The myth of American progress

The West may not represent progress, but it does represent constant flux.

 

American Progress, 1872.
Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In 1872, a publisher named George Crofutt hired a German-born, Brooklyn-based painter to illustrate his Western World magazine. John Gast’s American Progress was painted just seven years after the end of the Civil War and 24 years after the U.S. government acquired 525,000 square miles of “the West” from Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. It depicts an angelic Columbia (the feminine spirit of the United States) floating over the continent, carrying a book in one hand and a string of telegraph wire in the other, the vanguard of an advancing empire of trains, coaches, wagons, farmers, miners and horsemen. A bear, a herd of bison and numerous Indigenous Americans all flee in terror at her approach — all things wild and other to the minds of the 19th-century Anglo-Americans now barreling in from the East. The painting has become one of the most enduring images of Manifest Destiny.

Original illustration by Grace Russell, inspired by John Gast’s American Progress.

Today, most of us understand the dangers of Manifest Destiny and the fantasy it represented to would-be Westerners. But consider, too, the myth of progress it encouraged. Nearly 150 years after Gast’s painting was printed, we know that the coal smoke those trains spewed helped heat up the planet’s atmosphere, as would the cars, trucks and buses that replaced the coaches and wagons. One might regard those farmers, miners and other “pioneers” as the shock troops of an American policy of displacement and supremacy, one that ruthlessly tore other people from their land, homes and families. And those telegraph lines? Those were the precursor of the “Information Age,” the promise of a future never delivered, that now bind us with hateful tweets, endless emails, and a “social” platform for Russian agents to sow discontent across our democratic system.

Brian Calvert, editor-in-chief
Brooke Warren/High Country News

And so, for this issue’s cover, we’ve decided to give American Progress an update. The issue itself is dedicated to the idea of migration and the myriad ways it continues to reshape the American West — through the movement of people, plants, animals and ideas. The West may not represent progress, but it does represent constant flux. And these days, the biggest driver of change is not the desire for progress, but the challenge of a chaotic climate and the movement of people, from communities ignored or maligned by Gast’s work. The West is becoming a place of heat and cruelty, where families are torn apart and farmworkers wither in the fields, even as researchers desperately seek ways to save diminishing ecosystems. It doesn’t have to be, however. A better West is up
to us.

After commissioning Gast’s painting, Crofutt described it as a “beautiful and charming” depiction of America, floating West, “bearing on her forehead the ‘Star of Empire,’ ” and bringing with her the means to “flash intelligence throughout the land.” If only she’d brought decency, instead of progress.

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