"To prove the correctness and authenticity of my statements": Solomon Nunes Carvalho's Revision of the Western Travel Narrative.

Author:Hoberman, Michael
Position:Daguerreotypist - Critical essay

Introduction: Carvalho's Domestication of the Frontier Landscape

Solomon Nunes Carvalho was thirty-eight years old when he accepted John C. Fremont's invitation to undertake a midwinter crossing of the Far West from Kansas to California as the expedition's official daguerreotypist. (2) The famous explorer's achievement of safe passage through the worst imaginable conditions in the western wilderness would ascertain the viability of his proposed transcontinental railway route and enhance his prospects as a political figure on the national stage. (3) While Fremont was an old hand at wilderness exploration, Carvalho was an urbane scion of the Jewish middle class, unschooled in the art of outdoor survival. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, he had spent most of his youth in Philadelphia and Baltimore. By the mid 1850s his daguerreotype studios in those cities, as well as in Charleston and New York, had earned him sufficient renown to gain Fremont's notice. Despite his urban upbringing and the fact that he was "accustomed to the luxuries that were part of his heritage as a Jewish grandee," Carvalho possessed a plucky spirit. (4) As a writer, however, he went out of his way to avoid drawing attention to his own accomplishments. Without acquiring its more imperious elements, he managed to imbibe the ego-diminishing aspects of his era's Transcendentalist ethos. (5) Perhaps this was because he employed its aesthetic principles without brandishing its attendant political ideologies. By reputation, frontier adventure stories exaggerated their protagonists' triumphs over topographical adversity. Carvalho made his mark on the literature of the American West by maintaining a low profile and emphasizing the accomplishments of others. His greatest innovation as a writer was the emphasis he placed on the tenuousness of his accomplishments and of his own authority as a chronicler of a gargantuan and sublimely beautiful landscape. In his "fascinating and complex ethnographic profiles of the people he met," which highlighted the humanity of his diverse subjects, he operated outside the norm of American letters. (6)

Instead of indulging the grandiosity that readers associated with transcontinental travel, Carvalho's 1857 book, Incidents of Travel and Adventure in the Far West, emphasized the complex social interactions that shaped his experiences in the wilderness. "In the heyday of imperialist expansion and acquisition," as Rachel Rubinstein has pointed out, Carvalho's representations of the Native Americans he met on the prairie, the Mormons he later encountered in Utah, and the polyglot members of the expeditionary party, were "curious, absorptive, willing to suspend judgment, self-mocking, and self-effacing." (7) No matter how wild and remote the immediate physical surroundings were, he understood and welcomed the presence of human institutions wherever he encountered them. Carvalho's having done so was commensurate with the wider historical pattern of Jewish acculturation to the Americas. The earliest Jews to travel to the Far West were not escapees from civilization. Whether they worked as storeowners, ranchers, or elected officials, Jews acted as agents of order. In the midst of an ever shifting and dynamic social geographical milieu, as Jeanne Abrams writes, "pioneer Jews in communities throughout the west were generally viewed as a stabilizing influence that upheld morality and order in new settlements as well as bringing a measure of culture to the rough frontier." (8) While it purported to be a tale of adventure, Solomon Carvalho's Incidents gave voice to this stabilizing impulse.

By the year of his birth in 1815, several generations of Solomon Nunes Carvalho's family had established a pattern of seeking an orderly existence in waypoints of civilization. Refugees from the Inquisition, they made their homes first in Amsterdam and then in London, where his grandfather and namesake had been born in 1743. Solomon's father, David Carvalho, had spent eight years in Barbados before leaving that island for the bustling Jewish community of Charleston in 1811, where he was one of the founders of the New World's first Reform congregation. While he never referred overtly to his Judaic heritage in the course of his narrative, Carvalho's representation of the Far West reflected this diasporic perspective. (9) Its attention to the experience of a frontier landscape was hardly anomalous. As Bryan Edward Stone writes, all of "Jewish history is ... a story of confrontation at the margin." (10) Rather than describing the frontier environment as an extreme milieu in which humans acted the part of strangers, however, Carvalho chose to write about it as a sphere for ordinary (and sometimes extraordinarily decent) human behavior. As a historically "displaced people," Jews have been all the more willing and able to "turn space into place"--in other words, to normalize liminal sites. (11) In contrast to a prevailing tendency in the literature of the antebellum Far West to project the idea of individual triumph onto an intimidating landscape, Carvalho's Incidents domesticated its subject matter by concentrating its attention on the insights that time spent in the wilderness afforded into the complexity of human interactions. By deemphasizing its author's individual accomplishments, his book addressed the challenges inherent in the depiction of a geography whose very scale exceeded most readers' standards of credibility.

Decentering an Individualistic and Hyperbolic Tradition

Carvalho's emphasis on the social component of the Fremont expedition set his approach apart from the dominant strain in nineteenth century treatments of the frontier experience, which eagerly embraced the notion that escape from more densely populated areas offered a future free from behavioral restraints. Early explorers of the region, most notably Lewis and Clark, drew attention to the cooperation and group solidarity that were necessary to their collective survival. The rise of popular press heroes like Davy Crockett and Mike Fink by the 1830s, however, reshaped the discourse of frontier exploration in the image of the unfettered self. Against the backdrop of Manifest Destiny, the dominant mode in mid-nineteenth-century American depictions of such places was mythological, not historical in its conception. Accordingly, as Richard Slotkin explains, in the literature of the American West "the complexities of social and historical experience [were] simplified and compressed into the action of individuals." (12) As Huckleberry Finn announced, "the territory" was the place he planned to "light out for" in flight from his aunt's and others' attempts to "sivilize" him into acquiescence with its outmoded rules of engagement. According to this same individualistic formulation, in instances in which its remoteness enforced a state of depravity the wilderness inspired people to act on their basest, most ancient instincts. Consider, for instance, Harriet Beecher Stowe's depiction of Uncle Tom's journey on "a wide forsaken road" to Simon Legree's plantation in deepest Louisiana. Tom's passage "through dreary pine barrens, where the wind whispered mournfully" and "doleful trees rising out of the slimy, spongy ground hung with wreaths of funereal moss" was indicative of his new master's having left Christendom for a state of absolute barbarity. (13)

The erasure of history, implying as it did the erasure of the complicating presence of Native Americans and other non-Anglo populations throughout the trans-Mississippi West, resulted in Twain, Stowe, and a host of other chroniclers of the western experience configuring and describing wild places as cultural vacuums that privileged the individual and negated the importance of communitarian impulses. Men in the Davy Crockett mold who could "whip their weight in wildcats" had little interest in finding common cause with one another, let alone affirming modes of civilized behavior. Legends about these prototypical American superheroes purveyed two hyperbolic constants: a larger-than-life landscape and an all-powerful conqueror who was up to the task if not of taming it then at least of surviving passage through it. The stories associated with these men also abandoned all pretense of believability. Jim Bridger's description of Yellowstone's "Obsidian Cliff" was a case in point. According to his testimony, its composition from telescopic glass had fooled him into thinking that an elk positioned twenty-five miles in the distance would fall to his rifle shot. (14)

The defining element in such dominant nineteenth century American representations of the frontier experience was dialectical: the novelty of its geographical separation inspired its inhabitants' tendencies either to abandon the legacy of pre-existing social arrangements altogether or to revert to a state that enforced primitive hierarchies. Carvalho ignored this dialectical condition. Within a wider milieu that often ascribed to the wilderness the transcendent power not only to erase history but also to rejuvenate (or corrupt) individuals, his book about the Far West diminished the significance of single persons and engaged the highly contingent and often peculiar historical implications that were entailed by the collective settlement of new places. As an author, he did his best to domesticate its wildest prospects through the expression of humanistic, and sometimes theological, sentiments. In so doing, he created a centrifugal counter-narrative to the notion of the United States as a quintessential "'frontier' settler nation" dominated by rampant individuals. (15)

As Dalia Kandiyoti points out, since the United States itself was "founded on the erasure of the story of conquest and empire," it is no wonder that "the fiction of available land as a basis of national feeling" would come to "define the mission of the 'classic' American author." (16) The literary record of...

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