Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

"The Ruin of a Bygone Geological Empire": Clarence King and the Place of the Primitive in the Evolution of American Identity

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

"The Ruin of a Bygone Geological Empire": Clarence King and the Place of the Primitive in the Evolution of American Identity

Article excerpt

   Men are born either catastrophists or uniformitarians. You may
   divide the human race into imaginative people who believe in all
   sorts of impending crises ... and others who anchor their very
   souls to the status quo.
   Clarence King, "Catastrophism and Evolution" 1877

Henry Adams believed that his friend Clarence King was the "best and brightest man of his generation" (The Education 416). When Adams met King in 1871 the young man had seemed destined for greatness as "King had moulded and directed his life logically, scientifically, as Adams thought American life should be directed" (312). Having begun his career with Josiah Dwight Whitney's geological survey of California, by the time he met Adams at the age of twenty-nine he was himself heading the Geological Survey of the 40th Parallel. At thirty-seven King became the first director of the United States Geological and Geographical Survey only to resign after two years to follow his fortune in the mines of the Southwest. His friends recognized his merit not only as a scientist, but as a man of letters, praising equally his Systematic Geology (1878) and his collection of popular adventure essays, Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada (1872). Although Adams speculated that "With ordinary luck [King] would die at eighty the richest and most many-sided genius of his day" (313), King would not be so fortunate. After several financial failures and a bout in a mental hospital, King died of tuberculosis, bankrupt and alone in a "California tavern" at the age of fifty-nine (416).

Where Adams, in an oblique criticism of the values of the Gilded Age, attributed King's failure to the pursuit of money, more recently critics like John O'Grady have located King's difficulty in the divided psyche they see reflected in his prose. I suggest, in turn, that King's conflicted selfhood emerges from inconsistencies within the broader cultural narratives he employs in his attempt to construct a coherent identity for both self and nation.

King came into his own both as a writer and as one of the nation's preeminent geologists in an America changed not only by the violence of the Civil War, but also by an ever-increasing influx of immigrants to an increasingly urban and industrialized America. As Gail Bederman and others have noted, in the late nineteenth century the values of the middle class, and the ideas of race and gender through which that class maintained its power, were in a period of transition. This instability, in turn, led to a quest to reaffirm "traditional" notions of American Identity. Many authors, including King, chose to draw upon the myth of the frontier, wherein the western wilderness serves as the crucible of American character. As Richard Slotkin notes in his classic work The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, "The Myth of the Frontier is the American version of the larger myth-ideological system generated by the social conflicts that attended the 'modernization' of the Western nations, the emergence of capitalist economies and nation-states" (33). Although on the surface level of this myth the frontier hero escapes the corrupting influence of the urban east by heading out to the territories, Slotkin argues that the Frontier Myth and its ideology were constructed to feed both the psychological and economic needs of the Metropolis, and that finally they "represent a displacement or deflection of social conflict into the world of myth" (47). Slotkin, in turn, seeks to re-historicize and thereby understand the broader implications of this myth.

In the wake of Slotkin's work, more attention has been focused upon the ways in which nineteenth-century explorers (many of them engaged in scientific surveys of the western territories or other colonial spaces) took on the ethos of the frontier hero. With this critical attention has come an increased recognition of how the exploration of the West facilitated the growth of the American Empire by mapping out and thus making available the resources required by the expanding nation. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.