Rural Myths and Urban Realities

(Chapter 13 of The Utopia Thieves)

A FEW years ago I came across an old-time book called Western Wilds, by J. H. Beadle.

More fully, Western Wilds, And The Men Who Redeem Them: An Authentic Narrative, Embracing An Account Of Seven Years Travel And Adventure In The Far West, first published in 1877.

Through his book, Beadle calls the territories he roamed the ‘far West’, and only uses the phrase ‘wild West’ in the very last paragraph, as if to leave the world with a new coinage, though in reality he wasn’t the first to use it:

For another class there is comfort. Poet and romancer, as well as hunter and tourist, have lamented that in so short a time the wild West would be a thing of the past; that soon all would be tame, dull and common-place. Let them be reassured. The wild West will continue wild for centuries. There will be a million square miles of mountain, desert, rock and sand, of lonely gorge and hidden glen, of walled basin, wind-swept canyon and timbered hills, to invite the tourist, the sportsman and the lover of solitude. . . .

Now, the really interesting thing is that Beadle wasn’t only one of the several originators of the phrase Wild West but also one of the originators of the ‘100th meridian’ idea, more usually associated with John Wesley Powell. That is to say, the physical reality which lies behind the romance of the last paragraph of Western Wilds:

To sum up: at least nine-tenths of America between longitude 100° and 120° seem to me irredeemable (for agriculture) by any art now known to man. (Western Wilds, p. 126)

The reason that we did not need to worry about such a landscape being spoilt, Beadle contended, was not just that it couldn’t easily be farmed, but also that, as a knock-on consequence, it probably wouldn’t ever support a large city population either.

At the time of his writing, each of the territories of the far West contained only a few tens of thousands of people. The most populous, Utah, was thought to have all of one hundred thousand inhabitants.

Beadle argued that populations this small equated to mere suburbs of cities further east, “and nothing like the wealth or intelligence of a first-class county in Ohio.”

“Important political consequences follow,” he added. While the far West’s population would probably increase in the future, it would likely remain sparse in most places as compared to the East. To admit such territories as Wyoming to full statehood without reform of the Senate would result in a huge gerrymander, handing political power to whatever faction controlled the far West.

Colorado and Arizona are quite populous these days, to be sure. But other far-Western states, such as Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas, are not. On the whole, far-Western statehood under existing rules of representation has amounted to a gerrymander in the Senate, of the kind that Beadle predicted.

Such long-forgotten but still-relevant arguments gives us pause for thought, in ways that go beyond their immediate political significance.

For, almost 150 years later, we are still accustomed to thinking of settler societies, colonisation, and the frontier as essentially rural, agrarian and inland in nature.

The most typical inhabitant of a New World settler population, we suppose, is some kind of out-settler who, as it’s been said, can barely see the smoke from a neighbour’s chimney.

Indeed, rurality is often seized upon as an identity-marker not only of the indigenous people (whether they are happy being branded as bearers of Poata’s ‘fairy way of life’ or not) and also as it would seem of American blacks in the days when they mostly lived in the South, but also of the white settler’s identity.

In this view, which perhaps contains a kernel of truth, a need for frequent recourse to rural improvisation and general derring-do, as in the photograph below, has supposedly imposed resourceful characteristics on the New World population. Characteristics that remain even though the population is now mostly urban.

A horse being loaded onto the paddle-steamer Wairere, on the steep banks of New Zealand’s Whanganui River, around 1900. If the planks shifted suddenly the horse would panic, and the photographer, William Coates, has captured such a dramatic moment. Undated photograph, Whanganui Regional Museum, reference WR-C-159a.

And yet, of course, on the other hand, we must remember that the one thing the settlers always brought to the lands with no cities — was the city!

And more cities, to those lands where the indigenous inhabitants had already built a few.

It follows from this, that the process of colonisation by settlers, also known as settler colonialism, is more properly understood not as something rural in essence but, rather, a project for increasing the number of cities in the world, akin to the expansion of Greek colonies in the ancient Mediterranean.

Things might be a bit rough-hewn in the early days to be sure. But ultimately, the city trumps the countryside and the wilderness once a settler nation has become fully established.

Not, of course, because of any superior energy or intelligence on the part of the settlers. But simply because they have brought technological modernity with them, along with all the other baggage of colonisation.

Compared to that material reality, the cowboy really is as marginal — and transitory — a figure as Beadle said he was.

Nor was Beadle alone in making such a claim at the time. Indeed, in the historical ‘cowboy era’, which lasted for a generation or so after the American Civil War, the narratives of the American West and of settlement in general bore strong themes of urbanisation and modernisation.

This can be seen in any number of allegorical prints and paintings, of angels unfurling telegraph wire and trains on tracks either scaring the deer or leading to a far horizon past a brand-new town complete with a public school.

https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.66574.html

And yet, oddly enough, hardly anyone frames New World identities in urban and modern terms today.

One Australian scholar named Thomas J. Dunbabin did remind us, in the fifties, that colonisation was an urbanising and modernising project. As did David Hamer a bit later on New Zealand. And, no doubt, a few others.

But as far as I can tell, these revisionists have all been academics striving to set the record straight. And just about nobody apart from other academics seems to have heard of them.

Instead, the myth of New World identity as something fundamentally more rural and less modern than that of the Old World continues to prevail in popular culture or what is sometimes known, more critically, as the ‘culture industry’.

The idea that the cities are, somehow, not the real nation is just as pronounced in distant New Zealand, the backdrop to the Lord of the Rings movies, as it is in America.

Whence the cover and the content of Auckland University sociology lecturer Claudia Bell’s Inventing New Zealand, published by Penguin Books in 1996.

Reproduced with the kind permission of Penguin Books. The word pakeha, increasingly spelt pākehā, refers to New Zealand’s white-settler population: the majority of New Zealanders, though not overwhelmingly so.

Such ruralism really is the common cliché of most settler societies: though as a cliché it can also be mined to humorous effect, of a kind not limited to the cover of Inventing New Zealand.

But seriously, Beadle was right. Rural individuals and communities are untypical of the whole of modern society, and do not represent a future in which more of us will live like that.

To make a big thing of a national or ethnic identity that supposedly still exists in its purest form in some rural Heartland, or to claim that the cities are somehow not part of the ‘real nation’, often serves dubious political ends aimed at robbing urban, social-democratic majorities of their legitimacy and even their votes.

Without getting into such extreme examples as the Nazi myth of blood and soil, we can still point to the coming-true of Beadle’s fear whereby the vote of Wyoming, with only 650,000 or so inhabitants even today, counts for as much in the Senate as the vote of California‘s forty million.

The only reason this is accepted is because people think that Wyoming is somehow the real America, because California is more diverse. Hmmm — speaking for my own community, maybe maybe we Anglos are not so immune to blood and soil ideologies as all that!

In general, much as we all love a bit of rural scenery, things as yet unspoilt, and the healthy outdoors, it is indeed difficult to avoid the impression that the New World’s rural and Western myths have been cooked up to some extent, since the cowboy era, as means of entrenching disproportionate rural and frontier representation — which also existed for a time in Australia and New Zealand and perhaps elsewhere — and, also, of distracting the democratic public of the New World from the modern urban and industrial realities that they share with the Old World.

Of fooling them into thinking that they don’t need to worry about good jobs, affordable housing or public amenities in the city, because their true home is in the countryside, to which they might even be able to physically escape one day.

And, as such, helping to prevent them from going down the social-democratic road of the Old World, where the majority were peasants until the Industrial Revolution, ironically enough, but where cities dating back to ancient times have nonetheless long been objects of pride in ways that are captured in words like civilisation (from civitas) and politeness (from polis).

Only in the New World can we be tricked into supposing that not only is US Senate representation just, but that the future lies with being a libertarian homesteader!

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I am an urban historian from New Zealand with a special interest in New World cities. Somewhere along the line I picked up a PhD on planning and economics.

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Chris Harris

Chris Harris

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I am an urban historian from New Zealand with a special interest in New World cities. Somewhere along the line I picked up a PhD on planning and economics.