LAND OF SAVAGERY/LAND OF PROMISE: The European Image of the American Frontier in the Nineteenth Century by Ray Allen Billington

LAND OF SAVAGERY/LAND OF PROMISE: The European Image of the American Frontier in the Nineteenth Century

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

A noted historian of the Far West studies its mythic reflections in the European mind--with mixed results. Billington (helped by his research assistants) has sifted through mountains of popular literature in half a dozen languages to find what the ""image makers"" made of the American wilderness, of settlers, squatters, cowboys and Indians, the morals, mores, politics and economics of pioneer life. The themes he traces (the Noble Savage, the Fearless Frontiersman, etc.) are familiar enough, but the details are not--who has read the novels of Gustave Aimard or the travel books of Gustaf Unonius?--and Billington weaves all this diverse material into a vast and brightly-colored tapestry. He's quick to point out the myriad distortions in the mythographers' picture (e.g., putting the Narragansets in Colorado), but the critical view he counters it with is skewed in a different way. Over against ""the disorderly West of legend,"" racked by lawlessness, dripping with blood, shamed forever by genocidal war on the Indians, Billington sets ""the orderly West of fact."" This, presumably, is the middle ground lying somewhere between the harshly dystopian Land of Savagery and the naively utopian Land of Promise. But just how orderly was this factual West? Billington's own Far Western Frontier, 1830-1860 (published in 1956) provides enough evidence to convict him here of overprotecting the region. His uncertain grasp of European social and cultural history, moreover, leads him into such generalizations as ""All save the gentry [throughout the continent!] lived not far above the subsistence level."" And what does he mean by the ""Teutonic standards"" upheld by Karl May's heroic Westmann, Old Shatterhand, etc.? Billington, as usual, writes engaging prose, but his vivid, sometimes fascinating, narrative is intellectually weak.

Pub Date: Jan. 19th, 1980
Publisher: Norton