The symbol of the book and the adventure of writing the American West, 1803--1893

Date of Completion

January 2004


Literature, American




Within narratives of imperial adventure and exploration, books and writing instruments are vital cultural symbols that signal the introduction of a new language of power and an “enlightened” set of beliefs and practices into the “savage” locale. This study contends that the book is a preeminent symbol of empire and embodies the colonial desire to discover, map, and rationalize other lands and other peoples. Although the book tends to function as stabilizing symbols of progress and cultural knowledge, the violent process of writing over other languages and other histories also imprints books with ambiguous symbolic values. ^ In order to analyze the evolution of the book as a colonial symbol, I have broken it down into three corresponding valences: the book as archetypal icon, material object, and figure of speech. And in order to contextualize the development of this symbol, I analyze it within the specific colonial context of the nineteenth-century American West. The conquest of the American West was, at one level, a “literary pursuit,” to borrow Jefferson's phrase. However, it was also a reader-driven enterprise, through which travelogues, poems, novels, ethnographies, paintings, and maps textually produced “the West” for consumption in the East. To argue that the West had to be written in order to be conquered, and conquered in order to be written, is to suggest the primacy of the book—as both a conductor of knowledge and as a symbol of that knowledge—in the invention of the West and ultimately the invention of the nation. ^ Part I of the study focuses on the genealogical development of the symbol of the book in two generic contexts: the evolution of the book as an icon in the visual arts, and its contiguous evolution in the American Western. Parts II and III examine more closely the contextual relationships between the symbol of the book and its cultural, political, and historical situation in the nineteenth-century American West. Part II is a case study of America's first professional novelist, James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851), and Part III focuses on the artist and self-proclaimed “true historian” of the Indian, George Catlin (1796–1872). ^