WITNESSES TO A VANISHING AMERICA: The Nineteenth-Century Response by Lee Clark Mitchell
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WITNESSES TO A VANISHING AMERICA: The Nineteenth-Century Response

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KIRKUS REVIEW

There's more fire here than the tepid title would suggest: Mitchell's ""vanishing America"" is the slaughtered Indians and stifled native cultures, the wantonly butchered animals and devastated landscapes, the paradise(s) lost to greedy settlers and Manifest Destiny. The ""witnesses"" were a vocal, but largely unheeded, prophetic elite--novelists, painters, anthropologists, Army officers, and travelers of every description--who decried those horrors and tried to stem them or at least snatch something from the inevitable wreck. There is, in a way, nothing new to Mitchell's story: we're familiar with Thoreau's case against modernity, New-England style; with Catlin's pictures of life among the doomed Mandans; with Melville's and Twain's qualms over ""civilization""; with the careers of Frank Cushing, John Wesley Powell, Franz Boaz, and others; with Schoolcraft's tomes and Edward Curtis' photographs. But Mitchell has done something much more valuable than simply assemble this (surprisingly large) chorus to rehearse their sad complaint. He's shown, in exceptional detail, how deeply certain 19th-century Americans were haunted by what we sometimes think of as a characteristically late-20th-century perception--that our history is, at bottom, a tragedy, and that we ourselves (variously defined) are the villains of the piece. This is a conviction that Mitchell clearly shares, and so he's traced in effect, the intellectual-ethical pedigree of everyone who believes, as he does, that the culture of white America has been ""weighed, measured, and found wanting."" Mitchell writes cogently, if not with special eloquence, but his enormous documentation (his footnotes alone constitute a sort of sprawling archive) more than takes up any stylistic slack. A major contribution to American studies.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1981
Publisher: Princeton Univ. Press