History 330 Professor Emma Lapsansky (Spring, 1996)

The American West in Fact and Fiction *

The American western "frontier" has caught our imaginations in many different ways: as myth and symbol, as photograph and painting, as costume and politics, as definer and re-definer of gender and race, as technological challenge, and much more. Through individual and group readings, through discussion and bibliographical exploration, we will pursue the elusive "truth" of the American western frontier.

The basic perspective upon which the course will rest--the razor-sharp edge between "fact" and "fiction"-- seems, at first, quite obvious, but, as we progress through our discussions, the complexities implied by this perspective will become clearer.

The West is often chronicled in terms of dichotomies of "good guys" and "bad guys," (with due emphasis on the "guys"): Indians & "white" men, outlaws & law-abiding citizens, environmentalists & exploiters of the land, creative individualists & unimaginative conformists, open-range enthusiasts & fence-loving farmers, lush valley residents & the rugged desert-dwellers, the untamed/free & the civilized...

The perspective we take here is that all of these images are both myth and reality, that the "good guys" and the "bad guys" are not so easily distinguishable, (nor were they all guys) and that there is enough heroism--and enough villain-ism--to go around to all groups. It isn't always going to be easy to tell the Indians from the white men (much less from the black men, or the women from the men!), to discern the outlaws from the law-abiding citizens (more than one outlaw used skills gained in the profession of the former to became an enforcer of the laws of the latter), to comprehend the environmentalists who often decimated one portion of the land, in pursuit of the protection of another portion, etc...

The perspective with which we will operate is this: 1) that every group and/or subgroup that has participated in the drama of the unfolding of the American West-- or in the recounting of that drama--has had a particularized agenda, an idea of how its cohort might best gain from the way(s) in which the western lands were conceptualized, and used; 2) that every agenda was, at least potentially, a legitimate one, perhaps even an an altruistic or admirable one, and that every agenda has had the potential to run amok on the wheels of arrogance and shortsightedness.


The assigned reading for everyone is intentionally light (approximately 15-30 pages/wk), in order to accomplish two goals: 1) that the student should read slowly and critically, and come to class prepared to discuss not only the contents of the readings, but the implications, questions and collateral ideas raised by the readings; 2) that the discretionary readings associated with the three assignments will be broad in scope and carefully culled from the student's thoughtfully-prepared bibliography.


Course Requirements:

Grading in the course will be based upon four assignments: 1) a required bibliographic assignment (approximately 10 pages), worth 40%; 2) a group oral presentation, worth 20%; 3) an optional midterm exam, worth 30%; 4)an optional final exam, worth 30%; class paricipation, 10%. The first two assignments, and EITHER of next two assignments may be used to compute the final grade in the course. This is the student's choice. The paper will be due Monday, April 22, at 4:00 PM.

Books at the college bookstore: ***

***Do not purchase books until AFTER the first class meeting, for each book is to be bought by only 1/3 of the class.

Edward T. Hall, West of the Thirties: Discoveries Among the Navajo and Hopi. (New York, 1994)

Sandra L. Myres, Westering Women and the Frontier Experience, 1800-1915. (Albuquerque, NM, 1982)

Donald J. Pisani, To Claim a Divided West. (Albuquerque, 1992)

Assigned reading for all is on reserve in Magill Library:

(As this course will be organized topically, rather than chronologically, anyone who does not have a comfortable sense of the pivotal events/dates of American history will want to peruse the American history text which is on reserve for this course: Winthrop D. Jordan, The United States: Combined Edition.)


Course schedule, topics, assignments:

January 25 The Historians' West


February 1 The Adventurers' and Cartographers' West Reading: Sonia Bodi, "Scholarship or Propaganda: How Can Librarians Help Undergraduates Tell the Difference?" Journal of Academic Librarianship, January 1995, pp. 21-25.

February 8 The West as International Tug-of-War, 1763-1866 Reading: Thomas M. Barrett, "Lines of Uncertainty: The Frontiers of the North Caucasus" Slavic Review, (54:3), Fall, 1995, pp. 578-601.

February 15 The West as "Homeland," Part I Reading: Richard D. Brown, Modernization, the Transformation of American Life, 1600-1865. pp. 3-22.

***GROUP PROJECT DUE: Edward T. Hall, West of the Thirties.

February 22 The West as Technological Challenge Reading: Pisani, To Claim a Divided West, pp. 1-33.

***GROUP PROJECT DUE: Pisani, To Claim a Divided West, Chaps. 3 & 4.

February 29 The West of the Economy

***MID TERM EXAM WILL BE DISTRIBUTED, DUE BACK IN QUAKER COLLECTION BY 4:00 PM TUESDAY MARCH 5. This is not a "take-home" exam, but rather a "self-administered" exam, to be taken, at the student's chosen two-hour time slot, without books or notes.

March 7 The West as "Alternative Lifestyle" Reading: Mary Ellen Jones, The American Frontier: Opposing Viewpoints, pp. 187-194, 219-236.

***GROUP PROJECT DUE: Sandra L. Myres, Westering Women and the Frontier Experience, 1800-1915, Chap. 1-6.


March 21 The West as Ecological Experimentation Reading: Wilbur R. Jacobs, "Francis Parkman, Naturalist-Environmentalist Savant," Pacific Historical Review, August, 1992, pp. 341-356.

***GROUP PROJECT DUE: Pisani, To Claim a Divided West, Chaps. 5 & 6.

March 28 The West as Mythic Imagery

April 4 The West of the Family Reading: Sucheng Chan et al, Peoples of Color in the American West, pp. 143-179.

*** GROUP PROJECT DUE: Sandra L. Myres, Westering Women and the Frontier Experience, 1800-1915, Chaps. 7-9.

April 11 The Evangelists' West Reading: April 4--Max Carter, "John Johnston and the Friends...," Quaker History, 78:1, pp. 37-48.

April 18 The West as Definer of "Culture" Reading: Mary Ellen Jones, The American Frontier: Opposing Viewpoints, Chap. 6.

*** Paper due in the Quaker Collection, Monday, April 22, at 4:00

April 25 The West as "Homeland," Part II Reading: John Faragher, "Frontier Trail: Rethinking Turner and Reimaging the American West," American Historical Review, February, 1993, 106-117.

***GROUP PROJECT DUE: Pisani, To Claim a Divided West, Chaps. 7 & 8.

May 2 The West as the New Democracy Reading: Pisani, To Claim a Divided West, Chap. 9.


*Disclaimer: this syllabus is only a representation of how the course has been taught; it is not necessarily an indication of how the course will be conducted in future semesters.

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