Manifest and Other Destinies: Territorial Fictions of the Nineteenth-Century United States

Manifest and Other Destinies: Territorial Fictions of the Nineteenth-Century United States

Manifest and Other Destinies: Territorial Fictions of the Nineteenth-Century United States

Manifest and Other Destinies: Territorial Fictions of the Nineteenth-Century United States

Synopsis

Manifest and Other Destinies critiques Manifest Destiny's exclusive claim as an explanatory national story in order to rethink the meaning and boundaries of the West and of the United States' national identity. Stephanie LeMenager considers the American West before it became a trusted symbol of U. S. national character or a distinct literary region in the later nineteenth century, back when the West was undeniably many wests, defined by international economic networks linking diverse territories and peoples from the Caribbean to the Pacific coast.

Many nineteenth-century novelists, explorers, ideologues, and humorists imagined the United States' destiny in what now seem unfamiliar terms, conceiving of geopolitical configurations or possible worlds at odds with the land hunger and "providential" mission most clearly associated with Manifest Destiny. Manifest and Other Destinies draws from an archive of this literature and rhetoric to offer a creative rereading of national and regional borders. LeMenager addresses both canonical and lesser-known U. S. writers who shared an interest in western environments that resisted settlement, including deserts, rivers, and oceans, and who used these challenging places to invent a postwestern cultural criticism in the nineteenth century.

Le Menager highlights the doubts and self-reckonings that developed alongside expansionist fervor and predicted contemporary concerns about the loss of cultural and human values to an emerging global order. In Manifest and Other Destinies, the American West offers the United States its first encounter with worlds at once local and international, worlds that, as time has proven, could never be entirely subordinated to the nation's imperial desire.

Excerpt

When the Louisiana humorist Thomas Bangs Thorpe set out to illustrate the cosmopolitanism of the Mississippi Valley in an 1855 article for Harper's New Monthly Magazine, he chose to describe the baggage area of a steamboat. “Upon the examination of the baggage you meet with strange incongruities,” Thorpe began,

—a large box of playing-cards supports a very small package of
Bibles; a bowie-knife is tied to a life-preserver; and a package of
garden seeds rejoices in the same address as a neighboring keg of
powder. There is an old black trunk, soiled with the mud of the
lower Nile, and a new carpet-bag direct from Upper California; a
collapsed valise of new shirts and antique sermons is jostled by
another plethoric with bilious pills and cholera medicines; an elab
orate dress, direct from Paris, is in contact with a trapper's Rocky
Mountain costume; a gun-case reposes upon a band box; and a well
preserved rifle is half-concealed by the folds of an umbrella.

Thorpe'slist, almost a poem, describes a nation uncomfortably settling into the continental possession achieved by the U.S.-Mexican War. One year before Thorpe published his reminiscence the Kansas-Nebraska Act had dramatically underlined the problem that the West, as a possible extension of the slave territory, had always posed for the national project. Thorpe's bowie knives, gun powder and Bibles might have been ordered by John Brown for his abolitionist guerrillas in Kansas. the “garden seeds” that suggest the prairie homesteads of pioneer authors like Eliza Farnham and Caroline Kirkland compete with “playing cards,” “cholera medicine,” a Parisian dress and a trapper's costume, all indices of an international commerce that circulated disease, slave cargoes, environmental devastation, and the false economies of gambling and speculation from the Mississippi Valley to the California mining camps. the Mississippi River was, and had long been, an image of the United States' Manifest Destiny, but it is one that now seems troubling because it denatures the West, tying western lands to the circulation of commodities through domestic and world markets. the river was to be the western farmer's market road, or, more bombastically, the western farmer's passage to India. the Mississippi River suggests both a local and global world, a settler nation's internal opening to difference and to . . .

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