(from the California
The American West: The Invention of a Myth
By David Hamilton Murdoch
(University of Nevada Press, Reno, NV, 2001,
148 pages, paperback, $19.95)
Reviewed by Ruth E.
Independent Scholar, San Francisc
If the author of this
book was following the mid-19th-century advice to young men to “go west,” he
got lost. He assumes in his Preface that it is whatever is “west of the
Mississippi.” It takes only a glance at a map to see that this area is not
an entity. However, in his “west” something called a “frontier experience”
somehow turned into an idea which somehow turned into an image which now has
the force of myth. His very good question is how this happened.
Briefly, once the idea of
“the west” captured their imaginations, a few people in entertainment
industries, including publishing, found a way of making money and a few
politicians found a way of advancing their careers by riding images of the
west into people’s minds.
Murdoch is especially
interested in western movies and has been so since his childhood, he tells
us. Readers can see the child-become-professor (he teaches at the University
of Leeds) illustrating his lectures with film clips and slides. These would
give the lectures entertainment value. But the lectures lose that value on a
printed page when a writer gets lost on his way to the dictionary, as
Murdoch does with the word “concatenation,” which he evidently fell in love
with somewhere but still misspells and misuses. Murdoch could also learn
from a trail guide to American history. Introducing business activity after
World War I, he says “an economic boom...lasted for nearly twenty years.” I
cannot imagine how he escaped the stock market crash and the first eight
years of the Great Depression, especially in view of the fact that a lot of
people tried to escape the tribulations of these years by going to the
The publishers may have
intended for the book to be used as a supplementary textbook in the
increasingly popular courses on the American west in colleges and
universities. It would have helped, however, to hand it first to a copy
editor. Murdoch attempts a smooth and sometimes humorous writing style, but
he is also able to write “American’s” when he means Americans.
Students and other
readers would best be served by being sent directly to the sources of the
ideas Murdoch conveys.