Academic journal article American Jewish History

"To Prove the Correctness and Authenticity of My Statements": Solomon Nunes Carvalho's Revision of the Western Travel Narrative

Academic journal article American Jewish History

"To Prove the Correctness and Authenticity of My Statements": Solomon Nunes Carvalho's Revision of the Western Travel Narrative

Article excerpt

Introduction: Carvalho's Domestication of the Frontier Landscape

Solomon Nunes Carvalho was thirty-eight years old when he accepted John C. Fremont's invitation to undertake a midwinter crossing of the Far West from Kansas to California as the expedition's official daguerreotypist. (2) The famous explorer's achievement of safe passage through the worst imaginable conditions in the western wilderness would ascertain the viability of his proposed transcontinental railway route and enhance his prospects as a political figure on the national stage. (3) While Fremont was an old hand at wilderness exploration, Carvalho was an urbane scion of the Jewish middle class, unschooled in the art of outdoor survival. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, he had spent most of his youth in Philadelphia and Baltimore. By the mid 1850s his daguerreotype studios in those cities, as well as in Charleston and New York, had earned him sufficient renown to gain Fremont's notice. Despite his urban upbringing and the fact that he was "accustomed to the luxuries that were part of his heritage as a Jewish grandee," Carvalho possessed a plucky spirit. (4) As a writer, however, he went out of his way to avoid drawing attention to his own accomplishments. Without acquiring its more imperious elements, he managed to imbibe the ego-diminishing aspects of his era's Transcendentalist ethos. (5) Perhaps this was because he employed its aesthetic principles without brandishing its attendant political ideologies. By reputation, frontier adventure stories exaggerated their protagonists' triumphs over topographical adversity. Carvalho made his mark on the literature of the American West by maintaining a low profile and emphasizing the accomplishments of others. His greatest innovation as a writer was the emphasis he placed on the tenuousness of his accomplishments and of his own authority as a chronicler of a gargantuan and sublimely beautiful landscape. In his "fascinating and complex ethnographic profiles of the people he met," which highlighted the humanity of his diverse subjects, he operated outside the norm of American letters. (6)

Instead of indulging the grandiosity that readers associated with transcontinental travel, Carvalho's 1857 book, Incidents of Travel and Adventure in the Far West, emphasized the complex social interactions that shaped his experiences in the wilderness. "In the heyday of imperialist expansion and acquisition," as Rachel Rubinstein has pointed out, Carvalho's representations of the Native Americans he met on the prairie, the Mormons he later encountered in Utah, and the polyglot members of the expeditionary party, were "curious, absorptive, willing to suspend judgment, self-mocking, and self-effacing." (7) No matter how wild and remote the immediate physical surroundings were, he understood and welcomed the presence of human institutions wherever he encountered them. Carvalho's having done so was commensurate with the wider historical pattern of Jewish acculturation to the Americas. The earliest Jews to travel to the Far West were not escapees from civilization. Whether they worked as storeowners, ranchers, or elected officials, Jews acted as agents of order. In the midst of an ever shifting and dynamic social geographical milieu, as Jeanne Abrams writes, "pioneer Jews in communities throughout the west were generally viewed as a stabilizing influence that upheld morality and order in new settlements as well as bringing a measure of culture to the rough frontier." (8) While it purported to be a tale of adventure, Solomon Carvalho's Incidents gave voice to this stabilizing impulse.

By the year of his birth in 1815, several generations of Solomon Nunes Carvalho's family had established a pattern of seeking an orderly existence in waypoints of civilization. Refugees from the Inquisition, they made their homes first in Amsterdam and then in London, where his grandfather and namesake had been born in 1743. Solomon's father, David Carvalho, had spent eight years in Barbados before leaving that island for the bustling Jewish community of Charleston in 1811, where he was one of the founders of the New World's first Reform congregation. …

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