Land of Savagery, Land of Promise: The European Image of the American Frontier in the Nineteenth Century
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 a larger role than any other writings in shaping the European image of the American frontier.” The market for them was created by rising literacy, cheap printing, and potential emigrants in Western Europe. By 1850 one in ten Germans had departed for America, and for every emigrant several stay-at-homes dreamed Walter Mitty adventures over a paperback.
The names of these prolific writers are for the most part unknown to literary historians. Friedrich Strubberg wrote sixty-odd novels on Texas, and Friedrich Gerstäcker, his contemporary, as many or more on the West. Balduin Möllhausen, hailed as the “Cooper of Germany,” outdid them both with one hundred and fifty books on America. For sheer number of titles few could match one Wilhelm Frey (sometimes Fricks) who turned out 177 between 1887 and 1902—small ones for juveniles, to be sure. Surpassing all the European westerns in influence were those of Karl May, author of seventy books, many still read. Der Spiegel in 1962 seriously pronounced his influence “greater than that of any other author between Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Thomas Mann.” Both Adolf Hitler and Albert Einstein called May their favorite author. He was translated into twenty languages and sales of his books exceeded thirty million. The author himself never ventured west. His plainsmen were thoroughly Teutonic Galahads with little more resemblance to reality than his redskins. A remarkable number of the latter spoke fluent German. “Howgh. Ich habe gesprochen,” declared the chief, ending a long speech, and the tribesmen responded, “Uff Uff.”
Germans by no means monopolized the European market for westerns. The French contributed their full share of Gallic-style frontiersmen who spouted clichés, stilted speeches, and lethal gun-fire. British best sellers divided attention between the Wild East of the empire and the Wild West of America. Mayne Reid’s seventy-odd novels were reported by librarians to be in greater demand than those of Sir Walter Scott. His rough plainsmen were given to such expletives as “Jeehosphet an’ Pigeon Pie” and such convictions as “nothing like a cup of tea to put life in one.” The lack of an international copyright law until 1891 and the consequent piracy among publishers all over Europe made for a lawless common market of dime novels. That, plus translations: “French books were translated into English, German into Norwegian, English into Hungarian. Friedrich Gerstäcker was a best seller in Hungary; Poles and Norwegians ranked Möllhausen among their most popular writers.” The English supplemented local products with vast imports from America, mainly pirated.
Another immensely popular American import was Buffalo Bill Cody’s “Wild West Show” and its numerous imitators. The hero of some two hundred dime novels, Cody had plenty of advance billing. His whole troupe, “240 performers, and a menagerie of buffalo, long-horned steers, and bucking horses,” landed in England in the spring of 1887 and staged command rehearsals before Prime Minister Gladstone, the Prince of Wales, and Queen Victoria herself. After that showman’s dream of publicity, the show went on daily in an arena packed with forty thousand spectators. Then to the Exposition Universale in Paris, and on to Spain, Italy, Germany, and Belgium. The tour was repeated annually into the following century. Some forty competing shows with their own cowboys and Indians crisscrossed Europe for years. By 1892 much of the Continent had become aware of “Le Dernier Combat de General Custer”; and the “Original Buffalo Bill Library” contained over seven hundred titles. European youth bought whatever was sold them as authentic Western garb and consumed the Buffalo Bill Library eagerly.
Trash, to be sure. But such is the daily fare of historians, and there is plenty of it in their more conventional sources, including official documents, speeches, newspapers, statistics, and correspondence. The dime novel and the pulp thriller are a different kind of trash, but for the search at hand they might be more productive than the conventional documents. If they left their imprints on the minds of Hitler and Einstein, it is possible they left images on the minds of the masses who bought and read them. On the whole, though with exceptions, the image-makers of this type came down heavily on one side, the America of savagery, violence, danger, hardship, lawlessness, and brutality—adventure too, of course, hair-raising adventure, but at terrible risk. Theirs was America the menace, and their chief appeal was to the foolhardy. But what about the American appeal to sober folk who sought work, opportunity, peace, freedom, and equality, as most of the emigrants did?
More trash—though not only trash—is a rich source of that kind of image, the Land-of-Promise image. Figuring heavily in this trash pile is the propaganda of promoters for steamship, railroad, and real estate companies—people with something to sell and gain. Their debris includes bales upon bales of guidebooks, leaflets, posters, magazines, and pictures. Eventually nearly every state in the Union had its immigration bureau. By 1883 one railroad, the Northern Pacific, had 831 agents (mostly successful immigrants) in Britain alone, and more on the Continent. The railroad published a magazine, the Northwest, owned several local newspapers, advertised in 3,385 others, and distributed a half million maps and 650,000 circulars a year. Lecturers displayed a 250-foot square “Sylphorama,” a glamorous landscape of Iowa countryside. The job of the promoters was to picture America as the Garden of the World, a Land of Opportunity unequaled in all the universe, a land of milk and honey where every man was his own landlord, the equal of all, and on the road to becoming more equal than any.
Promoter propaganda had its impact, but the dullest peasant could see that the promoters had something to sell. Of greater influence in shaping the Land-of-Promise image were letters from America, often from people villagers knew. The successful were more likely to boast of their riches, but they also gave concrete information: the cost of land, the yield per acre, the wages paid, the conditions of labor. Again and again, emigrants testified that it was an American letter from a friend or relative that determined their move. Whole communities were swept by the “American fever.” A Dutch editor testified that each batch of American letters touched off an exodus. The visit of a returned emigrant with pockets stuffed with money could have the same effect.
Unlike the promoters and Wild West novelists, the European travelers and visitors cannot be categorized as a unit pro or con. With few exceptions their accounts were one or the other, but which depended on the writers and their predispositions and prejudices. Those who were sympathetic with democratic movements in Europe were generally enthusiastic about the democratic experiment in America—the only one in the world for a time—and conservative opponents of such change were decidedly not. For the enthusiasts, America was a model for Europe’s future, a cheerful, bustling, happy society relieved of Old World burdens and wrongs, where equality banished injustice and improved manners, and freedom bred prosperity, peace, security, and hope. Nature itself smiled on this democratic Eden through festoons of flowers, bowered fairylands, and cloudless skies. Harriet Martineau regretted that Milton had not seen the prairies in springtime before he wrote of the Garden in Paradise Lost.
On visitors of contrary mind nature smiled not. Thus Charles Dickens on nature in America:
A flat morass, bestrewn with fallen timber; a marsh on which the good growth of earth seemed to have been wrecked and cast away, that from its decomposed ashes vile and ugly things might arise; where the very trees took the aspect of huge weeds, begotten of the slime from which they spring, by the hot sun which burnt them up; where fatal maladies, seeking whom they might infect, came forth at night in misty shapes, and creeping out upon the water, hunted them like spectres until day; where even the blessed sun, shining down on festering elements of corruption and disease, became a horror; this was the realm of Hope through which they moved.
The horror of it appalled another English traveler: “all is dull, solitary, gloomy—nothing to cheer, nothing to enliven the mind.” Venomous reptiles lurked everywhere in the wilderness, such as the “horned hoop-snake,” or the “carnava,” a monster with a shell eight by twenty feet that swallowed horses whole, as well as terrifying herds of ostriches, mosquitoes that penetrated boot leather, and man-eating carnivores.
Europeans who saw nature in America in this light were likely to take a dim view of its society and institutions as well. For them democracy was the whim of the mob and the root of most evil; freedom meant the tyranny of public opinion, equality the reduction of culture to one dead level of mediocrity. The pursuit of happiness had turned into the pursuit of the dollar and produced not a happy, but rather a dull, morose, and melancholy culture, devoid of gaiety, music, and laughter and productive of little in the way of arts, letters, or science worthy of notice in the world. On the manners of the democratic citizens of the republic—their behavior in dining, drinking, smoking (and chewing and spitting), courting, and conversing—European conservatives could become incoherent in their contempt and revulsion. Visiting liberals, reformers, radicals, and revolutionaries of Europe, on the other hand, took a different view of all these matters. They often professed to draw comfort and inspiration for their own movements from the American experience.
Ray Billington was writing about the American frontier, his lifelong subject of study. The frontier was, of course, a movable thing, and in the course of the nineteenth century parts of it could be found all the way from the eastern seaboard states to the Pacific. Thus when the author remarks in passing that Michel-Guillaume St. Jean de Crèvecoeur “spoke for all frontiersmen,” it is well to recall that the French immigrant lived in Orange County, New York. Billington appears to lend credence to the European view that “East and West were worlds apart, separated by a discernible boundary that shifted constantly westward with each new advance of the frontier.” But Europeans could be even vaguer than Americans about the location of the frontier and where the West began at a given time. It is true that no eastern seaboard city from Boston to Charleston is mentioned in these pages—but they certainly were mentioned often enough by the European travelers. Indeed, many of them never got much farther west. The fact is that the greater part of their gratuitous generalizations were not confined to frontiersmen or westerners but intended for Americans as a whole, easterners included.
There were many exceptions, of course, such as plainsmen, cowboys, miners, trappers, mountain men, and especially Indians. Perhaps the most illuminating and readable sections of the book are those on the evolving European perception of the First Americans, an exercise in uninhibited imagination. After the passing of the noble savage phase, the natives were progressively “Europeanized.” They took to speaking perfect Hiawathese, and one chief was found with a gold-stamped copy of the book in hand as he sat in his palatial “pueblo” of strikingly Pompeian decor. Lofty temples and towers of two hundred feet graced the golden cities of Comanches and Navajos in the Southwest, set among “fountains, aqueducts, heavy domes and long graceful obelisks.” The women resembled Arabian queens of ravishing beauty, and the braves “would make Apollo envious.” Their garments were of a splendor that outshone that of European royalty. No children of nature they, but flowers of a high civilization, gentle, cultivated, wise. The question was how the United States could treat such people so cruelly.
One answer was the “bad” Indians—the other image. Either/or. The badness of the bad Indian, according to the European alternative, was unsurpassed in treachery, malice, brutality, and sadistic cruelty. He was a creature with no more humanity than a rattlesnake. A further stage in the development of the degrading image of the native Americans left them steeped in vice and indolence, incapable of adjusting to the modern world, a doomed race. European preoccupation with clobbering “lesser breeds” of other colors in Africa and Asia on their own made American Indian policy more acceptable, especially to the British. Charles Dickens voiced contemporary opinion of the Indian: “I call him a savage, and I call a savage something highly desirable to be civilized off the face of the earth.” After Europeans retired from native-clobbering in the twentieth century, they refurbished the “good” Indian image and renewed the indictment of US policy.
The disappearance of the frontier brought no decline of European appetite for American westerns in the twentieth century, but seemed rather to stimulate the market. The theme flourished in the new media of cinema, television, and comic books as well as in the old ones of cheap magazines and novels. One publisher in England was selling three million western novels a year in 1975 and six companies in Germany more than ninety million yearly. Spain discovered the West late, but by 1960 forty-nine of Zane Grey’s books were in Spanish translation, and native authors were turning out great masses of westerns on their own, each exactly 120 pages long.
By the year of his death in 1975 the French western writer George Fronval had produced six hundred potboilers, fifty-four of them on Buffalo Bill Cody. Movies vastly expanded the European market for westerns, the greater part of European origin. The Danes led the way with the Great Western Film Company and were soon challenged by British, German, and French companies. Italian filmmakers dominated production in the Sixties, releasing 130 “spaghetti westerns” in 1964 and 1965. On the TV screens of Europe westerns enjoyed top ratings. “Gunsmoke” was syndicated in nineteen countries and seen by an estimated quarter of the world’s population. The young and the not-so-young paid incredible prices for authentic Levi’s, jeans worn cowboy style. Thriving chain stores, including “The Western House” near the Arc de Triomphe, spanned the Continent to sell western gear such as “Karl May Camping Equipment.”
For all this popularity and notoriety, the fictional image of America thus created in the European mind—even in some of the more sophisticated minds—has come home to roost in recent decades. With the fading of the old images of opportunity, equality, and freedom, the old and new images of violence, brutality, and ruthlessness have taken possession. Violence and brutality in European westerns surpass the standard allowed in America. The old blood-thirsty savages, however, have become the innocent victims of American expansionists, and the villains’ part in black hats is played by heartless and brutal frontiersmen, agents of a nation of ruthless predators. The children in cobblestone streets now want to play the Indians, not the cowboys. It is the conclusion of the author that the Land of Savagery has indeed come to replace the Land of Promise in the European imagination. It is an added irony that a historian who so loved the frontier that he devoted his life to its study felt obliged to admit that the popular image the frontier has projected—or was projected for it—contributed to this outcome.
While this book was under review, the obituary of its author appeared in the press—Ray Allen Billington, 1903-1981. His death, following hard on that of his teacher Frederick Merk of Harvard, marks the passing of an era of American historiography. He was the last and most devoted apostle, as well as the biographer, of Frederick Jackson Turner, the great celebrator of the American frontier experience. Ray Billington practiced his craft with a zest and joy that he communicated to his many friends, colleagues, students, and readers. It is perfectly obvious that he enjoyed writing this book. And it is a comfort to know that he lived to see his last and best book in finished form.