Date of Degree
David S. Reynolds
American Literature | American Studies
annexation, borderlands, American West, transnational, emigration
Anxieties of Incorporation: U.S. Territorialization and the Western Imaginary from the Louisiana Purchase to Moby-Dick investigates the impact of territorial expansion on authorial constructions of the continental west during the first half of the nineteenth century. As both a geophysical reality or an imagined space, the west functions as a site in which American writers negotiated their ambivalence over the promises and perils of continental aggrandizement and global imperialism. This project examines representative texts by James Fenimore Cooper, Francis Parkman, Susan Shelby Magoffin, and Herman Melville. In so doing, this dissertation traces how the western imaginaries these Anglo-American authors fashioned register their own and a nation’s fears over the actual or potential incorporation of foreign populations into domestic space through annexation or cession, as well as anxieties over the emigration of diverse regional and borderland populations into newly opened western territories. What emerges is a genealogy of U.S. territorial expansion during this period that unsettles conceptions of an east to west trajectory of nation building and the creation of an American west in the national and cultural imaginary. I argue that the western imaginaries these authors construct are shaped by sociocultural and historical forces arcing from a Latinidad south and by local realities of Native sovereignty, both of which disrupt nationalist fantasies of unity and anti-imperialism.
Employing narrative tactics such as stalling, elision, denial, and nostalgia, each of these authors works to forestall the ramifications of expansion, even as their western imaginaries also expose the difficulty of maintaining any singular narrative of U.S. exceptionalism. In my analysis of Cooper’s tale The Prairie, I locate how both the history and population of the Gulf south, as well as Americans emigrating to western borderlands, ultimately form an unsettling western imaginary that disrupts his and a nation’s vision for a transcontinental future. Framing Parkman’s western adventure The Oregon Trail within its historical context, I argue that his efforts to enclose the indigenous west in a fantasy of an eastern past, only reinforces his and other’s anxieties over territorialization, while pointing directly to the intra- and transnational realities in the present that spark those fears. Magoffin’s Travels in Mexico, Commencing June 1846: El Diario de Doña Susanita Magoffin (more commonly known by editor Stella M. Drumm’s 1926 title Down the Santa Fe Trail and Into Mexico) enacts and foregrounds the anxieties that will attend the incorporation of Mexican populations into the nation following the Mexican-American War, even as her journal also reveals the cultural permanence of those long-standing communities. Turning to Melville’s Moby-Dick, I explore the ways in which his engagement with frontier figures and imagery reveals the dichotomous interplay between a nostalgic vision of the continental west as a forge for democratic ideals and the reality that those exceptionalist narratives formed the basis of a recursive and aggressive imperialist agenda playing out in the contemporaneous maritime world.
Taken as case studies, by foregrounding trajectories and histories not normally associated with standard conceptions of the geophysical entity of the American west in U.S. territorial expansion, this study offers a way of reading these or similar Anglo-American texts within the context of scholarship in borderlands, Latinx, and related studies which call for a reorientation away from nation-based frameworks of analysis. At the same time, understanding the reasons why authors in the nineteenth century fashioned the west in the ways they did, not only illuminates contemporaneous reactions towards expansion, but is also relevant to our own time of marked regional differences and anxieties over borders and ‘foreign’ populations living both within and outside of national space.
Meckley, Diana, "Anxieties of Incorporation: U.S. Territorialization and the Western Imaginary from the Louisiana Purchase to Moby-Dick" (2019). CUNY Academic Works.