Monday, February 23, 2009

Week 5 The 1930s and the Changing Frontier

When did the frontier close? Turner thought that the frontier closed in 1890, citing the federal census definition of people per acre. Limerick argued that there was more continuity than discontinuity around 1890s, especially because more federal land was distributed after 1890 than before -- and also because there are now fewer people per acre in much of the west than there were in 1890. Limerick also pointed out that there may not be one definable closing of the frontier.

But this week's reading by John Mack Faragher and Robert Hine argues that the 1930s were actually a significant turning point in the history of the American frontier. 

In the 1930s, decades of overplowing the Great Plains led to the environmental crisis known as the "Dust Bowl," when wind tore off the topsoil, 24 million farm acres turned to desert, and the rural west was faced with economic collapse. Farmers moved from the Great Plains states in desperate search of work in California. This image by Dorothea Lange shows some of the desperation of the Dust Bowl refugees, a very different pioneer image than those that Turner wrote about. If you're still looking for a subject for your second midterm, consider the 1940 movie, "Grapes of Wrath." It's a different vision of the frontier than Turner ever had, but it is still a vision of westering in hopes of economic mobility.

The federal government responded to the crisis of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl with new farming laws and new funding for giant development projects, such as the Hoover Dam, which provided construction work, electricity, and industrial development. (It also led to the dominance of Henry J. Kaiser's Kaiser Corporation, a building contractor who eventually designed the healthcare that many of you now use.) 

The government has always been involved in subsidizing the west, including funding Indian removal, railroad development, government land-sales, and irrigation projects that were all crucial to European settlement of the American west.

"During any week, some Western politician or businessman will deliver a speech celebrating the ideal of regional independence," Limerick wrote in Legacy of Conquest, but that politician or businessman will be historically ignorant, supporting Turner's myth that slid into John Wayne's acting, while ignoring the long history of western dependence on the government and corporations. Limerick concluded, "Especially in the American West, where the federal government, outside capital, and the market have always been powerful factors of change, the limits on personal autonomy do not seem like news. And yet ... in a region where human interdependence has been self-evident, Westerners have woven a net of denial."

In the 1930s, though, it was hard to deny the corporate and governmental forces that built the monumental Hoover Dam, which was then the world's largest concrete structure and largest electric-power generator. Look at that photo of the Hoover Dam and think of how much it contradicts Turner.

The 1930s, our reading points out, also marked a change in Indian policy, from forced assimilation to slightly more respect for Native traditions. Here is a 1970 image from Judy Baca's "Great Wall of Los Angeles" mural, showing Indians interacting with government agents and market agents. After 1934, Indians on reservations were finally allowed to speak their own language, elect their own leaders, practice their own religions, and raise their own children. (Before that, Indian children were removed from their families and placed in boarding schools that hoped to assimilate them into a different norm.) For Indians, 1934 was certainly a turning point in western history.

Another turning point: after 1935, the federal government stopped selling off or giving away public lands, lands which the government had been distributing since 1784. This, according to your reading in Faragher and Hine, "truly marked the passing of the nation's long era of frontier settlement."

Yet Limerick points not to land distribution but to tourism and nostalgia as indicators of the end of the frontier. Here is a 1931 photo of the rededication of Mission San Diego. After the mid-1800s, many California missions had crumbled with neglect. In the 1920s, automobile tourists and white Anglos eager to promote California history recreated the missions as tourism spots. 

El Camino Real is not really the route of the padres: that route varied with the seasons, and was privately owned by the 1920s. The El Camino Real that we drive on today is a recreation of a mythic past, promoted by a white woman who owned a concrete company and the only bell-foundry west of the Rockies. El Camino Real was designed to pass as many shops as possible, while nostalgizing a version of California past -- a version that happened to ignore many Indians and Mexicans of the present.

The 1920s and 30s was also when California schools began to teach mission history. When you were in 4th grade, you probably built your own mission. Did it include the whipping posts or mass graves? Did it include the automobiles or tourists? Trying to see that complete view of our past is the challenge of college history and especially American Studies.

The 1930s was one turning point. The 1940s, with the wartime economy, was another. We'll read about that later, especially when we study Disneyland and Fast Food Nation. Different scholars have differing perspectives, and you should eventually reach your own perspective, while thinking about both continuity and change in America's western frontier.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Week 7 Putting American Studies into Practice

Now that you have read other scholars' ideas about the frontier, now you get to start to reach your own conclusions.

This week, we're looking at photos of the west and paintings of the west. It might seem that photos are fact and paintings are fiction, but actually every image is framed in a way that reflects the artists' biased perspectives and that invites us to ask more questions.

So, as you look at the images this week, consider:

- What surprises you?

- Where are the issues of racial formation, gender-role formation, borderlands blending, environment and extractive industries, active federal government, and group-politics that we have been learning to think about?

- As a whole, do these images uphold Turner's frontier thesis or the revisions of that thesis that we have been reading in Limerick, Johnson, and this blog?

- Museum curators selected these images. What view of the west do you think the museum curators wanted you to take away?

Analyzing images might seem like easy reading this week, but it actually requires careful thinking. Here's an example: a photograph titled, "A member of Clarence King's geologic exploration of the 40th parallel," showing the man surveying Shoshone Canyon and Falls, Idaho territory, 1868.

At first glance, this looks like a triumphant lone white explorer, claiming land named after an apparently-vanished Indian tribe. The man is dwarfed by the landscape -- as Turner wrote he would be -- yet he is also perched atop an outcrop, claiming dominion, suggesting Turner's thesis that eventually, this man's encounter with wilderness will make him into a ruling American.

Yet he is not alone. There are three other tiny figures on the outcrop, looking almost like rocks themselves. The photographer is there, too, invisible but implied, and perched even higher than the exploring men. The photographer had to have carried dozens of pounds of cumbersome photographic equipment and chemicals to this outcrop. The explorer and photographer are both subsidized by the government. It only looks like an image of a lone white Turnerian explorer until you think about the structures of technology, governance, cooperation, and erasure that created this photo. What seemed Turnerian actually turns out not to be Turnerian.

It's even more interesting when you know, as historians do, that Clarence King the white explorer, also lived a double-life in which he pretended to be "James Todd," a black Pullman porter. King the scientist was white and a leading western explorer, but he seems to have preferred dark-skinned women (that was one reason he liked to be sent on scientific expeditions in places like Hawaii). In 1888, he got married in New York City to a former slave, Ada Copeland, and told her he was black. They had 5 children together, and he didn't reveal his true identity to his wife until he was on his deathbed, in 1901. His personal story is a particularly strange example of the kind of racial slippages that happened on America's many frontiers.

But you don't need to know that interesting historic backstory in order to do more visual analysis. Here's another example of visual analysis, this time of Elbridge Burbank's painting of "Ho-me-hep-no-my," a Tewa/Hopi Indian woman in 1904.

At first glance, this seems to contradict Turner's view of aggressive Indians who eventually vanished, as well as Turner's vision of a male-only frontier. This woman has a traditional haircut, somehow simultaneously bobbed and braided; she wears a blanket; and she looks unthreateningly to the side.

It seems a respectful image, except that it tells us more about Burbank the painter than Ho-me-hep-no-my. Burbank chose to pose Ho-me-hep-no-my like a mug-shot, all alone, outside of community or any identifying landscape. He chose to cut off her hands, suggesting helplessness. He chose to paint a relatively older woman, implying a dying race. This is an image of European superiority pretending to be respectful of Indians. This is actually an image that Turner might support.

Burbank chose to portray someone in relatively traditional clothes (not, say, jeans or overalls), yet the ribbons and cotton and colors she wears are European-influenced. Native dyes were rarely that bright red, and native clothing was rarely cotton. This is an image of borderlands blending, despite its intentions to portray a "pure" Indian.

Thus, both the photo and the painting can be viewed as supporting Turner and opposing him, depending on how much you think about the artist's choices and assumptions. There is much more for you all to discuss on this week's Blackboard discussion board.

This is another way for you to review what we have just read in the first six weeks of class. This is also a way of practicing the interdisciplinarity of American Studies: combining techniques from art history, ethnic history, and history. This is also all a warm-up for your second midterm, in which you get to select your own document of frontier culture and analyze it.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Week 4, Making Sense of Blake Allmendinger's Red Fringed Cowboy Boots

This week we're thinking about gender on the frontier by reading Susan Lee Johnson's dense article, "Domestic Life in the Diggings," and then Blake Allmendinger and Valerie Matsumoto's quirky introduction to that article and others, in their anthology, Over the Edge: Remapping the American West.

Johnson is challenging. To begin with, you need to understand two incredibly important theories of American Studies:
1. Race is culturally constructed. (That was the point of the previous post.)
2. Gender is culturally constructed.

While biology makes us all female or male (almost all – a very few babies are born with both a penis and vagina, but that’s a rare exception), anyway, biology usually makes us female or male, but 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. It’s not biology, it’s culture.

In the United States, skinny men who showed self-restraint were considered the most macho, manly, masculine men until about 1890, when adventurousness and muscularity became newer signs of modern masculinity. We saw a bit of that change in week 2's analysis of Teddy Roosevelt. This gender change was related to economic changes, to the decline in physical labor and the rise of corporate work. It was related to fears over what Turner called the closing of the frontier. It's a fascinating case of how gender ideals can change over time. If your own family includes different cultures, you might have noticed that what is considered masculine or feminine can vary by cultures.

Gender ideals of masculinity and feminity vary over time and place and culture, while biological ideals of male-ness and female-ness are more set. You need to understand that in order to understand Susan Lee Johnson's question: What were gender ideals like on the California gold-rush frontier? Why did some men actually suffer scurvy (a painful vitamin deficiency) instead of simply planting easy-to-grow lettuce around their cabins? That question is raised at the bottom of page 113, and to me it is the crux of Susan Lee Johnson’s article.

Johnson's answer is nuanced by ethnicity, race, and class. In her detailed research, it turns out that French men were more likely to plant lettuce and other vegetables on the California frontier, because their French masculinity had more room for lettuce-planting types of domesticity. Mexican men were more likely to arrive in California with women who would do the lettuce-planting for them, along with other cooking and food-preparation -- while those Mexican women also launched entrepreneurial businesses. Miwok Indian families already had their gendered division of labor sorted out with divisions of which sex did different tasks of food-gathering and preparation (women gathering acorns, men gathering meat, and a more balanced diet already established than that of the newer immigrants).

Anglo men on the gold rush frontier didn’t have their gender ideals sorted out yet. They divided up cooking duties in groups of 2 to 5 men, but with mixed results. I keep thinking that this would make a fascinating sitcom, a kind of “Three’s Company” for the gold rush. Long before sitcoms, the actual men of the gold rush associated what they saw as mixed-up gender roles with a world-upside-down and with the life of animals -- notice all the quotes describing living like dogs or pigs -- and with the lives of other races. One of the things that this language reveals is that these men assumed women and non-white races were closer to animals.

This brings us back to the cultural construction of race. If you haven't already read Week 3's blog, "The cultural construction of race," now's a good time to do that.

Welcome back to week 4.

On the California gold-rush frontier, the racial categories included Miwok Indians (some from missions, some not), Mexicans (some who considered themselves white and Spanish, some who didn’t), Chileans (who held themselves quite distinct from Mexicans, and were looked down upon by Mexicans), various Europeans (who had their own ideas of who was on top, and who thought that Irish actually looked black), African-Americans, Anglos, and Chinese. It's not quite our current list of races, and that's the point: racial categories are culturally constructed.

Once you have digested that both gender and race are culturally constructed, then you are ready for Susan Lee Johnson’s deepest point: especially on the California frontier, categories of race overlapped with the categories of gender. Chinese men opened laundries, took on work as cooks and servants, and performed other jobs that were perceived as women’s work. Here we see some of the deep history that means that Chinese men still don’t often ever appear as macho or sexy in American movies. On the gold rush frontier, Mexican women opened businesses, selling tortillas and making profits that were associated with men’s work. Miwok women were perceived as working harder than men, in a perception that allowed Anglos to look down on all Miwoks.

Here's an image to help you think about this issue. This is an undated color postcard printed in San Francisco and titled "The Honeymoon of the Chinese and the Coon." This postcard makes the woman look unfeminine, showing her smoking a pipe and disrecpectfully calling her a "coon." The postcard makes the man look unmanly, living in a house that is poorly repaired. This "honeymoon" doesn't look restful or romantic. And who is the child standing in the front: a servant, a neighbor, or their bastard child whom they just legitimized by getting married? Apparently the child was too insignificant for the postcard-labelers to even mention. I find this postcard offensive and fascinating. It helps me think about how ideas about gender can overlap with ideas about race and with opportunities for labor.

That is Johnson's point: ideas of race and gender overlap with issues of power, with who makes money and who assumes the right to rule.

Consider Johnson’s conclusion:

As time went by in the Southern Mines, Anglo American men … found more reliable ways to assert dominance in the diggings. And as even more time went by, and as the Gold Rush passed into popular memory, Anglo Americans, particularly Anglo American men, found ways to claim the event as a past that was entirely their own. In so doing, they buried a past in which paroxysms of gender and race brought daily discomfort to participants, but also glimpses of whole new worlds of possibility. (Johnson, page 126)

So what does it mean to remember that Chileans, Chinese, Mexican, Miwok, French, and Anglo all interacted in the gold mines – and shifted gender roles too? Johnson concludes that all this mixing and gender-boundary-crossing can provide us with “a useable past,” perhaps offering models of more flexible gender roles today. This is much more optimistic than last week’s reading which traced the racialized language that various groups used to try to legitimize their auhtority in the west. Johnson chose not to include the massacres in the gold-mining camps when Anglos invaded Indian or Chinese camps, burning and killing and driving non-whites out.

Which is your view of the west: optimistic mixing, or pessimistic conquest, or something else? And does Turner's frontier thesis fit with either of those views?

Finally, I promised I'd get to those alligator boots. What does all this have to do with the very different writing in Blake Allmendinger and Valerie Matsumoto’s “Introduction.”? To me, Allmendinger’s fringed red alligator cowboy boots and his delight in his self-selected gay campy frontier are a reminder that “each of us makes up the West for ourselves,” selecting history and identifying boundaries that fit our own needs (page 2).

But we have to be careful: it's not entirely made up. I won't ever tell you that the west was settled by one-armed midgets with purple polka-dots, because it wasn't. We each make up our own analysis, but we base that analysis on evidence. We use material culture (alligator boots), visual evidence (postcards, photos), letters, diaries, news reports, labor records, and more. We gather up evidence, we ask careful questions, and then we recognize that we each create our own conclusions.

Similarly, Matsumoto’s personal story of growing up Japanese in Nogales is a reminder to all of us that, especially on borders, “boundaries – whether geographic or cultural – [are] powerful, arbitrary, and shifting.” (3). That's an important insight. Allmendinger expands on it: “Today, although the West may be settled, its meanings and boundaries remain unfixed and unsealed,” affecting issues from immigration to environmentalism. Matsumoto and Allmendinger explain that their collection of academic essays “views the West through a cockeyed kaleidoscope” (6) because “community [is] a dynamic, often messy, process” (11) and “Imagining the West is a transgressive act” (6).

That last quote is the key connection, but you need to think it out for yourself: what is transgressive about Johnson's re-examining of the California Gold Rush?