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Troubled Vistas: Looking West through the Eyes of The Nation, 1870–1879

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 April 2018

English Department, Duquesne University. Email:
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This article analyzes representations of the American West in The Nation magazine during the expansionist era of the 1870s. It traces an arc of growing anxiety regarding three central issues associated with western settlement and development: institutional scientific exploration, land policy, and Indian policy. Focussing primarily on the decade in which the magazine's peak circulation and, presumably, influence coincided with important developments regarding the aforementioned issues, the essay argues that The Nation’s coverage of the West, produced and circulated within a privileged and circumscribed social sphere and deeply inflected by the priorities of capital, provides counterpoint to widely shared optimism regarding the development of the region that stood as an emblem of the nation's future.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press and British Association for American Studies 2018 

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1 Frankel, Oz, States of Inquiry: Social Investigations and Print Culture in Nineteenth-Century Britain and the United States (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 1Google Scholar.

2 Ibid., 2.


3 Price, Kenneth M. and Smith, Susan Belasco, “Introduction,” in Price and Smith, Belasco, eds., Periodical Literature in Nineteenth-Century America (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1995), 316Google Scholar.

4 Mott, Frank Luther, A History of American Magazines, Volume III (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957), 6Google Scholar. Mott's appears to be a conservative figure, as one later study estimates that the number of periodicals was higher, with a total circulation of over 10 million in 1870. See Spiller, Robert E., Thorp, Willard, Johnson, Thomas H., Canby, Henry Seidel, and Ludwig, Richard M., eds., Literary History of the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1963) 805–6Google Scholar. I have used Mott's figures, as his research appears to be the most frequently cited.

5 Bold, Christine, “Introduction,” in Bold, , ed., The Oxford History of Popular Print, Volume VI (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 4CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For more on the role of magazines in the nineteenth-century United States see Brake, Laura, Bell, Bill, and Finklestein, David, eds., Nineteenth-Century Media and the Construction of Identities (New York: Palgrave, 2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Casper, Scott E., Groves, Jeffrey D., Nissenbaum, Stephen W., and Winship, Michael, eds., A History of the Book in America, Volume III (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008)Google Scholar. For a study focussed primarily on literature in magazines see Price and Belasco Smith.

6 Useful studies of federal exploration and changing western images include Worster's, Donald A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)Google Scholar; Worster, , Under Western Skies: Nature and History in the American West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992)Google Scholar; and Worster, , Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West (New York: Pantheon, 1986)Google Scholar; as well as Wallace Stegner's classic Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Opening of the West (New York: Penguin, 1953)Google Scholar.

7 For a more wide-ranging analysis of the ideological positions represented in The Nation during the Gilded Age see Slotkin, Richard, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800–1890 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), 490–98Google Scholar. Detailed accounts of The Nation’s founding and early history can be found in Armstrong's, William A. E. L. Godkin: A Biography (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994)Google Scholar; as well as in Mott. Like Slotkin, William Cronon chronicles connections between the forces of consolidated capital and development of the West in Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991)Google Scholar.

8 Mott, 331–39. The broader circulation of these rival “quality” periodicals is consistent with the broader scope of their content, which included serialized fiction, literary essays, and, in the case of the Harper's publications, illustrations. Mott includes a considerable amount of data on circulation as well as a much fuller list of contributors in his classic study of American magazines.

9 With its contributions by, and circulation among, a relatively restricted audience of intellectual and political elites, as well as its ongoing concern with national politics, the North American Review shared some characteristics with The Nation. However, there were significant distinctions between the two. Whereas even the longest of The Nation’s featured pieces seldom ran more than several pages, and its opening section included short editorial takes of a paragraph or two, the North American Review frequently ran extended essays running thirty pages or more. Combined with the monthly publication schedule, this essay format did not lend itself to the sort of immediacy The Nation worked for in both its editorial style and its weekly publication schedule.

10 E. L. Godkin, “Notes,” The Nation, 29 June 1866, 822. Antebellum American periodicals frequently published anonymous articles, but the practice began to fall out of favor by the time of the war, and by 1868 even the tradition-bound quarterly North American Review had begun naming contributors. More on this transformation in editorial practice can be found in Mott, 19, in the section titled “Anonymity and Editorial Supervision.” I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for bringing debates over the history of author identification in the era's periodicals to my attention.

11 E. L. Godkin, “Founding Prospectus,” at

12 Adams, Henry, The Education of Henry Adams (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1918), 244CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 The Nation started as a quarto of 36 pages. The section titled “The Week” filled the first several pages, followed by the more developed editorial articles that formed the magazine's centerpiece, followed by letters to the editor. Then came several pages of book reviews, a short section on science, brief financial updates, and occasionally poetry. See Mott, 331–33, for a concise survey of the magazine's origins and format.

14 Armstrong, 94.

15 Quoted in Cohen, Nancy, The Reconstruction of American Liberalism, 1865–1914 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 17Google Scholar.

16 Quoted in Armstrong, 92.

17 Godkin, E. L., letter to Charles Eliot Norton, 30 Dec. 1865, in The Gilded Age Letters of E. L. Godkin, ed. Armstrong, William M. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1974), 70Google Scholar.

18 E. L. Godkin, “Chromo-Civilization,” The Nation, 24 Sept. 1874, 202.

19 Charles Eliot Norton, letter to E. L. Godkin, 3 Nov. 1871, quoted in Hoogenboom, Ari, Outlawing the Spoils: A History of the Civil Service Reform Movement, 1865–1883 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1961), 99Google Scholar.

20 The Nation was by no means alone in attending to the processes of western settlement and development, of course; however, its sharp focus on the challenges posed by expansion and the remarkably consistent political orientation it brought to bear on these challenges make it a particularly useful lens through which to view the ideological tensions that subtended journalistic discourse of the West during the 1870s.

21 Useful sources in tracing the rise of institutional science include Burnham, John C., ed., Science in America: Historical Selections (New York: Holt, 1971)Google Scholar; Bruce, Robert V., The Launching of Modern American Science, 1846–1876 (New York: Knopf, 1987)Google Scholar; and Dupree, Hunter A., Science in the Federal Government: A History of Policies and Activities to 1940 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1957)Google Scholar.

22 “Notes,” The Nation, 30 July 1874, 73.

23 For useful sources on the political and rhetorical contest waged over the role of institutional science in the development and management of arid western lands see note 6.

24 See, for instance, the magazine's highly favorable review of King's U.S. Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, 6 June 1878, 378.

25 “Who Shall Direct the National Surveys?” The Nation, 21 May 1874, 328.

26 Ibid.


27 Review of Dictionary of Elevations and Climactic Register of the United States, by J. M. Taner, The Nation, 9 April 1874, 240.

28 “The Proposed Reform of Our Land and Scientific Surveys,” The Nation, 9 Jan. 1879, 27–29.

29 Ibid., 27.


30 “The Farmer's Future,” The Nation, 22 Jan. 1874, 55–56.

31 Ibid., 56.


32 See The Nation’s review of Charles Francis Adams's Railroads: Their Origin and Problems, 29 Aug. 1868, 134.

33 “Poor's Railroad Manual,” The Nation, 22 Aug. 1872, 125–26.

34 “Railroad Investments,” The Nation, 15 Aug. 1872, 102–3, 102.

35 Ibid., 103.


36 Jefferson's Secretary of War, Henry Knox, had instituted a policy of conciliation that was premised upon Indian land rights and the possibility that Indians could be successfully “civilized” and integrated into the American agrarian economy. For closer analysis of Knox's Indian policy see Carr, Helen, Inventing the American Primitive: Politics, Gender and the Representation of Native American Literary Traditions, 1789–1936 (New York: New York University Press, 1996)Google Scholar.

37 Useful histories of Indian policy and the 1871 Act in particular include Francis Prucha, Paul, The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986)Google Scholar; and Dippie, Brian, The Vanishing American: White Attitudes and U.S. Policy (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1991)Google Scholar.

38 A thorough analysis of analogies between race and class in nineteenth-century America can be found in Slotkin, The Fatal Environment.

39 “The Week,” The Nation, 16 July 1874, 33.

40 “The Week,” The Nation, 26 Nov. 1874, 341.

41 “The Week,” The Nation, 10 June 1875, 386.

42 “The Week,” The Nation, 1 July 1875, 2.

43 Ibid.


44 Slotkin, 492–93.

45 “The Recent Change in the Indian Bureau,” The Nation, 17 Aug. 1871, 100.

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