Academic journal article American Studies

Utopias West: Or the Trouble with Perfection

Academic journal article American Studies

Utopias West: Or the Trouble with Perfection

Article excerpt

Utopias West: Or the Trouble with Perfection

FUTURE WEST: Utopia and Apocalypse in Frontier Science Fiction. By William H. Katerberg. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. 2008. PERIMETERS OF DEMOCRACY: Inverse Utopias and the Wartime Social Landscape of the American West. By Heather Fryer. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. 2010.

The American West has long inspired both breathtaking hope and bitter disillusionment. Dreams of promised lands to the West-of new Edens or Elysian Fields shimmering on the horizon-have captivated many cultures across time. As Gerald Nash argued, "Almost every European language group throughout Christendom developed some tale of adventure in which a mythical land of plenty beckoned somewhere in the West," and the discovery of a sprawling land across the Atlantic seemed to bring such dreams of adventure and perfection down to earth and within reach.1 From John Winthrop's hopes for building a shining "city upon a hill" knit together in bonds of brotherly affection in 1630 to Hector St. John de Crevecoeur's notion of Americans as energetic "western pilgrims" seeking self-fulfillment in 1780 and into our own times, collective and individual visions of utopia have pulled starry-eyed migrants ever westward. The image of the West as a place for perfection, a fresh slate and New Eden, continues to have a global appeal. The mythic West may be, in Robert Athearn's words, "the closest thing we have to a collective experience . . . the loveliest and most enduring of our myths, the only one universally accepted."2

That such grandiose dreams are usually doomed to failure is a lament that resounds like a breast-beating Jeremiad throughout American history. The yawning gap between utopian promise and profane reality is especially stark in the last frontiers of the Far West where westward moving dreamers run out of continent and up against the Pacific. The vast expanses of the final West not only entice people with their overwhelming beauty, but also provide an unforgiving backdrop for every misstep. It is in many ways a land littered with ghost towns, disappointed dreamers, and failed utopias, where fantasies of perfection breed angry visions of apocalypse. It is a land of last chances where the stakes are high because there's nowhere leftto go, and a bi-polar dialectic of utopian dreams breeding dystopian despair runs rampant across the deserts, basins, mountains, and crowded coastlines of this final West.

A long line of American writers has evoked the West as a land of promise and utopian possibility, though often with deep irony. The tragic contrast between sacred and profane, between myth and reality on the ever-retreating frontier has been at the heart of classic American literature from James Fenimore Cooper to John Steinbeck, from Mark Twain to Jack Kerouac. F. Scott Fitzgerald's paean to the West "that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes-a fresh green breast of the new world. . . . the last and greatest of all human dreams" and Wallace Stegner's evocation of the region as a "geography of hope" are both haunted by the knowledge that such dreams are often betrayed. Two fairly recent novels-Toni Morrison's A Mercy (2008) and Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006)-might stand as chronological bookends to this process, with Morrison depicting how the western wilderness dream was corrupted from the onset by the slaughter of Indians and enslavement of Africans and McCarthy portraying its bitter end four centuries later in a scorched, almost lifeless continent.3

In less dramatic though equally compelling fashion, a string of western historians, including Henry Nash Smith, Carey McWilliams, Ray Allen Billington, Robert Hine, Richard Slotkin, Patricia Limerick, and Richard White, have also traced the dynamics of disillusionment across the American West.4 Building upon this tradition, two new historical studies make significant contributions to our understanding of western utopianism gone sour. …

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