- In the Work of Their Hands Is Their Prayer: Cultural Narrative and Redemption on the American Frontiers, 1830–1930 by Joel Daehnke (review)
- Western American Literature
- University of Nebraska Press
- Volume 40, Number 4, Winter 2006
- pp. 483-484
- View Citation
- Additional Information
b o o k R e v ie w s 4 8 3 In the Work of Their Hands Is Their Prayer: Cultural Narrative and Redemption on the American Frontiers, 1830-1930. By Joel Daehnke. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003. 299 pages, $59.95/$26.95. Reviewed by Jenny Emery Davidson College of Southern Idaho, Hailey The more we study the history of Manifest Destiny ideology in the American West, the more we find it working in a remarkable range of narratives, perform ing interesting and intricate cultural functions—and, perhaps, extending its reach into contemporary forums. In In the Work of Their Hands Is Their Prayer, Joel Daehnke argues that the discourse of Manifest Destiny merges religious dreams of spiritual salvation and secular dreams of republican greatness through the imagery of redemption in a fascinating array of frontier narratives over a hundred-year period. Daehnke analyzes literary works, popular texts, and folk lore to explore how individuals negotiated their relationship with the western landscape and its evolving social structures through the form of the American Jeremiad. Redemption requires conversion, and Daehnke examines the “specific practices and behaviors” that work to convert the wild landscape of the West into a “valorized vision of a social community” (15, 13). Labor functions as a pri mary mode ofredemption, the means by which the wild landscape may be trans formed and the catalyst for forging the character of the good citizen. Whether it is women’s systems of domestic economic exchange in Caroline Kirkland’s A New Home, Who’ll Follow? (1839) or men’s rough work in the mines in Mark Twain’s Roughing It (1872), Daehnke argues that labor establishes functional (or dysfunctional) communal bonds even as it works toward achieving an imagined community ideal—the happy household, the prosperous state. But all is not toil and sweat. Appropriately, some of the most fun and engag ing sections of Daehnke’s book are his discussions of the role of leisure in the process of the national mission and the formation of individual character. He argues that “an emergent theory of play responded to the upheaval of tradi tional patterns ofAmerican life in the late nineteenth century” (158). He reads the new Yellowstone National Park as a landscape that mirrored the fire, steam, and explosiveness of a suddenly industrialized nation and provided recreation and a respite from urban centers. He sees the sport of fishing as a leisure activ ity that defined “national manhood” for the young country in connection to, but distinct from, the figure of the gentleman angler of England. In popular discourse, fishing became both a means for personal redemption through a con templative communion with nature and a means for evoking a unified vision of the white, male, American citizen. Daehnke artfully unpacks the redemptive imagery embedded in singular, crystallizing images, such as the Liberty Head silver dollar, the currency con 4 8 4 W E S T E R N A M E R IC A N L ITE R A T U R E W IN TE R 2 0 0 6 verted from Comstock silver by the underground labors of men, or the incon gruous New Mexico cathedral imagined by Father Latour in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). Such loaded images make the idea of national progress tangible, and, in today’s context of yellow ribbon car magnets and heightened religious rhetoric tied to national purpose, they prompt think ing about the ways in which the “dream of the work of redemption” continues to inform contemporary cultural narratives (256). Dorothea Lange. FILIPINO FIELD HANDS—STOOP LABOR. 1936. Gelatin silver print. 10" x 8". © Dorothea Lange Collection, Oakland Museum of California, City of Oakland. Gift of Paul S. Taylor. ...