Will the real West please stand up?

  • American Progress moves West

    Denver Public Library, Library of Congress
  Review by Joe B. Stevens

We live by myths, by the stories we tell. If these are flawed, we're in trouble. Writers such as the late Wallace Stegner have offered convincing arguments that many of our stories are flawed, that what we think is real gets confused with what we want reality to be. An exhibit in Denver, called The Real West, offers us some help in straightening this out.

The exhibit at the Denver Art Museum, the Colorado History Museum and the Denver Public Library is organized around icons such as the tipi, adobe church and fort. Viewing is aided by eye-level narrative statements that are pithy and more informative than the exhibits themselves, and surely inspired by Patricia Nelson Limerick, author of The Legacy of Conquest, as well as other consultants.

The most effectively developed icon is the Rocky Mountains, since artists have formed and reinforced our images of the West with powerful works like Albert Bierstadt's Estes Park, a 15-by-8-foot oil on canvas. Compare this with the view offered by an 1870s stereograph to see the artist's overstatement.

The exhibit pulls some punches. Four icons - cowboy, gold, windmill, Main Street - are the least effectively developed. They are accompanied by the same materials - the saddle, lariat, chuckwagon - that helped create and sustain those images The Real West purports to re-examine.

We're told the windmill is the most easily recognized symbol of a popular myth: "that of a tranquil agricultural setting where a rugged pioneer's work is rewarded with fulfilled dreams." But observers should also be told about the homestead as false promise: Only about a third of homestead claims could be "proved up," and more land was sold to settlers by the railroads than was homesteaded.

The Main Street icon is nearly all about Denver, but it might also have told us about the changes in farming, mining and lumbering that have eroded the vitality of many small towns. We might also have learned about Denver's thirst, which has led it to reach to rural areas over the Rockies. The statement that "The West's scarce water resources are jealously guarded and coveted," is a bald cop-out. The topic is better covered in another museum exhibit just outside The Real West exit, a display titled "The Battle Over Water: A State Divided."

My favorite exhibit item is American Progress, an 1882 painting by John Gast that features Dame Progress as a buxom blonde in a long gown, levitating above ground while stringing telegraph wire into the West. Aside from the question of how she manages to keep her gown up, there is little uncertainty about the meaning of this work of art. All the action is from right to left, from east to west, from civilization toward manifest destiny. The wild animals and Native Americans are retreating, the cowboys and miners are advancing, and Thomas Jefferson's yeoman farmers are close behind.

But something is missing from this painting - the Chamber of Commerce. A key icon is missing from the exhibit itself, an icon that would reflect the economic boosterism that sold railroad town sites to settlers and that now sells mountain home sites to urban expatriates. Two other icons might also have been included: the ski lift and the condo.

If The Real West wants us to re-examine our myths and revise our stories, it needs to recognize the present as well as recapture the past. This might change the role of libraries, art museums and historical societies, but we need all the help we can get.

For more information about The Real West exhibit, which may be viewed until Sept. 15 in Denver, call 303/640-4433.

Joe B. Stevens is a natural resource economist at Oregon State University.