Spaghetti West

Land of Savagery, Land of Promise: The European Image of the American Frontier in the Nineteenth Century

by Ray Allen Billington
Norton, 364 pp., $18.95

Europe’s myopic view of America over the centuries might be diagnosed as double vision except that the competing images—those of evil, the others of good—rarely coexisted. In European eyes, America has always been one thing or the other and usually one of the antipodal extremes: paradise or purgatory, pastoral tranquility or blazing violence, idyllic utopia or diabolical anti-utopia, land of promise or land of savagery. The “savages” were either noble or ignoble, and the white interlopers were likewise one or the other extreme. Either/or—depending on the purposes, preoccupations, and biases of the particular European, or upon the place he lived, the period in which he wrote, the readers he wrote for, the politics he professed, or the philosophy he espoused—depending on many other conditions as well, but least of all upon conditions in America.

Ray Allen Billington’s book dwells mainly on European images of America in the nineteenth century, but the pattern of image-making was fixed long before. A couple of examples from the eighteenth century—late in the history of European images of America—illustrate the process. Before the American Revolution a school of distinguished Enlightenment philosophers at odds with Rousseau developed the thesis that America was a “mistake,” its discovery a disaster, its influence a curse to mankind. In its abysmal climate and miasmic atmosphere plants, animals, human beings, and society degenerated catastrophically, and in Europe it spread disease, inflation, national rivalries, wars, and misery.

This depressing picture was replaced immediately by a new image, formed by the fantasies and hopes of two revolutions, the American and the French, that was in all respects the opposite of the preceding one. “America” now meant the new-born republic, Europe’s temporary utopia, the American Dream. The new image idealized America as uncritically as the old one denigrated it. America was now the best of all possible worlds, a new start and a new hope for mankind, all the Old World debris of kings, courts, bishops, and aristocrats cleared away for a golden age of the present. Even the landscape was transformed. In place of abysmal swamps and rude, miasmic wilderness, romantics now perceived sylvan glades, the grandeur of primeval forests, and the sublimity of infinite plains and towering mountains.

European literature on America is enormous, the outpouring of philosophers, poets, novelists, playwrights, journalists, hacks—scribblers of all kinds—and the production of books on the subject soared in the nineteenth century. In the quarter century before the American Civil War, travel accounts alone came to more than two hundred in England, more than fifty in Germany, and fifty-six in Norway, not to mention other countries. Over the years many of the great names—Montaigne, Shakespeare, Goethe—come up in the bibliographies, and writers of prominence were increasingly involved as popular interest in the subject grew. Their contributions are naturally the best known, and Ray Allen Billington sampled their work. His largest source, however—and his use of such material is his most striking innovation—is popular literature, best sellers for the masses. He believed that “these best-sellers played…

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