See America First – The Most American America

Another in my ongoing series of reflections and ramblings on Marguerite S. Shaffer’s book, See America First.

“As Frederick Jackson Turner articulated so eloquently in his frontier thesis, the West embodied the process of becoming America—of moving into the wilderness, abandoning European traditions, and developing new behaviors and institutions that defined the American character. The West as celebrated in literature, art, political rhetoric, and pulp fiction had come to represent the ‘true’ America.” (17)

One of the many themes that Shaffer touches on throughout her book is caught between two ideas.

The first of these ideas is the almost conscious and intentional cultural separation between “Old World” Europeans and the new Americans. By choosing to reject their cultural heritage, new settlers and early generations of native-born Americans must fill those sudden cultural voids with new behaviors and new beliefs.

The second of these ideas is that the American West is, out of all places in America, the wellspring of the ‘true’ America. Thus, the (idealized) American West provides the ideal behaviors and beliefs of the ideal American.

Combining these two ideas together, as Shaffer does in the paragraph quoted above, brings forth their offspring: that Europeans intent shedding their old world ways can ‘Americanize’ themselves by living and acting by values and behaviors promoted by the (technically fictional) American West. Even better, then, to migrate from the eastern cities into the Midwest to become more American.

The quoted paragraph, however, does not focus primarily on the transformation of Europeans into Americans, but on the concept of an ideal American West–created and maintained through various forms of media–as a symbol of a ‘true’ America.

Thus European (and other) migrants were moving themselves into middle America (consciously or subconsciously attempting to banish their non-American behaviors) in order to recreate themselves into true Americans–except they were basing that truth on something entirely fictional.

Which makes the creation of those massive American roadside sculptures spread across the Midwest make absolute sense. But that’s another mini-blog for another mini-time.

Other quotes from See America First about the most American America:

“The national park system, according to the 1918 annual report of the secretary of the interior, ‘constituted one of America’s greatest national assets.’ This celebration of the dramatic natural scenery of the West, the remains of ancient civilizations, and pristine wilderness—the landscapes embraced by the parks—moved beyond the rhetoric of economic nationalism to express an ideal of nationhood. By focusing on wilderness, scenery, and ruins, park publicity glorified not eh commercial and industrial developments that were catapulting the United States to world power and solidifying the nation-state, but the natural landscapes and ancient runs that were symbolic of America’s origins. The essence of American identity, according to the narrative of nationalism constructed by the Park Service, rested primarily in western wilderness, landscapes once inhabited by more primitive civilizations, then left untouched by man, yet still symbolizing the bounty of American nature. In this way the American landscape was infused with an ancient past and a divine promise.” (107)

“This emphasis on education not only underscored the importance of the parks to Americanization programs but also reflected increasingly pervasive theories of progressive education that stressed learning through experience. The combination resulted in a theory of nationalism that grounded citizenship not simply in the ideal of a democratic political contract, but also in the relationship to territory or homeland. Building on the romantic notion of organic nationalism, the nation became a unique geographical entity. The feeling of American-ness was integrally connected to the nation’s physical territory. Natural wonders and dramatic scenery came to symbolize not just the promise of tourist revenues and congressional appropriations but, more important, an ideal of homeland.” (121-2)

“Although the [WPA] guides are dominated by an excess of information that is difficult to condense into near summaries, their attention to detail and diversity reflects a more populist narrative of the nation embedded in this new conceptualization of culture. In effect, the series sought to map out and celebrate an inherent American culture across the landscape and thus position America as a modern folk nation.” (203)