The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 106, July 2002 - April, 2003

Southwestern Historical Quarterly

The American West: The Invention of a Myth. By David Hamilton Murdoch. (Reno:
University of Nevada Press, 2oo1. Pp. vi+136. Acknowledgments, preface, in-
dex. ISBN 0-87417-369-8. $19.95, paper.)
The American West: The Invention of a Myth by the British scholar David Hamil-
ton Murdoch is a good, serviceable synthesis of the many attempts by others to
define and analyze the West that continues to exist in people's imaginations in
the United States and around the world. The book crossed my desk too late to
be adopted in my spring 2002 courses; otherwise I would have enthusiastically
put it on my required list. Only 12o pages long, the book is ideal for use in west-
ern history courses. It covers a vast range of approaches to the western myth
question, even if at times it overreaches itself as in the penultimate chapter on
the myth and politicians in the twentieth century.
That said, the book has problems similar to Richard Slotkin's overblown trilo-
gy on the same subject. Murdoch sees the myth as a conscious effort on the part
of easterners to resolve the confusion and contradictions at the end of the nine-
teenth century in the United States. However, throughout the book he contra-
dicts his original argument.
Earlier on in the book, Murdoch sees Cooper's eastern works as the origin of
the myth of the West. Then he cites the 184os and 1850s as a crucial mythmak-
ing time floating on the concepts of "Manifest Destiny" and progress, accepting
another myth that Americans led by mountain men, Lt. John C. Fremont, and
hundreds of wagon trains headed west all chanting "Manifest Destiny." In fact
the phrase was conceived by the female filibuster Jane McManus Storm Cazneau
aka Cora Montgomery and published demurely in her ghostwritten article on
Texas annexation in the July-August 1845 issue of The Unites States Magazine and
Democratic Revew. The notorious lady was addressing an issue dear to her heart
because she had strategic property holdings at Eagle Pass, Texas. I doubt that
her insertion of the phrase in lower-case print in a two-column format prompted
the trumpeting of Jubilee. At any rate, her famed contemporary, the dramatic
Lt. John C. Fremont, never once mentioned the phrase-nor did the numerous
other army explorers and artists who blanketed the west between 1842 and
186o. In any case, the reader of Murdoch's book is left in some confusion as to
when the "myth plot" was really hatched. We could of course blame it on the
new rotary presses of the mid-nineteenth century that enabled the rising tide of
dime-novel westerns to flood the eastern cities or, and Murdoch completely ne-
glects this, the boom in western real estate promotion of the West, town and se-
mi-city, or the 1848-49 Gold Rush news! Or, what about Andrew the Hebridean
and his move west in Crevecoeur's eighteenth-century Letters from an American
Farmer? So it would seem that there was no "moment" when the "myth plot" was
hatched. It ran all through American history as the "Nature's Nation" myth so
well uttered by Thoreau, "westward I go free," and echoed many times by Walt
Whitman. Soon, however, in contradiction to points made about the earlier ma-
terial, we see the 1890s as the place where the myth plot was conceived with Buf-
falo Bill's Wild West. Also Frederic Remington's paintings of a bygone fleeting
era, Owen Wister's The Vzrginzan, Theodore Roosevelt's paeans to himself as Pro-

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Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 106, July 2002 - April, 2003. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101223/. Accessed September 20, 2014.