The Last Cowboy
Coming into the Country
“Americans,” wrote Tocqueville once, “are insensible to the wonders of nature,” and only bent on subduing it. Now, it seems, whatever our intentions to nature itself, we cannot get enough of reading about its wonders. The new abundance of wilderness literature in America, which seems to exceed what can be accounted for by transitory romanticism, reflects, I take it, both the disappearance of our frontiers and our dawning sense of their primal significance to us. As I write this (in February), John McPhee’s richly detailed account of Alaska is the best-selling book of nonfiction in a number of Eastern cities, something usually reserved for works on sex or self-improvement; this suggests that the new American feeling about wilderness springs from some similar deep source of anxiety and hope. In the matter of Alaska, some of the interest may also arise from responsible citizenship, since we are on the point of having to decide what to do with this vast state. Alaska, like a late baby to elderly parents, is a matter both for surprise and obsessive solicitude, a last frontier which provides an occasion for reviewing the mistakes that have blighted other, older frontiers, like the one described by Jane Kramer in her book on the Texas Panhandle.
There are many reasons for the enduring popularity of travel literature; the dreamer is led out of the confinement of his daily life on primitive adventures out of a legendary past; he indulges his dreams of a future life of freedom. At the same time, most travel accounts reassure him that where he lives is really best. The city-dweller, reading McPhee or Kramer in his New Yorker about the sixty-below winters of Alaska, the bullet-riddled signposts of Texas, will feel grateful for the locks and bolts that may at other times seem oppressive. Out there be dragons.
We are always grateful to redoubtable travelers, from Marco Polo to Kramer and McPhee, for braving our rigors for us. It is interesting to remember that the most entertaining, accurate, and cruelly analytical books about America used to be written by and for Europeans. Themselves urban, without frontiers, they devoured Anthony Trollope on the giant “Wellingtonia” trees of Yosemite, or his mother on our atrocious domestic manners, or Dickens’s account of his visit, or the dozens of Gold Rush tales. Busy, in the middle of their adventure, Americans on America were given to boosting and boasting.
But now the best books on America are written by Americans. Far from being leveled by television, we grow more and more unlike each other, more conscious of diversity and more interested in it (a recent public television series on American families provided subtitles for the speech of rural Georgians on the assumption that their dialect was not intelligible). The traveler from New York, teetering around the Panhandle in new cowboy boots, is in a foreign land and yet in a familiar one. With access to a common heritage of American traditions and myths, she knows what …
Unkind Cut June 15, 1978