The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 2003, Volume 49, Number 1
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Book Review

Matthew F. Bokovoy, Book Review Editor

The American West: The Invention of a Myth.

Murdoch, David Hamilton. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2001. vii + 136. Bibliography. Index. Paper.

Reviewed by Todd Leahy, doctoral candidate in American Indian History, Department of History, Oklahoma State University.

Americans historically have considered their nation to be unique in the world. From the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, David Murdoch attacks American exceptionalism by arguing, “The myth of the frontier was deliberately invented by an identifiable group of people who shared a specific purpose” (xii). For Murdoch, the myth of the West was a product of businessmen and politicians seeking to use the ideas of a “golden age” of America for their own gain. For their part, the American public favorably responded to the myth because of its “core values.” Paralleling America’s fascination with the West to Britain’s reverence for the mythic King Arthur, Murdoch argues that the myth of the West was created in the 1890s to resolve the contradiction between America’s past values and a future where they seemed doomed to disappear. Businessmen and politicians pinpointed the values that made America great, such as individualism, self-reliance, and a pristine sense of right and wrong. These values, they argued, had traveled from the decadent East and were resettled in the West. With the 1890 census the frontier was declared closed and Americans faced a crisis of values.

Theodore Roosevelt, Frederic Remington, and Owen Wister created the myth and used their artistry to create the West of Boone, Crocket, Carson, and Fremont. However, the person most responsible for indoctrinating the public was William F. Cody. Known to the public as “Buffalo Bill,” Cody offered a version of the western experience that Eastern audiences appreciated. Cody manipulated his shows to focus on the values of the revitalizing nature of the frontier. The popularity of the shows spoke to the responsive chord the myth struck in the public at large. Added to Cody’s image of the West were the works of Roosevelt, which gave the West a moral superiority, “in which it alone embodied the traits that had once been known in all the United States” (83). The works of Frederick Jackson Turner gave the myth academic credibility and enshrined the West in the burgeoning American university system. Turner’s favorable stance on the pioneer experience entrenched the values of individualism and self-reliance in the West. Turner and the other myth-makers ignored the fact that corporations and not individuals settled the West. Long-term, family farmers won only brief production and later sold their claims to agribusinesses. Myth-makers also had to ignore the importance of water, the West’s ethnic groups, and the role of women in the West. The myth-makers had a defined political agenda and framed the myth to support the agenda that would become Progressivism.

The myth’s staying power speaks to how well it was constructed. In the 1930s, New Deal critics attacked Franklin D. Roosevelt using the idea of exceptionalism; Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon all used the myth for political gain. Ronald Reagan made his political career by calling on and exploiting the myth with adroitness. In Hollywood cinema, John Ford’s films replaced Cody’s shows as the vehicle of American exceptionalism in the twentieth century, but both Ford and Cody were selling the same product. For the American public, Ford’s films did not reflect history. Rather, history reflected Ford’s movies.

Well-written and researched, the lack of proper notation makes this work of benefit to the general reader, but of little use to the scholar. Those concerned with ideas of American exceptionalism and the myth of the West would do well to consult David Wrobel’s The End of American Exceptionalism: Frontier Anxiety from the Old West to the New Deal. Those looking for an interesting critique of American culture and life can rely on Murdoch to deliver the same with eloquent prose that is highly enjoyable.

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