Wednesday 16 May 2012

Love Lost and Won – an American Destiny

Westward Ho!

There is one invariable symptom of a nation entering into senescence and decline: it begins to place a negative value on the past.  Things that were once noble and good are re-examined and reappraised in the light of contemporary concerns.  Old certainties vanish as history is reinterpreted through the perspective of minorities, outsiders and victims; the losers are now the winners and the winners cover themselves in shame for past wrongs.  

With the almost complete dominance of Marxist and liberal thought through much of western academia, the process has advanced rapidly since the end of the Second World War.  Who would dare write poetry in praise of the British Empire; who would now write in the style of Rudyard Kipling, now that we are one with Nineveh and Tyre?  Lest we forget; at last we forget.

I do have a case in mind, not from British history, not from the history of the British Empire, but from the history of America.  If one were to ask what is it that defines modern America I'm sure people would answer in various ways.  For some it would be the principles of freedom and rugged self-determination dating from the Revolutionary War; for others it would be the Civil War, a cathartic moment that established a new birth of freedom; for still others it might be a more recent birth of freedom, following the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s.  

For me there is only one answer - Manifest Destiny, the history of the expansion into the West; the West itself, those plains, valleys and mountains where a new spirit was carved by courageous pioneers.  Here the old freedom was cast anew in determination, in suffering, in courage and in intrepid self-reliance.  One's destiny was in one's own hands.  There was no fallback. The price of failure was high; the price of success even higher.

But even here that process of guilt and re-evaluation has long been at work.  The history of the West began to be the history of the victims. For some those pioneers were no longer part of a great and noble enterprise but destroyers of an indigenous Eden. They came into the Red Garden; they made a desert and called it progress.

The expression of guilt took many forms, in printed and visual media.  In books we have Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a classic of re-evaluation, and 500 Nations.  In films we have Dances with Wolves.  In documentaries we have How the West was Lost and The Way West.  Stephen Aron, writing a paper for the American Historical Association, said that in scholarly circles, "the West as America" quickly became synonymous with a "new western history"; detractors claimed this history had rewritten the past as a course in "failure studies." They were quite right of course.  A new mythology was created of the noble savage and the rapacious white man. Just remember those troglodytes in uniforms at the end of Costner's epic myth-making.  

But there have been some who have made a valiant attempt to redress the balance.  I had occasion recently to recall the work of Ken Burns, the documentary film maker, whose visual history of the Civil War achieved viewing figures undreamed of for this kind of show.  He also made The West, a series in eight parts covering various aspects of a compelling story.  The task he set himself was straightforward: "For too long we celebrated a lily-white version of the West: sturdy pioneers fighting savage Native Americans," but of late "we have subscribed to a history in which the European contribution was entirely bankrupt and everything Native Americans did was perfect."

The West was broadcast here when I was in high school.  I loved it; I simply loved it. The whole thing was absolutely fascinating. How I identified with those pioneers and trail blazers, the men and women who opened up the West under the most trying conditions imaginable.  

What I loved most of all was Love!  It was touched on in episode eight, and became a leitmotiv for the whole series; it was the story of one John Love, a pioneer of Scottish descent, who, along with Ethel Waxham, his wife, established a ranch in a remote Wyoming valley. The drama of this couple’s lives was told, and movingly told, by actors reading from their correspondence.

It's heart-breaking and exhilarating at one and the same time.  They faced adversity hard upon adversity.  On one occasion a flood ruined all the improvements they had made on their Wyoming ranch.  With natural disaster came a human one, with the bank foreclosing on a loan that they had taken out to raise sheep.  Nothing daunted, John simply wrote in wry humour that it was a case of Love's labour lost, an allusion to Shakespeare’s play of the same name.  

But they rebuilt, time and time and time again, against all adversity.  Neither of them lost the taste for what Ethel called the "ranchiest of ranchy life."  It was a tale, their son later said, of all the "survivors" who stuck it out. It was a theme Burns picked up on, as Aron said in review, serving the Loves as a tribute to the grit of westerners, to the persevering spirit that allowed so many, if not to triumph over adversity, then at least to battle it to a stalemate.

That for me is the spirit of America. Life is struggle and the most important thing is to not necessarily to triumph but just to fight, fight and fight again. No state, no welfare, no handouts, just a spirit of marvellous and wonderful independence. John Love and Ethel Waxham stand for me as symbols of all that is noble in the American past, all that is noble in the frontier spirit, all that is noble in those pathfinders and trail blazers.  Their destiny was manifest; their destiny was their own.  It is an American destiny.  

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’


  1. Great post, Ana. And remember, the spirit of America, at least the old America, came largely from old England -- and I don't believe that either of 'em are dead just yet.

  2. It is hardly surprising, given my origins, that I agree with your appraisal of the values and spirit of American pioneers. And it is no accident that the infection of liberal revisionist history centers on the effete ivory towers of the left and right coasts, where huddle the degenerate scions of immigrants too timid to venture into the wilderness.

    That is not to say a close reexamination of the process of occupying the continent is without value; there is much to be learned from past errors and successes. But it is easy to see that many examples of revisionism are not about learning the truth, but creating a false version of reality to bolster current political ends. That is a very old game indeed, but not something to be admired in anyone with pretensions to scholarship.

    I am glad to say there are still bold pioneers of spirit and vision - not just in the American West, although a remarkable number still turn up here. Last night I saw an interview with the CEO of Intel, a company that has been pushing forward technological frontiers every year since its founding in 1968. Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, and Richard Branson of Virgin have each parlayed their pioneering tech fortunes into attempts to jump to new frontiers in space. The new pioneers are business and technology innovators whose ideas and products are changing the world in ways those tired social revisionists cannot even comprehend.

    1. A truly excellent summary, in the best pioneer tradition. We have to boldly go, Calvin. :-)

  3. There was Caucasian civilization in the Americas that predate the current Native Americans that migrated from Asia and displaced them, just great historical cycles. Mass immigration is cultural and racial suicide.

  4. Hey there. I actually found your piece on sex and race, and through that your blog, and have been reading up on it right now... Some thoughts - perhaps Marxist-intellectuals dominate the academia, but as an anarcho-syndicalist myself (I'm way on the lower leftmost fiddly bit of that compass!), I can't see any proof of it in society itself. I'd even go so far as to say that the whitewashing of history - that we always must have an 'aggressor' race and a pure, perfect 'defender' race (who are nevertheless stereotyped terribly in this role, example = the current view of Native Americans) when fact there are only humans seems to me an example of divide et impera, or the favorite strategy of authoritarians everywhere.

    The West sounds fantastic and as a lover of, well, Westerns, I'm amazed I've never even heard of it. Love Ken Burns, though. His biologue (is that the word? Biopic? Biography..? Anyhow-) of Huey Long was almost perfect.

    The frontiers are fantastic - but they are never gone, and never will be. To live every day is to toil, to lose, and ultimately - to survive. At least, s'way I see it, haha! Hmn. Anyway, for what it's worth as a born and blue American, I'd say what defines America is a sense of 'we can do this' a sort of stubborn, poignant optimism that appears in the face of any challenge. It has its ups and its downs, but I think on the whole its a good quality. And a time?... October 27th, 1929.

    Really enjoy your writing, it's been ages since I found a blog that caught my interest. Mind if I stick around for awhile?

    1. Satyrnalia, I would be absolutely delighted. :-)

    2. Fantastic - must say I feel the same!

  5. In many ways the frontier is the defining characteristic of the States, and that extends into Star Trek and sci fi in literature. I think Henry Nash Smith’s book Virgin Land may be of interest to you Ana.

  6. I'm definitely adding "watch The West series" to my bucket list. Awesome post, Anastasia!

    Have you heard of a show called Deadwood? I'd recommend that one simply for pure fun.

    Are you familiar with Deadwood's (a gold mining town in North Dakota) history - and ol' Wild Bill Hickok? :)