then we give these imagined categories real consequences like whether Pio Pico got to keep his fortune and whether the Singh brothers could get married.

As you keep thinking about it, you have to wonder: what race are the Singh-Alvarez children going to be? Their story, I think, is a frontier story worth remembering. It's a story of borderlands, even though it happened in the California Central Valley, a space that isn't geographically close to any international border. It's still a borderland, though, in the many people who migrated there from many directions. It's a place of mixing, adapting, and competing for power (what Patty Limerick called conquest). It's a space that lends much complication to Turner's thesis, but that may help explain your own family's history, perhaps.

The idea that race is culturally constructed is a large idea to understand, but comedian Hari Kondabolu recently went on Letterman to talk about race and history and America. Hari says it better than most professors.

All of this is part of what Limerick means when she declares, "The diversity of the west put a strain on the simpler varieties of racism" (Limerick, 260), and "The West was not where we escaped each other, but where we all met" (Limerick, 291).