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Regretful Westering

ISSUE:  Spring 1982
Witnesses to a Vanishing America: The Nineteenth-Century Response. By Lee Clark Mitchell. Princeton. $18.50.

Our nostalgia for the past increasingly discovers the nostalgia of the past. The moment of fullness in which America felt itself present to its continental promise proves surprisingly fugitive. America was an Eden discovered in historical time and therefore one destined immediately to be lost. It has no sadder memorialist than Christopher Columbus, whose desire to defend against the corruption of the garden finds issue in the attempt to locate paradise up the Orinoco. His courageous act of westering gave way to a fantasy of conservation. Latter-day visionaries would find America no more easy to have and to hold. Gatsby’s “green light” is the “Go” sign, the continuing invitation to embrace and dominate as had Columbus the “green breast” of the New World. But as Fitzgerald’s parting image reminds us, we beat toward such a future while facing away from it, rowers against the current, our eyes fixed meanwhile on an ever-receding past. Ours is often a history of regret.

Long before the Sierra Club set up shop (1892), Lee Clark Mitchell demonstrates, America produced concerned witnesses to its vanishment. If regret for “lost pasts” characterized sensitive American imaginations from the start, the “impulse toward preservation ramified within a definite historical frame, commencing in the 1820’s.” Mitchell has written a history of those “explorers, frontiersmen, and scientists, settlers and tourists” who “came to feel that the “West” they preserved on paper was being diminished in more profound and troubling ways than it was being developed.” The great acts of imaginitive conservation in the 19th-century America—books like Walden and Huckleberry Finn—have been thoroughly celebrated. It is tonic to discover how many literal acts of conservation also characterize a century which we typically associate with an unquestioned myth of progress.

The key term in Mitchell’s title—witnesses—suggests his emphasis on observing rather than the projective powers of the eye. The value of the texts and images he treats lies in their intention actually to preserve a record of a culture or a place. Emphasis does not fall on the construction of a world elsewhere. This is an environmental rather than a literary history, one which values artifacts of remembrance as answerable to a world which did exist and which has largely disappeared.

Mitchell treats of three subjects of remembrance: the wilderness, frontier history itself, and the Indian. His method is to present three or four representative remembrancers in short subchapters. Olmstead, Muir, and George are offered as preservationists of wilderness through the word; Audubon, Cole, and Bierstadt, as preservationists through the image. Swift-moving summaries of such careers give the book the quality of a catalogue. More a record than an analysis, Witnesses offers itself as an avenue back, a guide to elegies which have themselves ceased to be sung.

The hero of Mitchell’s book is George Catlin, and this because Mitchell chooses the Indian as his central image of loss Catlin found his life’s work in 1824 when he happened upon a delegation of native Americans in Philadelphia. He set himself “to the rescue of their looks and their modes.” Known as the fastest brush in the West, Catlin was lucky enough to live with the Mandan, perhaps the most complex of the prairie tribes. He was even allowed to witness the Okee-pa torture ceremony, brought to the screen in the 70’s in A Man Called Horse. By 1836 he had completed his “Indian Gallery,” 422 paintings of the frontier tribes. When the federal government refused to purchase this collection, it unwittingly acted to preserve it. Catlin’s great work would have been destroyed in the Smithsonian fire of 1865. In its devastation of preservationist achievements, the fire became a metaphor for America’s ambivalence about the past and her inability to protect even the intention to preserve.

Henry Rowe Schoolcraft embodied this ambivalence throughout a long and distinguished career. In the 1820’s and 30’s he labored as an ethnographer among the Indians around Lake Superior. He married the daughter of an Ojibwa chief. His Algic Researches (1839) was to provide the source for Longfellow’s Hiawatha. At the same time that he struggled to preserve the legends of a doomed people, Schoolcraft worked as a federal Indian agent and had often to negotiate against the native tribes. The irony of his career was to find himself “laboring anxiously against the loss of materials that were threatened by his own official actions.”

After a chapter on Melville’s discovery of alternative cultures in the South Seas, Mitchell moves toward his conclusion by chronicling the rise of American cultural anthropology. The story is of a movement away from ethnocentrism “toward cultural relativism.” But by choosing the Indian as his focus, Mitchell must also inevitably emphasize the ways in which the uncertainty principle holds sway in any attempt to interpret an alien culture. Parkman’s Oregon Trail (1849) embodies the typical case: participation gives way to the distortions of narrative as the speaker imposes his cultural expectations upon the culture he had hoped to penetrate. And in America the intervention of the observer was complicated by the reticence of the culture being observed. As American anthropologists sought greater intimacy with their subjects, they ran up against the essential impenetrability of the Indian way of life. A friendly Moqui was to upbraid John G. Bourke for simply trying to watch the Snake-Dance:

We saw you writing down everything as you sat in the Estufa, and we knew that you had all that man could learn from his eyes. We didn’t like to have you down there. No other man has ever shown so little regard for what we thought, but we knew that you had come there under orders, and that you were only doing what you thought you ought to do to learn all about our ceremonies. So we concluded to let you stay.

The desire to record and preserve remained often at odds with the ability to comprehend.

The man who stayed with a vengeance was Frank Hamilton Gushing, the “most extraordinary figure in the history of American anthropology.” In 1879 he “determined to try living with” the secretive Zuni of Arizona. He lived for four and a half years in “full acceptance among the tribe.” He received foster parents, had his ears pierced, became an assistant chief, took a scalp. Early on he had had to brandish a knife against a collective attempt to deprive him of the everpresent sketchbook. The Zuni resented his trying to capture “the shadows of the great dance.” He fought off his attackers and kept sketching. But in his subsequent failure to publish any of his materials he seemed to adopt the very code of silence which, unviolated, would have forestalled his career.

American anthropology overcame at many points the fundamental reticence of Indian culture, and Mitchell’s book concludes with an extended tribute to those—especially Franz Boas—who refused to let it vanish without a trace. Whether the trace which remains renders up much more than a fiction is a question beyond the scope of Mitchell’s book. His task is to restore the forgotten history of America’s will to preserve. He succeeds in this with modesty and tact. His book is also a rueful meditation of the human power to imagine its way into a vanishing otherness. When the last wild Indian wandered out of the hills of California in 1912, he was taken to a museum in San Francisco. He became a janitor, the living custodian of the very place that memorialized his dead past. Before Ishi died he left a short epitaph. If it left open the question of what had been understood, it was authoritative on the fact of who had survived: “You stay, I go.”


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