American West—A Historiographical Survey

Authored by: John William Nelson

The Routledge History of the Twentieth-Century United States

Print publication date:  May  2018
Online publication date:  May  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138892071
eBook ISBN: 9781315709345
Adobe ISBN:


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I grew up watching John Wayne westerns with my father. Even now, as I think about the twentieth-century West, my mind inevitably reverts to Big Jake, a 1971 John Wayne movie set along the Mexican border in 1909. The film is unusual in that, unlike most westerns, it takes place in the early twentieth century on the verge of a new era in the West. The movie opens by juxtaposing historical photographs from a refined eastern seaboard with those from a more rugged western landscape. Images from the east depict scenes of cultural and economic progress—bustling cities, opera performances, flourishing sports and leisure, while to the west viewers catch glimpses of dangerous cattle drives, squalid mining camps and dead outlaws laid out in the streets. Through this opening montage, a booming voiceover asserts the enduring distinctiveness of the West as a region. Yet, as the drama of the film plays out, the viewer senses that in the dawning of the twentieth century, even this western world was changing.

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