The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 86, July 1982 - April, 1983

Book Reviews
NORMAN D. BROWN, Editor
Land of Savagery, Land of Promise. Ray Allen Billington. (New York:
W. W. Norton & Company, 1981. Pp. xv+364. Preface, illus-
trations, bibliographical notes, index. $18.95.)
Historical images, though they may change modestly in substance
and outline or offer different shades of meanings to different people,
retain a marked stability over long stretches of time. Ray Billington's
study of "The European Image of the American Frontier in the Nine-
teenth Century" establishes the point without cavil. From the first dim
perceptions of the new continent in the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries that drew on the rich deposit of ancient and medieval myth
and legend to the major image-making industry of the nineteenth cen-
tury, European conceptions of America altered very little. The New
World remained at various times both the object of Europe's deep-
seated yearning for paradise on earth and a dreadful reminder of how
quickly humankind could shed its thin coating of civilization and
decline into the savage condition. In Billington's account the duality
is expressed in the form of a division between America as a land of
promise, where Europeans could better their lives materially and
enjoy the liberties denied by oppressive regimes, and the new conti-
nent as a lawless, brutal, and quite dangerous place. The first image,
of course, served as a major attraction for the movement of immi-
grants across the ocean, but, strange to say, the negative perception did
little to delay the exodus.
Billington had in mind the European conception of the frontier
experience and, as a consequence, his sources deal with the West from
late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century accounts of the trans-
Appalachian lands to the picture formed later in the century of
the Plains and the Far West. His study makes clear that for European
image-makers the West was America. In its major themes the Euro-
pean understanding of the West could be applied to the whole of the
continent. Thus the original European depiction of the New World
as an untouched continent, sometimes paradise and at other times a

Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 86, July 1982 - April, 1983. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101209/. Accessed July 26, 2014.