Inscribing the American Frontier

In August 1990, George Bush announced that America was "drawing a line in the sand" of the Saudi Arabian desert. With those words, the President recalled a list of individuals reaching back to Christopher Columbus who have defined "America" by the act, whether physical or verbal, of inscribing the American land. Definition is, by common understanding, a verbal act: we look to Webster's, for example, to understand "landscape" or "America." And given the European cultural attitude toward ownership of land, we move smoothly from verbal to physical inscription, drawing boundary lines on the map, continually trying to "fix" or make permanent an ever-changing Western frontier.

I emphasize the inherited cultural attitude evidenced in Bush's remark because assumptions about land, frontier, and environment transplanted from the Old to the "New" World have substantially determined how Americans saw—and continue to see—themselves and their role in America. Mission, enterprise, and divine plan became the 19th century's "manifest destiny," and the North American continent continued to function as the setting for that destiny. From this perspective, land was a tool; valuable not so much for itself but for what it facilitated.

Attitudes inherited from Europe, however, composed only a part of what rapidly became a Western story of interacting...

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