- Of Globetrotters and Globalization
In the 1870 account of his journey through the United States, the British traveler John White made a stop in Nebraska, which he found underwhelming. But he did come away with a story sure to delight his readers back home: the case of the “scalped man of Omaha.” As White learned, the man—a fellow Briton, as it turned out—had been crossing the Plains when Indians derailed the goods train on which he was traveling. He dashed for safety while the Natives dispatched the other passengers, and yet the Indians soon tracked him down, clubbed him with an axe, and— figuring that he was dead—claimed his scalp as a prize. The intrepid Englishman had in fact survived, and once the Natives scattered, he followed the railroad tracks, soon discovering his own scalp, which had been lost in the Indians’ hasty retreat. As White explained, the man “kept his scalp in a little box [and] showed it to visitors with pride” (Wrobel, p. 2).
David Wrobel opens his book on travel writing about the West (and beyond) with this vignette, which nicely illustrates what we think we know about such accounts: namely, that they confirmed—often with more than a hint of condescension—that the trans-Mississippi was exotic and unpredictable, home to legendary figures such as Buffalo Bill Cody, and therefore unlike anywhere else on earth. But as Wrobel argues, John White was only one type of visitor to the West; during the period between 1850 and 1940, many other such sojourners (both Europeans and Americans) drew astute comparisons between the region and the wider world. It was only later, in the early decades of the twentieth century, that travelers venturing beyond the 100th meridian focused more intently on U.S. frontier exceptionalism, largely because of their anxieties about the creeping uniformity that followed in the wake of modernization. [End Page 132]
Wrobel’s argument thus speaks meaningfully to a very different book: Lynn Hunt’s assessment of the “global turn” in the professional writing of history. On the one hand, Wrobel’s travelers—especially those nineteenth-century wanderers who placed their Western experiences in a broader context—confirm Hunt’s contention that the history of globalization reaches back much farther than the early 1990s, when it became a buzzword. On the other, just as the accounts of later visitors to the West are colored by their authors’ determination to find traces of authenticity there, Hunt reminds us that scholars bring their own concerns and orthodoxies to investigations of the past. This essay explores both books on their own terms before considering Global West, American Frontier through the lens of Writing History in the Global Era.
Wrobel’s new book builds quite naturally on themes that he has explored in his two previous monographs: angst about the supposed closing of the U.S. frontier at the turn of the twentieth century, and the role of two forms of maligned and overlooked writing (booster literature and pioneer reminiscences) in shaping past as well as present understandings of the West. In the introduction to his latest book, Wrobel explains that he wants to use another set of dismissed or understudied texts—travel narratives—to chart the surprising trajectory of exceptionalist thinking about the region during the age of American empire (roughly the period between the U.S.–Mexican War and the Great Depression). In chapter one, he introduces us to the sorts of travelers who have caught his attention: Americans and Europeans, men and women, the famous and especially the forgotten. Indeed, while the artist George Catlin makes an extended appearance in this first section, Wrobel’s coverage, as he explains, “emphasizes works that warrant resurrection, or at least a closer look” (p. 8). Take, for example, Friedrich Gerstäcker (1816–72), a German writer who traveled...