The Growth of American Thought

By Merle Curti | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XI The West Challenges Patrician Leadership

No people ever did, in the first generation, fell the forest, and construct the roads, and rear the dwellings and public edifices, and provide the competent supply of schools and literary institutions.

-- LYMAN BEECHER, A Plea for the West, 1835

My brother, will you meet me on that delightful shore? My brother, will you meet me where parting is no more?

-- "We'll March Around Jerusalem"

The increasing importance assumed by the West in the first three decades of the nineteenth century promoted the concept of a unique national culture and challenged the leadership of the patrician class in intellectual life. Even before this the legendary West had appealed strongly not only to Easterners but to European writers and dreamers.

The West in the Thought of Europe and the East The vast forests, prairies, and rivers beyond the Alleghenies, home of the Noble Savage and of strange, fascinating beasts, had become the subject of romantic legend before the great migration of Atlantic seacoast peoples began in the later years of the eighteenth century. Indeed, a whole literature had emerged in Europe which, with curious paradox, pictured the wilderness beyond the mountains as both the seat of idyllic peace and the scene of exciting adventure and golden opportunity. In this romantic legend much of reality was obscured: the bickerings of officials and clerics in the old French regime in the Mississippi valley, gruesome hardships, squalid, vindictive, suspicious Indians. The extravagant imaginations of the Rousseaus and Chateaubriands had drawn highly embroidered, sentimental, and glamorous pictures of thrilling adventure and idyllic forest peace. Byron, who

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