The West as America is a collaborative project, a collection of essays on the American West. More specifically, the contributors to this collection analyze images, both popular and obscure, in an attempt to reshape the way in which westward expansion in America has been perceived.
The mid to late 19th century was a period of westward expansion in the America. It was also a time when America was reshaping its identity. Up to this time it had been largely perceived as a frontier nation, an area characterized by vast tracts of wilderness and open land. This availability of land is what attracted settlers to the New World in the 1600s. Two hundred years later, and most of America remained wilderness, but this was about to change. The idea of progress began to be used to define America. Tangible changes were taking place to the landscape, but this idea of progress was also something that was meticulously cultivated on many levels.
The idea of the West was something that had to be sold. According William H. Truettner, who is a senior curator at the National Museum of American Art and the editor of this book, guidebook writers played a large role in this selling of the West. Other writers contributed to this process of marketing the West, such as biographers, newspaper contributors, and government officials. In a guide published in 1857, the author poses the question, “If we boast of our own works of improvement in the West have we not on hand a thousand proofs to sustain us?” He then proceeds to list some of these proofs. This idea of progress becomes part of the definition of America during the 19th century.
The contributors to this collection challenge their readers to look past the composition and color of paintings and pictures, and find the deeper historical meaning in pieces of art. Elizabeth Broun, the Director of the National Museum of American Art, argues that 19th century artists portrayed westward expansion as the manifest destiny of America. The beauty of the West—its landscapes and animals—were regularly depicted by artists, but other aspects of frontier life were not as commonly used. The hardships of frontier life, the bleakness of the winters, and the almost complete destruction of Native American cultures, and severely underrepresented in the painting and pictures of the American West.
An image can be interpreted in a number of different ways, and it is one of the jobs of the historian to make sure that images do not present an inaccurate representation of the past. As William H. Truettner states that the point of this collection of essays was “to dispel traditional ideas about images of the West, to place them in a new context designed to question past interpretations.” Images can be extremely powerful tools for learning, but the proper interpretation is paramount to a correct understanding of the past.