From the moment of its opening in mid-March to its closing at the beginning of this month abuse descended heavily on the Smithsonian’s ‘West as America’ exhibition in Washington DC. At the heart of the row was something that will figure even more powerfully next year, in the various commemorations of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage to the New World: how much should Europe’s conquest of the Americas, as treated today in exhibitions and commemorations, reflect the experience of the people on the receiving end of the conquest?
The ‘West as America’ exhibition made a very decent attempt to suggest something which turned out to be highly controversial: namely, that the 19th-century artists on display tended to glorify the conquest in a manner that reflected little of the greed, exploitation and mass extermination that actually occurred. These attempts were swiftly denounced as another effusion of the spirit of Political Correctness, which, in the opinion of outraged journalists, academics and politicians including President Bush himself, is now contaminating the nation’s wellsprings of knowledge. None of this bodes well for the Quincentenary and any realistic assessment of what Columbus inaugurated for the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
Nothing in the exhibition aroused more ridicule than the commentary fixed to the wall next to Emanuel Leutze’s Storming of the Teocalli by Cortez and his Troops. Newspaper columnists, bloodlust aroused by the denunciations of the show on the part of Daniel Boorstin and Simon Schama, among others, tossed the following about on their bayonets as the quintessence of Political Correctness:
In another passage Leutze raises (literally) the sacrifice issue again and turns it more conclusively against the Aztecs. Prescott describes in detail (in some of the most widely-read chapters of The Conquest of Mexico) the Aztec method of sacrifice and the numerous victims. No practice, he maintained, illustrated more widely the moral gap between the invading Europeans and resident natives, a judgment Leutze played on in the vignette in which the Aztec priest holds aloft a partially disembowelled child. Like much of Leutze’s Aztec world, however, the vignette was a distortion to prove a point. Aztec children were rarely sacrificed and only in times of drought. Young male adults were the usual victims.
Of course there is something comical in the earnest lilt of the last two sentences, but the ridicule of the columnists was more sinister, a foretaste of how they will try, as the saying goes, to take out pockets of resistance to celebrations of the anniversary of Columbus’s voyage to the New World.
The rich Boston scientist, Amos Binney, who commissioned Leutze’s painting, probably knew and had certainly read his fellow Bostonian, William Prescott, whose Conquest of Mexico was published in 1843, and whose concern about the legitimacy of the Spanish conquest ‘lies between every line of his three volumes’, as William Truettner puts it in an essay in the catalogue to the ‘West as America’ show. ‘The Aztecs,’ Prescott wrote,
were emphatically a fierce and brutal race, little calculated, in their best aspects, to excite our sympathy and regard ... They ruled over their wide domains with a sword, instead of a sceptre. They did nothing to ameliorate the condition, or in any way promote the progress, of their vassals ... How can the interests to humanity be consulted, where man is levelled to the rank of the brutes that perish?
Vol. 13 No. 17 · 12 September 1991
From Nick Blanton
Were the Native Americans and their culture thoroughly good, and the Europeans thoroughly evil, or vice versa? As this question is unanswerable, it provides much work for journalists. Does Chief Joseph of the Nez Pierce make a better hero than Abraham Lincoln, and a blood-soaked Aztec priest a better villain than Cortez? Who is more ethical: the carefree Pamunkey brave, living an idle existence as his wife does the work, so he can indulge in raids and a little recreational torture, or the Mississippi planter who treats his slaves well, but still uses their production to indulge in drinking, horse-racing and faro? Is there a moral calculus that we can use to ascribe blame to either side? Alexander Cockburn (LRB, 11 July) and others seem to have the tar-pots and gold leaf ready, waiting for whim or fashion to dictate which entire side of the portrait gallery should be gilded and which smeared. What’s needed here is a taste for complexity, which seems hard to acquire, and the ability to write about it, which seems to have been damned as equivocation.
Shepherdstown, West Virginia
Vol. 13 No. 19 · 10 October 1991
From Matthew Leigh
Nick Blanton (Letters, 12 September) pleads for a ‘taste of complexity’. He plainly objects to the attitude of Alexander Cockburn, Harold Pinter and others that it is impossible to celebrate the creation of the United States on account of the massacre of its native population. Rather than paint a picture of saintly victims and vicious oppressors, Blanton seeks complexity in a more balanced apportionment of moral qualities. I would like to suggest something slightly different: namely, that it is only in the honest attempt to write a national epic that we can accommodate the different and competing individual experiences which must jostle for our attention as we try to appreciate the development of American society.
Pinter’s agit-prop historiography never attempts to consider what is worth celebrating in the creation of modern America. Happily, other writers have more of a taste for ambiguity. An obvious example is the frontier. One view examines only the elimination of the native population. Another, that of Owen Wister’s The Virginian, by its opening lament for the loss of the wild conditions of 1880s Wyoming and Idaho, shows us the potential for self-realisation in taming the huge expanses of the West. We do not need to be told that there were victims to this process. Huck Finn does not head West, but he is a symbolic figure for the manner in which he cuts loose in order to realise himself. Yet he has a passenger. The further South Huck travels in search of personal freedom the further he takes another victim, Nigger Jim, into slavery.
Under the aegis of the Atlantic Monthly, William Dean Howells encouraged the production of a mass of realist literature describing the new America of the closing years of the 19th century. There may not be a lot about native America in these books, but there is plenty about the victims of the American dream. Howells’s own character Dryfoos is marketed as the great representative of the rough diamond individualism which is building America. He is also shown to have broken strikes by the violent intervention of Pinkertons, and it is in a similar act of strike-breaking that he loses a son and that we see the death of an ageing socialist lauded for his sacrifice in the struggle to preserve the Union, but condemned for his collectivist beliefs.
Native Americans, slaves and working people of all sorts were victims of the creation of modern American society. Some had America forced on them, others, like the Lithuanian immigrants of Sinclair’s Chicago stockyards, were, at least initially, complicit with the ideology. I would like to say that I regard what was created as something magnificent. Some of us are too blind, others too evasive, to confront all that is so worth celebrating about the United States. Anyone reading America’s numerous national epics, just as anyone reading Virgil’s Aeneid, has to conclude that it is impossible to create something great without taking victims. Those of us coming to terms with the society which we have inherited require a taste for complexity and an aversion for the simplistic and knee-jerk oppositionism of Pinter and friends.
St Hugh’s College, Oxford