- Go East, Young Man: Imagining the American West as the Orient
In the preface in Go East, Young Man: Imagining the American West as the Orient, Richard V. Francaviglia describes how an article he had been planning to write on the phenomenon of Orientalism in American West turned into a book. This admission hints at both the principal strength and weakness of Go East, Young Man: Francaviglia has amassed an impressive amount of evidence showing an under-appreciated and under-examined stream of American thought; however, he has not quite succeeded in putting together a coherent narrative that can be carried throughout the entire book.
Francaviglia distances himself from Edward Said's highly influential book, Orientalism, and its critique of European colonial projects in Asia and North Africa. Although Francaviglia occasionally uses terms like "imperial nostalgia" (62), Go East, Young Man is primarily a book about personal experiences for visitors to the American West rather than a critique of culture and political power. Indeed, much of Francaviglia's inspiration for writing the book came from being reminded of the landscape of Southern California's Mojave Desert—with its date palms and a community called Mecca—while visiting Israel. Francaviglia contends that the Holy Land and North Africa held a special fascination for travelers of the nineteenth-century [End Page 321] American West, which he shows through such evidence as Mary Austin Holley calling Texas "a land of milk and honey" (51) and in John C. Frémont naming Pyramid Lake, Nevada, after the famed structures in Egypt. The author shows this fascination most vividly in Go East, Young Man's strongest chapter, which is on Mormon Utah. Here, an oppressed religious minority that found a home on the arid shores of the Great Salt Lake obviously felt a great affinity for the Biblical Jews of Egypt and believed they had found their own sacred ground.
Francaviglia's Orientalism is a much broader concept than just comparison to the Middle East and North Africa, though. His evidence is not limited merely to travel accounts or explorers' journals. The second half of the book is devoted largely to visions of the Far East (especially China and Japan), and throughout the book, he marshals an impressive array of evidence from such sources as paintings, postcards, Hollywood films, political cartoons, architecture, and fiction. Much of the visual evidence is beautifully reproduced in color images, giving Go East, Young Man an aesthetic appeal not often found in academic texts.
Unfortunately, with such a broad argument and such an array of sources focusing on a diverse set of locations from the Mississippi River to the arid Southwest to the humid Northwest, the book is not very cohesive. The chronology can be confusing at times. The book is best read in segments rather than taken as whole. And with cities like New Canaan, Connecticut, and Lebanon, Tennessee, dotting the American landscape, one has to wonder why Francaviglia believes Orientalism in the United States is a special feature of the American West rather than a trans-regional phenomenon. However, he has succeeded extremely well in highlighting an important way Americans have understood their landscapes throughout the last two hundred years.