Wednesday, May 26, 2010

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.

1 comment:

  1. Amazing! I am a student thinking about being an American Studies major. I was quite unsure, but slowly I become more and more interested--especially after reading this amazing critique. You really blew my mind with your progressive, unique analysis of history. I would hope that I will be taught some of this in the future.