Vital Signs

Plundered Province: The American West as Literary Region

"Let a philosophic observer commence a journey from the savages of the Rocky Mountains eastwardly towards our seacoast," Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1808, after he had learned of such matters from the reports of Lewis and Clark. "These he would observe in the earliest stage of association, living under no law but that of nature, subsisting and covering themselves with the flesh and skins of wild beasts. He would next find those on our frontiers in the pastoral state, raising domestic animals to supply the defects of hunting. Then succeed our own semi-barbarous citizens, the pioneers of the advance of civilization, and so in his progress he would meet the gradual shades of improving man until he would reach his, as yet, most improved state in our seaport towns. This, in fact, is equivalent to a survey, in time, of the progress of man from the infancy of creation to the present day."

It should stand as little more than a curio of proto-social Darwinism, but Jefferson's survey instead offers a program for the great mass of writing about the American West, from James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, written at a time when the Connecticut River marked the Western frontier, to Louis L'Amour's ongoing saga of the Sackett clan, where the vicious wilderness of catamounts and rogue Indians stands opposed to the virtuous advance of Eastern mores. Although students of westward expansion have...

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