Thursday, December 23, 2010

Impulsive 1840s pioneers longed "to see what the next elevation hides from view"

I’m reading Will Bagley’s first volume of a projected three-part series about the West’s overland trails. It's entitled “So Rugged and Mountainous: Blazing the Trails to Oregon and California, 1812-1848.” It's published by the excellent University of Oklahoma Press.

It sat on the new non-fiction shelf at the library. When I saw it, I said, “We need another book on the Western migration?” I opened the book as was glad to see that Bagley acknowledged his predecessors, noting that “some of America’s best writers have told this tale.” We know the names: John Unruh, Francis Parkman, Mark Twain, Washington Irving, A.B. Guthrie, Fawn Brodie, Vardis Fisher, Wallace Stegner, Alvin M. Josephy. And so on.

I’ve read a number of the fictional accounts of the trails, notably A.B. Guthrie’s “The Way West.” As is true for most Americans, I learned my “Way West” history from movies, such as the huge 1962 Cinerama epic, “How the West Was Won.” Many, many movies have been based on the subject, including my favorite, “Blazing Saddles.” And yes, I know this is a lampoon of classic western films and bears no resemblance to the West’s true story. Except for the farting-around-the-campfire scene. So very real.

I’ve read only snippets of non-fiction accounts. That’s now changing.

I was hooked from the first sentence of Will Bagley’s preface: “All peoples have a myth, and as Americans we love our legends but often loathe our history.” A good line to keep in mind during times of revisionist history-making. South Carolinians recently celebrated the sesquicentennial of the Civil War secession in Charleston with a formal ball. Slavery wasn’t mentioned. But all the white folks at the ball looked marvelous.

Conservatives love their mythic West. We saw this most recently in the Wyoming Legislature’s enshrining a new “Code of the West” based on mythic cowboy lore. We Liberals also have our myths. Beginning in the 1960s, we fell all over ourselves romanticizing “the noble savage” and turning it into an icon of popular culture. Native Americans are admirable in many ways. But they are humans, too, and share the same failings as their Anglo brothers and sisters.

Bagley’s dogged research led him to the conclusion that the true story is more exciting than any myth we might conjure. I agree. What makes regular people pull up stakes, pile their goods in a wagon and trek 1,500 1,800 miles from Independence, Mo., to Oregon's Willamette Valley? I’d often wondered. I’m not the first to speculate that it was wanderlust or even ADHD (see my short-short fiction piece, “How the West was Won”). But the definitive answer doesn’t seem to exist. Bagley scrolls through the reasons and makes a great case that it was many things. Some were looking for land and other new opportunities. Others were fleeing the wretched, malarial climate of the Mississippi River Valley. Others were just moving on.

He sums it up this way:
Men often went West to escape debt, the law or family responsibilities. Yet what sets apart the pioneers of the 1840s was that they were generally very ordinary people who undertook an extraordinary task. Many of them were impatient and curious. “Emigrants are generally too impatient, and over-drive their teams, and cattle,” William Ide noted. “They often neglect the concerns of the present, in consequence of great anticipations of the future – they long to see what the next elevation hides from their view.”
Impulsivity and hyperactivity and curiosity. Traits held by so many Westerners.

I can’t wait to get back to Bagley’s book. It’s a long journey, but I have just the right sort of doggedness to see it through.

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