Land of Savagery/Land of Promise

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Anyone acquainted with European popular culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is aware of the enduring appeal of the American West to the European imagination. Indeed, the American West as a theme of popular literature and films is possibly more popular at present in Europe than in the United States. A visitor to Paris in the summer of 1981 might have been surprised to find that the first program he encountered on French television was an episode of the American Western series, “Wanted Dead or Alive,” followed in the evening by a showing of John Ford’s Fort Apache. In West Germany one frequently encounters showings of Yugoslavian films of the stories of Germany’s most prolific Western writer, Karl May. Anyone familiar with the history of Western films during the past twenty years also is aware that Clint Eastwood, an American, had to make spaghetti Westerns in Italy to establish himself as an international film star. With the advent of inexpensive intercontinental airline travel Europeans have begun to travel to America in great numbers and a Western tour has become one of the standard features of a European’s holiday in the United States. Not only are foreign, especially French, tourists to be found in great numbers at such popular attractions as the south rim of the Grand Canyon, but also they journey to its much less accessible north rim and to the relatively remote Bryce Canyon. Indeed, the European conception of the American character and of government policies continues to be strongly influenced by notions connected with the American West.

The study of western expansion has been an increasingly popular scholarly enterprise since Frederick Jackson Turner presented his now classic “frontier thesis” in 1893. Turner’s contention that America’s political, social, and economic evolution could be understood only in relation to the frontiering process led to a rewriting of American history and to the growing importance of the specialized study of the advance of the American frontier. As historical studies progressed it increasingly became evident that the American popular image of the West, often inaccurate and highly romanticized, was as significant in determining psychological and institutional changes as was the fact of westward expansion itself. In 1950, Henry Nash Smith, in his classic Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth, traced the impact of the West on American literature and social thought and thus on the popular imagination during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Ray Allen Billington’s Land of Savagery/Land of Promise: The European Image of the American Frontier is the ideal complementary volume to Smith’s work, tracing as it does the changing attitudes of Europeans toward the American West as a result of exposure to a plethora of Western literature, including highly popular and cheaply marketed fiction, travel accounts, guidebooks, promotional literature of railroad and land companies, letters from emigrants from Europe to the West, emigration newspapers, and propaganda circulated by state and territorial immigration agencies. These “image makers,” active throughout Western and Eastern Europe, Billington contends, created dual, often contradictory, images of the American West as a land of savagery and of promise that have fluctuated in their relative popularity during the past two centuries.

Ray Allen Billington was perhaps the foremost Western historian of his generation. Not only did he teach history for more than thirty years at Clark University, Smith College, and Northwestern University and serve as senior research associate at the Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino, California, but also he wrote some twenty-five books on the American frontier and the American West. These include his indispensable textbook for courses on the American West, Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier (1949), America’s Frontier Heritage (1966), and Frederick Jackson Turner: Historian Scholar, Teacher (1973). Land of Savagery/Land of Promise is testimony to the high regard in which Billington was held by his fellow historians for it is the outgrowth of an address he was asked to deliver before the International Congress of Historical Sciences in San Francisco in 1975. Although Land of Savagery/Land of Promise is distinctively Billington’s creation, the spadework necessary to produce a book of such tremendous scope must necessarily, as the author willingly acknowledges, be a collaborative effort.

With a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Billington began an extensive and fruitful correspondence with Americanists in Europe, enlisting their aid in finding students who could provide him with information on the massive body of popular Western literature produced and marketed in their respective countries since the settlement of the New World and translators who could provide invaluable assistance in evaluating this literature for a “linguistic illiterate.” He met with great success, discovering students and professors who energetically assisted him in his monumental task. Not only did aid come, as might be expected, from Great Britain, France, and West Germany, but scholars eager to participate in such an enterprise were readily found in Norway, Holland, Hungary, Poland, and the Soviet Union. In addition, Billington enlisted the aid of fellow American students of the West and of popular Western literature. As a result the arguments Billington advances during the course of the book are based on extensive research and are highly convincing, indeed much more so than they would have been had Billington been less linguistically humble. It must be noted again, however, that this book is uniquely Billington’s creation, for it was he who collated, interpreted, and presented the material in a vivid, fascinating manner. In the hands of a less capable literary craftsman this book would probably have been an important, but little read, scholarly study. Because of the author’s literary abilities it will, however, probably be a deservedly popular book among lay readers as well as scholars and Western buffs.

The author’s major thesis is stated in the book’s title. It is Billington’s conviction that the European public’s image of the American frontier was determined by the variety of literary accounts, nonfictional but mainly fictional and usually fanciful, to which it was exposed primarily during the nineteenth century. The picture that the image makers conveyed was essentially twofold and often contradictory...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

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Book World. XI, March 1, 1981, p. 3.

Choice. XVIII, May, 1981, p. 1330.

History: Reviews of New Books. IX, July, 1981, p. 183.

Library Journal. CVI, January 15, 1981, p. 144.

National Review. XXXIII, April 3, 1981, p. 368.

The New York Review of Books. XXVIII, June 11, 1981, p. 33.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, January 25, 1981, p. 15.

The New Yorker. LVII, April 20, 1981, p. 154.

Smithsonian. XII, May, 1981, p. 160.