Go East, Young Man: Imagining the American West as the Orient

By Richard V. Francaviglia. 2011. Utah State University Press. 310 pages. ISBN: 978-0874218091 (hard cover).

Reviewed by David Stanley, Westminster College, Utah

[Review length: 1097 words • Review posted on September 15, 2015]

[Cover ofGo East, Young Man: Imagining the American West as the Orient]

Richard V. Francaviglia has published at least twenty books, all of them related to the history and geography of the American West. Much of his work has focused on railroads, mining camps, and mapmaking as central topics in nineteenth- and twentieth-century western history. As professor emeritus of history and geography and former director of the Center for Greater Southwestern Studies and the History of Cartography at the University of Texas at Arlington, he is perhaps best known for his attention to region, including The Mormon Landscape, his early study of the characteristic features of the Mormon-settled areas of Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Arizona, and Colorado.

In recent years, Francaviglia has expanded his interests toward the broader cultural history and landscape of the American West. In Believing in Place: A Spiritual Geography of the Great Basin, for example, he combined his own experience of traversing the Interior West by automobile with extensive reading and analysis of exploration and travel narratives and with conversations with local residents, including Native Americans, small business owners, and other writers in an engaging depiction of spiritual sites in an arid and seemingly desolate landscape. Throughout this work and in others, Francaviglia has shown himself to be a dogged researcher who apparently has read widely in every relevant subject, from geology and climatology to fiction and film.

Such eclecticism is also evident in Francaviglia’s Go East, Young Man, throughout which he references the late Edward Said’s Orientalism (1979), a well-known postcolonial analysis of Western stereotyping, romanticization, and exoticizing of the Middle East. Francaviglia’s title, of course, picks up on the famous 1851 recommendation, “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country,” by journalist John B. L. Soule of Terre Haute, Indiana, though it’s often shortened to “Go West, Young Man, Go West” and attributed to Horace Greeley in the New York Times of 1865. For Francaviglia, the American West, in its topography, history, and culture, represents a further extension of Western Europe’s and North America’s fascination with “the Orient.” Francaviglia modifies Said’s approach, however, by seeing Orientalism in a more positive light, in keeping with nineteenth-century Romanticism. While not denying the negative aspects of Western assumptions of superiority vis-à-vis the Middle East and East Asia, Francaviglia is more interested in the web of metaphor and comparison that has viewed the American West as another version of the Orient, particularly the Middle East.

More than two-thirds of the book deals with perceptions and descriptions of the American West between about 1810 and 1920, and five of those seven chapters—on the Great Plains, the Interior West, Utah, the Southwest, and California—summarize the many parallels between the American West and the Middle East, particularly the arc from Egypt through the Holy Land to Turkey, as asserted by explorers such as John Charles Frémont and travelers such as Richard Burton. Two chapters cover Chinese and Japanese in California and the Pacific Northwest as Asia.

The final three chapters of the book deal with the last century, viewing the “Modern West” in its presumptive resemblances to both the Near and the Far East. Perhaps the most interesting chapter of all is the first of these, “Lands of Enchantment: The Modern West as the Near/Middle East,” in which Francaviglia ranges amusingly over place names, hand-colored postcards, Moorish theater design, fantasy fiction and film (including The Wizard of Oz), environmental desert art, record album covers, and, tellingly, the Las Vegas vogue for exotic design and alluring attractions, from the Oasis to the Luxor, with its giant pyramid towering over the flashing neon of the city. The author also covers extensively the ambivalence with which Northern Europeans have viewed the Middle East, with its cruel potentates and invading armies but also with its harems, sheiks, belly dancers with veils and heavy eye shadow, wandering nomads, and all the other sensuous and exotic images assigned to that region.

The result is a useful corrective to the widespread American narrative (usually called a “myth”) best exemplified by Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” The notion that American history was unique to its own topography and climate, that it was the product of a self-made and resolutely non-European culture for which Europe was, in Turner’s term, only the “germ,” is here obviated by Francaviglia’s wide sweep of subject matter that shows how frequently (and often ludicrously) visitors and observers and entrepreneurs insistently placed the American West in the context of Asia, particularly the Near East.

This is also the book’s major limitation. In centering his study on the popular literature and culture of the American West, with the inclusion of both natural landscape features and human-built design elements, Francaviglia pays little heed to the widely developed taste for the exotic that characterized cultural fads in both Europe and North America beginning in the seventeenth century. Though he mentions Richard Burton’s popularity and his “passing” as an Arab, there is no mention of Rudolph Valentino or the film The Sheik, nor of the Shriners (formally the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine) and their distinctive fezzes, nor the many sensational books written by Westerners who penetrated the palaces and harems and even religious sites of the Near East. Nor does Francaviglia cover the popularity of the religions, arts, and cultures of South and East Asia such as Swami Vivekananda’s huge impact at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, or the twentieth-century interest in Europe and North America in Eastern religions. He does spend a few paragraphs on the career of poet Gary Snyder but fails to mention the California-based popularity of Zen Buddhism fueled by the writings of D. T. Suzuki and Alan Watts. Nor does Francaviglia cover the chinoiserie and japanisme that influenced home décor, the design of public buildings, and fine arts throughout the Western world beginning in the seventeenth century. These aspects of East Asian culture were not just phenomena of the American West but reflect, along with the parallel interest in the Near East, the quest for the exotic, the sensual, and even the mystic represented by Eastern religions and made possible through the worldwide explorations of other cultures.

These limitations notwithstanding, Francaviglia’s book is of great value, particularly in its illuminating showcasing of the degree to which the American West was consistently compared to aspects of the Middle East, from desert sands and rock formations to camel caravans and mirages. These comparisons helped to establish the West as an exotic locale, markedly different from the Europe-focused eastern half of the country and having a fascination of its own.

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