River towns in the Great West
The Structure of Provincial Urbanization in the American Midwest, 1820–1870
By Timothy R. Mahoney
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print Publication Year: 1990
Online Publication Date:October 2009
Chapter DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511549915.001
In the middle of the nineteenth century the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys were considered by most travelers an essential part of any American tour. Yet, as has recently been argued, most British travelers were disoriented by the landscape they encountered. More comfortable with the traditional categories of reference for appreciating scenery, they judged the relatively featureless western landscape to be boring and uninteresting. Composed of low-relief prairies, hills, moraines, and ravines, broken occasionally by clusters or lines of trees and long, shallow, meandering rivers, only to give way to more trees, more prairie swells or flat expanses, followed by more rivers and underbrush in various combinations and seemingly endless repetition – the midwestern topography offers a landscape that can numb the mind with tedium and bring on disorientation. Repetition tends to blur out the details, and landscape, as a feature to be analyzed, is reduced to pure space, measured by the passage of time to traverse it, which often has to be endured to the point of nervous exhaustion. The symptoms, though varied, seem clear: anxiety, boredom, a vague unfocused introspection, languor, or depression. Some travelers made the best of it and stressed the hypnotic, or peaceful, sense engendered by the breadth of the landscape and its seeming stillness. Others found the solitude and quiet awe-inspiring and sensed vast natural forces at work. But such high-spiritedness, felt more often by American poets or travelers who saw practical opportunities in the land, was foreign to most and seems so forced as to appear as a rationalization to defend against the harpies of boredom.