When you think of the American West, what comes to mind? Perhaps rugged cowboys, high-noon gun fights, and covered wagons. These images are common in tales about the 19th Century American West, but they don’t tell the whole story. What struggles did Native Americans face and how are they still felt today? When the conservation movement began in the 19th century, how did policymakers weigh the environmental consequences of their decisions? This episode of Aspen Insight breaks down myths about the Old West and explores how they shape our culture today.
For many of us, myths in books and movies have shaped this period in American history and created fictional characters who helped define our values. “A culture needs to have a heroic mythology,” says novelist Molly Gloss. But the one that’s been created for the Old West leaves out women and is filled with violence, Gloss thinks. “What we want to do instead is to create a mythology of adventure and heroism that includes women and that doesn’t look at problems in such a simplistic way.” In her books, she’s working on creating a “new mythology of the west” that’s more inclusive and compassionate.
Gloss was a speaker at the event “American West,” held in August in Aspen, Colorado. For four days, members of the Institute’s Society of Fellows, scholars, writers, and activists listened to lectures and conversed about this period in American history. “What is the purpose of knowing history?,” asked UCLA professor Stephen Aron. “Is it to celebrate the heroes of the past? Or is it the reverse of that? Or, can we only learn from our mistakes? Is Western history a story of wrongdoings, a march of folly, from which we can maybe do better in the future because we learn not to repeat those mistakes?”
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For more information about the topics discussed in this episode, visit the links below:
- The Aspen Institute Society of Fellows
- Molly Gloss, novelist
- Interview with Sara Dant about her book, “Losing Eden” (Wyoming Public Media)
- The Horrific Sand Creek Massacre Will Be Forgotten No More (Smithsonian Magazine)
- The American West: The History, the Values, the Struggle, and the Legacy of the 19thCentury