The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 107, July 2003 - April, 2004 Page: 356
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Southwestern Historical Quarterly
book that seems most of all to want to complicate Elliot West's neat dichotomy
of true and false western narratives proposed in West's The Way to the West collec-
tion. West had argued that two kinds of stories existed about the American West.
Those from the outside, boosters, promoters, and dreamers, who told "lies"
about the region, and those from the inside, rooted in place (a grounded con-
cept of physical landscape and human action), who knew the truth about hard-
ship, displacement, and ongoing struggle.
Wrobel's account regroups a whole set of western stories into two essential
genres, the promotional literature and the pioneer reminiscence. In Promised
Lands Wrobel provides a detailed taxonomy of the nineteenth- and twentieth-
century tropes and themes found under these groupings, as well as a thoughtful
analysis of the internal tensions, external conflicts, and historical shifts found in
Boosters, Wrobel argues first, were "more complex" (p. io) than simple pat-
sies to capital. They were a variety of actors composing a generalized group that
was as much outsider as insider in the nineteenth century- and early-twentieth-
century American West. Wrobel focuses on their collective narrative, identifying
several themes that appear throughout their work. Among them is a story about
a promised land where frontier opportunities exist but frontier conditions had
been purged, a closing window of opportunity in the land of opportunity. Wro-
bel notes tendencies towards regional superiority, the consistency of one region
always comparing favorably to every other region of the West in their own litera-
ture, and the seeming consensus about the abundance of fertile land everywhere
in the West. J. H. Beadle's The Undeveloped West notwithstanding, boosters laid
out a set of unrealistic promises whose consistency and sheer abundance must
have influenced the expectations of some of the millions who ventured West in
the late nineteenth century. With the economic collapse of 1893, this genre
came under fire for its tendency to overstate, and western settlement slowed. It
recovered somewhat sobered in the early years of the twentieth century (show-
ing its connection to actual social events, in Wrobel's estimation). It's spirit lives
on today in real estate brochures selling the postmodern West as all the ameni-
ties the nineteenth century boosters argued away-isolation, closeness to raw na-
ture, untrammeled, and untouched.
The pioneers, who Wrobel brings in for his second section, Memories, are also
a hodge-podge group, but mostly Californians. Wrobel uses the fated Brier expe-
dition across Death Valley in 1849 as the starting point for the creation of pio-
neer societies and pioneer stories. From this group, which was selective in its
membership (one had to have been among the first two or three years in a re-
gion to qualify), came a story of hardship and trial as the basis for authentic
western experience. Some of Wrobel's pioneers worked harder than others to
create memory societies and memorial pilgrimages and routes, but all seemed to
agree that facing the dangers of overland travel, building community out of raw
wilderness, and making the land safe for the rest of society to settle had created
among them an appreciation for the region and a moral aptitude absent among
the newer generations in the West.
Space permits a few quick words about a book that I recommend, at the very
least for its breadth of research and useful taxonomy. First, while Wrobel's as-
semblage is creatively informed by Benedict Anderson's ubiquitous Imagined
Here’s what’s next.
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Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 107, July 2003 - April, 2004, periodical, 2004; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101224/m1/400/: accessed April 28, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas State Historical Association.