CRM Journal

Book Review

The West of the Imagination (Second Edition)

By William H. Goetzmann and William N. Goetzmann. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009; 604 pp., illustrations; cloth, $65.00.


Iconic Western figures like the cowboy, the trapper, and the Indian have been re-invented and re-imagined by artists countless times, linking them intrinsically to the larger vision of the American West. These heroic figures also have some monumental, non-human company in the Western pictorial pantheon. Natural wonders like Yosemite Falls, the Grand Canyon, or the Rocky Mountains also enjoy legendary status in our national mind's-eye and often provide both context and backdrop for the iconic western figures. The question is not whether these images are culturally relevant; it is how they became so.

The West of the Imagination may contain part of the answer. This hefty tome seeks to unpack and analyze archetypal images that helped to invent and sustain today's romantically charged vision of the West. Because of its nationalist connotations, such work could be easily swept aside by art critics as propaganda or kitsch (p. 41). But the Goetzmanns, take it upon themselves to address the art and artists that created a mythological western vocabulary of images still in use today.

The book begins at the turn of the 19th century with Charles Willson Peale, a Philadelphia "artist-curator" that once discovered (and reconstructed) an entire mastodon skeleton. The rest of the first section deals with others that specialized in what the Goetzmanns term the "art of information" (p. 51). Some, like George Catlin and Paul Kane, created portraits of American Indians valued as much for their beauty as for their ethnological significance. Others, like George Eastman, took a sociological approach and immersed themselves in the lives and customs of their subjects.

These artists are the Goetzmanns' primary subjects, but they strive to investigate the proliferation of imagery as well. The section ends with Currier and Ives, printmakers and purveyors of a secondhand West. The authors assert the firm excelled at "imaginatively illustrating journalism" (p. 107): the art was original, but much of it was based either on reports of the frontier or the works of more prominent artists. Nevertheless, it sold very well. "Explorer-artists" were actually experiencing the West, but the rest of the country relied on mass reproductions, many of which became a part of the American cultural vocabulary.

The second section is devoted to further exploration and documentation of the West. As the historian Bernard DeVoto wrote, "Manifest Destiny was blindfolded" (p. 145); fortunately, many expeditions brought along artists for just this purpose. The "art of information" flourished. Each expedition compiled its own unique report of its findings; federal printers produced nearly 26 million prints of these reports, almost all commissioned by the government. The art produced by these expeditions is described as a combination of romantic landscapes and "pretensions to scientific accuracy" (p. 150). The grey area between science and art provided just enough room for embellishment, a skill that would prove increasingly essential.

The book's third section is dedicated to the quest for, and the creation of, the picturesque. With the advent of photography, the relationship between art and fact became further blurred; artists, deferring to photographers in matters of accuracy, were free instead to create "the ideal sensation of the place" (p. 216). Being idealists, artists of the sublime like Albert Bierstadt were able to create the West as they knew it ought to have looked. The authors argue that romanticized visions of the West were far more relevant than scientific ones buried in federal archives; although slightly inaccurate, accessible images of the sublime helped to create "a series of sacred places across the continent" (p. 239) that were soon recognized by Congress as well. As noted by the authors, these fanciful images were essential founding documents of the national parks.

In the art of the sublime, nature took center stage. The art of the frontier, however, featured more action and more actors. Frederic Remington and Charlie Russell, the men responsible for painting the cowboy, share the spotlight in the book's fourth section. Remington depicted the "social history of the West" (p. 290): the process of settling the land, the types of men that did so, and the rough-and-tumble lives they lived. Russell favored "visual folktales" (p. 322), often comic cowboy scenes from stories that he gathered during his travels. The authors cannot hide their wistful tone when pondering the role of cowboy artists in the face of Modernist dominance; they wonder if Remington and Russell could "have competed with Marcel Duchamp's or if their artistic vision could "have ever come to terms with 'found art' such as the Dada urinal" (p. 305).

The fifth section follows the rise of the cowboy throughout popular culture. Most notably, Buffalo Bill's Wild West show took the country, and parts of Europe, by storm. Cowboy autobiographies flooded the market, illustrating what the authors deem "the mythic tradition in the guise of realism" (p. 347). A cadre of Western artists formed The Cowboy Artists of America, which aimed to keep the traditions of the Old West alive on canvas. While it is easy to dismiss each new version of the cowboy as a knock-off, the Goetzmanns assert that this repetition made the character more enduring; even today, the cowboy dwells in "what a psychologist might call the collective unconscious" (p. 376).

The sixth, and last, section of the book is by far the most eclectic. Thomas Hart Benton, Georgia O'Keefe, Jackson Pollock, and the Taos colony all share top billing, but lesser-known inclusions provoke more thought. The most interesting of these is calamitism, a school of photography devoted to the most unpleasant symbols of man's impact on nature (nuclear test sites and animal carcasses, for example). The photographs are disturbing, to be sure, but what is most noteworthy is the authors' reaction: they accuse them of "theatrical innuendo" and "sensational tabloid tales of western cattle mutilations" (p. 511-12). This shows the authors at their most critical and intrusive, but also at their most passionate. Nonetheless, calamitism seems to embody a new myth of the West, one that ponders the ultimate.

With the exception of the section listed above, the narrative is not combative or aggressively rhetorical. The writing flows easily, and resists any kind of excess. The text is well supported without being overwhelmed by citations; however, the most impressive feat of research is the vast array of pictures. The authors do a skillful job of interweaving loosely chronological historical and biographical details with artistic analysis. Their arguments chapter-to-chapter are convincing, but their most important point lies in the creation of the book itself. In giving serious thought to a widely dismissed genre of western art, they make their argument quite clear: national image is often fueled by a variety of art and artists.

Guy McClellan
National Park Service