Recently I chanced to read a favorable review of a history book in which the author describes frontier realities as "myth-making," and remarks that the standard "narrative" nowadays is that Indians were peace-loving folks persecuted by evil white settlers. This is only one small sample, of course, and I'm sure my readers know that denigration of the American past is conventional behavior among academics, not to speak of Hollywood and the media. These are the thoughts provoked by that notice.
Before I began this series I wrote a short essay, "The Culture of Conservatives," for the Review, criticizing the way conservative magazines focused exclusively on politics, arguing that what was needed was a deeper appreciation of culture -- the politics would follow. The obvious meaning is that, as the subsequent series tries to show, reading good literature deepens our consciousness by exposing us to other points of view. There is a broader meaning of culture which I want to invoke: the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns and beliefs (that's why my essays have not been about contemporary writers; their culture is mean and negative). Writers do not announce their cultural attitudes; they are just there, largely unconscious, communicated by language, gestures, assumptions.
The cultural climate is far more important than we think, affecting all our thoughts and acts. The cultural elite has been contemptuous of America since the 1920s and in the last 40 years that attitude has spread to all levels of society, witness the book I noted at the beginning. We are living in a poisonous cultural atmosphere, and what is the answer of politics? The stupid extension of presidential campaigning has rendered politics even more incredibly shallow than usual. I would like to think that if we resolutely mocked and denounced every manifestation of anti-Americanism, we would soon improve our politics and politicians. Politics follows culture.
Reading the review of that contemptible history book made me remember a fine writer and patriot who wrote an excellent history of the frontier: Teddy Roosevelt. We do not think of him as a writer because his political career obscures everything else. He is one of our best prose stylists, second only to Thoreau, with a style that is muscular, sinewy, and direct. His sentences are always absolutely clear. He has none of Thoreau's sly humor or subtle grace, but you are never in any doubt about his meaning.
The Winning of the West (1889-96) was originally planned to cover not only the trans-Appalachian West (Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and the old Northwest) but the entire southwest up to 1850, a project curtailed by the pressures of his political life. What we have are two volumes beginning in the 1760s, extending to the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition. We have become so used to finely drawn, complex histories that we may lose sight of the basic outlines of the past. In fact, sophisticated moderns deny such outlines entirely, rejecting them as simpleminded. To maintain that pose, however, they have to ignore facts or explain them away. Roosevelt's history doesn't stint on detail, but his account of the conquering of the old West makes the basic outlines unmistakably clear.
Although there were many points of contention between Britain and the Colonies, the one thing that rendered conflict inevitable was the British intention to maintain the territory beyond the Alleghenies in a wild state where Indians could hunt and trap for the benefit of British traders and the Crown. The Proclamation Line of 1763 specifically barred settlement there -- but men like Daniel Boone were already exploring the Kentucky wilderness. The tide of settlement was inexorable. Roosevelt manages his narrative by treating specific areas (the French of the Ohio Valley, 1763-1775) or events (Lord Dunmore's War) in short chapters, painting a picture, stroke by stroke, detail by detail, of the vast wilderness gradually being transformed into a settled land by the efforts of hunters, explorers, surveyors, and frontier settlers, all of whom played their essential parts in the struggle before, during, and after the Revolution. He emphasizes two aspects (aside from their hardihood) of the frontiersmen: their rugged individualism and their instinct for coming together to form self-governing communities.
Roosevelt was a man of the 19th century. He owned a cattle ranch in the wild country of North Dakota and he knew, better than any of us can know, something of what frontier life could be like. He had no illusions about frontiersmen; he knew that they committed outrages against the Indians just as the Indians did against the whites, but:
Unless we are willing that the whole continent west of the Alleghenies should remain an unpeopled waste, a hunting-ground of savages, war was inevitable.
Only the frontiersmen were tough enough to do it, and in doing so, they laid the foundations of our national greatness. Let me quote some more from the book for the pleasure of my patriotic readers:
It has often been said that we owe all our success to our surroundings; that any race with our opportunities could have done as well. . . . Undoubtedly our opportunities have been great; undoubtedly we have often and lamentably failed in taking advantage of them. But what nation ever has done all that was possible with the chances offered it? . . . The truth is, that in starting a new nation in a new country, as we have done, while there are exceptional chances to be taken advantage of, there are also exceptional dangers and difficulties to be overcome. . . . Looked at absolutely, we must frankly acknowledge that we have fallen very far short indeed of the high ideal we should have reached. Looked at relatively, it must also be said that we have done better than any other nation or race working under our conditions.
No other conquering and colonizing nation has ever treated the original savage owners of the soil with such generosity as the United States.
Americans need to keep in mind the fact that as a nation they have erred far more often in not being willing enough to fight than in being too willing. . . . The educated classes, in particular, need to be perpetually reminded that, although it is an evil thing to brave a conflict needlessly, or to bully and bluster, it is an even worse thing to flinch from a fight for which there is legitimate provocation, or to live in supine, slothful, unprepared ease, helpless to avenge an injury.
Roosevelt wrote four hunting books: Hunting Trips of a Ranchman (1885), Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail (1888), The Wilderness Hunter (1895), and Hunting the Grizzly (1905). I like them all, but I think my favorite is Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail because it is a varied mixture of subjects. It was written as a series of articles, profusely illustrated by the great Western artist, Frederic Remington, for the Century magazine. The first chapters are about life on his ranch, which he relished. You can sense the attraction in this passage:
The whole existence is patriarchal in character: it is the life of men who live in the open, who tend their herds on horseback, who go armed and ready to guard their lives by their own prowess, whose wants are very simple, and who call no man master.
Note, however, that feeling does not cloud his judgment:
In its present form stock-raising on the plains is doomed, and can hardly outlast the century. The great free ranches, with their barbarous, picturesque, and curiously fascinating surroundings, mark a primitive stage of existence as surely as do the great tracts of primeval forests, and like the latter must pass away before the onward march of our people; and we who have felt the charm of the life, and have exulted in its abounding vigor and its bold, restless freedom, will not only regret its passing for our own sakes, but must also feel real sorrow that those who come after us are not to see, as we have seen, what is perhaps the pleasantest, healthiest, and most exciting phase of American existence.
There is a realism and a sensitivity about that paragraph that is characteristic. The first sentence is stark, flat, uncompromising, all that needs to be said from a factual point of view. The rest of the paragraph, the long second sentence with its accumulative force, makes us understand the intellectual and emotional significance of the first sentence, coloring the picture with richly evocative adjectives.
The hunting chapters (and the hunting books in general) are based on Roosevelt's experience, vividly described, but they also contain lively descriptions of flora and fauna; he was a many-sided man with an eye for beauty and much else besides:
Even in the waste places the cactuses are blooming; and one kind in particular, a dwarfish, globular plant, with its mass of splendid crimson flowers glows against the sides of the gray buttes like a splash of flame.
Reading him is like being in the company of a fascinating man of great character and intellect who speaks clearly and gracefully of his experiences. He wrote more than I have mentioned, but those are the titles I recommend. Try libraries and second hand stores, although occasionally a small press will do a reprint. My 1995 copy of Ranch Life and The Hunting Trail was done by Gramercy Books (a Random House imprint) and contains this note:
[This book] reflects the culture and attitudes of late 19th century America, which are not necessarily those of the publisher of this Gramercy edition.
Such are the lengths to which the craven will go to satisfy political correctness. *
"Vote for the man who promises least; he'll be the least disappointing." --Bernard Baruch