- Catlin's Lament: Indians, Manifest Destiny, and the Ethics of Nature
George Catlin devoted his entire life to the preservation of American Indian material objects and to the protection of the American landscape. Often his efforts at preservation rebelled against popular nineteenth-century notions that declared the American Indian and the environment as sure casualties in the name of the nation's progress. In Catlin's Lament, John Hausdoerffer investigates George Catlin's personal viewpoints concerning westward expansion, American Indian removal, and the eradication of the natural landscape. Hausdoerffer explains that his monograph analyzes "the tenuous relationship between conscious ethical intentions and the unexamined cultural ideologies of George Catlin" (19). Hausdoerffer chose Catlin because of the artist's objection to nineteenth-century environmental and racial ideologies regarding the treatment of the American landscape as well as the American Indians, respectively. At the same time, Catlin's work (paintings, writings, a "wild west" show) involves stereotypical tropes of the American Indian, illustrating his partial "consent" of nineteenth-century ideology. Hausdoerffer's monograph attempts to flesh out the reasons for Catlin's contradictory ideas.
Hausdoerffer structures his book into five "snapshots" of Catlin's unexamined assumptions: his decision to devote his artistic and literary talents to American Indian environments and cultures; his journey west to document "vanishing" lifestyles; a critique of Catlin's presentation of the western frontier; Catlin's exhibitions of his work in European cities, such as his "wild west" show; and the effects of his death as well as his desire to found a national park (posthumously created as Yellowstone) on the American public. Hausdoerffer explains that Catlin viewed the commodification of nature as problematic simply because of the destruction such capitalistic ventures wrecked on the environment as well as the American Indians who inhabited these landscapes. While Catlin's objection illustrates his amazing foresight concerning the environment, at the same time, Catlin does not recognize the possibility of American Indian survival, thus demonstrating his reliance upon the Vanishing Indian trope, a commonality in nineteenth-century thinking.
Despite the precariousness of Catlin's position regarding the American Indians, Hausdoerffer does not attempt to glorify or vilify any of Catlin's ideological [End Page 226] assumptions. Rather, he examines them in order to understand the complexities of the nineteenth century as a whole. Hausdoerffer explains that, "Rather than a moral judgment of Catlin, this analysis indicts the logic of domination that engulfed a formative era in U.S. history—to the point that it reduced even its most visionary critics to participants in consensus" (159). In other words, because Catlin's work embodied both consent and objection to American notions of race and modernization, his achievements illustrate that even the most freethinking, liberal-minded person cannot completely separate his/her belief system from the dominant society, in this case, the American nineteenth century.
Hausdoerffer gracefully demonstrates his main argument concerning Catlin's intertwining notions of consent and objection through convincing examples taken from the artist's writings about Indian removal and his paintings of famous figures such as Dewitt Clinton and Black Hawk. The most apt example of Catlin's objection to nineteenth-century thinking emerges through his depiction of the West. Rather than portray the American West as an inviting pastoral region completely devoid of native inhabitants, Catlin reveals the conflicted landscape by juxtaposing open fields with industry and civilization. Although Catlin deplored the abuse of nature because of a budding American fixation on modernization, his opinions concerning American Indians repeatedly follow a less egalitarian route. When Catlin wanted to add Mandan religious artifacts to his collection despite the tribe's rejection of the idea, for example, he collected the artifacts anyway. Similarly, in his "wild west" show, Catlin displayed American Indians as a spectacle for the amusement of Americans and Europeans alike. For Hausdoerffer, the root of this contradiction lies within the pressures applied by the white dominant culture on all members of nineteenth-century American society, whether these members realized it or not.
Catlin's Lament thus illuminates how difficult it...