A Companion to the Literature and Culture of the American West

By Nicolas S. Witschi | Go to book overview

4
The Literate West of
Nineteenth-Century
Periodicals

Tara Penry

Asked to picture a western scene, most literate Americans in the nineteenth century, as today, would describe an outdoor landscape, with or without people in it. Few would conjure up a picture of a young woman writing by lamplight at her home, a girl searching her father’s pockets for a book from the circulating library, a married couple reading letters in their one-room cabin, or a printer leaning over his typecase. Yet these images, if not uniquely western, belonged to the nineteenth-century West as much as did sublime mountainscapes, buckskinned hunters, or battle scenes between Plains Indians and the US army. In the popular imagination, literacy was crucial to eastern settlement – allowing colonists to organize themselves with documents like the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, and the US Constitution – but unimportant to a region of armed conflict, oral negotiation, lynchings, and squatters’ rights.

Contrary to popular associations of the West with nature and action, and the East with culture and literacy, when Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville toured America in 1831 – 2, he reported “an astonishing circulation of letters and newspapers among these savage woods” of Kentucky and Tennessee (qtd. in Kielbowicz 1989: 64). As journalism historian Richard Kielbowicz points out, Tocqueville was traveling with the mail in a stagecoach on the major western roads, so settlements farther from the main roads would not have been visible to him. Nonetheless, a large number of scattered archival materials and a growing number of scholarly studies testify to the range and significance of literacy for western settlers during the nineteenth century. By the latter half of the century, the widespread distribution of newspapers, cheap novels, Sunday school books, and other printed materials meant that “the information world

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