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  • “No Transient Spectacle”:Bayard Taylor, Wilderness Tourism, and the Re-creation of the United States
  • James Weaver (bio)

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Rocky Mountain National Bank, Central City, Colorado Territory. Signed January 14, 1875, for $500.

All images accompanying this essay courtesy of Shawn Larson at the Denver Stock Exchange, Englewood, Colorado, The checks and certificates used during the Colorado Gold Rush often present scenes of wilderness couched in documents of economic transaction. For instance, highlighting the “wildness” and nostalgia of the western frontier, this check depicts a Native man who struggles to fend off two grizzly bears with one leg pinned beneath his horse. Such an image also provides a subtle advertisement for (as well as a clear caution against) “wilderness tourism,” reminding the check holder of the dangers and adventures still to be had in the West. However, when coupled with the images of the Independence Mine and the emerging settlement community of Denver (Colorado National Bank) which appear later in the essay, this scene also sparks a sense of urgency, as the “Old West” of rugged individuals and foreboding landscapes is being replaced by the “New West” of transcontinental railroads, corporate mining operations, and cities, prompting many to seek solace in nature—albeit as tourists rather than settlers of the wilderness.

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“Could the pencil faithfully represent this magnificent transfiguration of Nature, it would appear utterly unreal and impossible to eyes which never beheld the reality,” Bayard Taylor writes of a sunset in Eldorado, his 1850 travel narrative about the Gold Rush boom of California. “It was no transient spectacle, fading away ere one could feel its surpassing glory,” he continues (235). “I have seen the dazzling sunsets of the Mediterranean flush the beauty of its shores, and the mellow skies which Claude used to contemplate from the Pincian Hill; but, lovely as they are in my memory, they seem cold and pale when I think of the splendor of such a scene on the Bay of San Francisco” (236). As he attempts to capture the unreal beauty he witnessed in California, Taylor suggests that this natural scene implies the “surpassing glory” of a national dream now being realized. Having recently acquired California from Mexico, the United States had confirmed that it would be “no transient spectacle.” Rather, as Taylor’s chapter title asserts, California could become “the Italy of the West,” a claim that seeks to enshrine American grandeur alongside long-established scenes of European natural wonder. His favorable contrast between the splendor of San Francisco and the “cold and pale” memories of Europe invokes a national pride, one anchored first in the land itself and second in what enterprising Americans can make of that land. Taylor’s confident pronouncements of a promising national future, however, are set against a backdrop of increasing sectional tensions within the United States—tensions that would escalate over the coming decade and result in the union’s dissolution.

The fate of the nation clearly was a central concern for Bayard Taylor, and his two narratives of western travel, Eldorado: Adventures in the Path of Empire (1850) and Colorado: A Summer Trip (1867), illuminate connections among commercial development of natural spaces, sociocultural refinement of the American populace, and a concurrent extension of US imperial political power. In these works, Taylor employs his skills as a travel writer to assure his audience that they are witnessing a lasting spectacle themselves. Documenting the Gold Rush boom of California following the Mexican War and then detailing the transformations of [End Page 255] Colorado territory in the wake of the Civil War, Taylor links the surpassing glory of the nation to its magnificent transfiguration of its natural resources, insisting on the land’s capacity to restore and redirect the nation’s imperial project after the sociopolitical fractures of war. Ultimately, attending to the nuanced ways in which Taylor’s imperialist attitudes intertwine with his environmentalist sensibilities offers us a clearer understanding not just of the thematic connections between Eldorado and Colorado but also of the significant contributions Taylor made to nineteenth-century discourse about the West.

During his fifty-three-year life, Taylor came to be known—to...