Stretched past its capacity by the tumultuous migrations and movements of the 19th century, that orderly term “westward expansion” is ready for a break. Rather than proceeding in a systematic march across a continent, a wild cast of characters — miners, farmers, ranchers, loggers — raced into the West, locating natural resources, extracting them and refining them into commodities to place on the market. “Westward explosion” might be the better phrase.
As these resource rushes multiplied, thousands of Americans plunged into a parallel — and, by many measures, more rewarding and more consequential — form of extractive industry. Harvesting from the West an inestimable treasure of experiences and observations, these adventurers then refined this raw material into reminiscences, novels, diaries, letters, reports and tales of adventure, both actual and imagined. Since westward expansion coincided with the expansion of the print media, and since readers in the eastern United States had good reason to seek escape from the disturbing changes wrought by industrialization and urbanization, these exported cultural commodities found a receptive marketplace. Endowed with an improbable durability, this infrastructure of printed words retains much of its power to define the region.
Caroline Fraser’s absorbing new biography of the author of “Little House on the Prairie” and other books about her childhood, “Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder,” deserves recognition as an essential text for getting a grip on the dynamics and consequences of this vast literary enterprise. Charged by what Fraser calls a “unique ability to transform the raw material of the past into a work of art,” Wilder won for herself the status of a pre-eminent figure in the shaping of the myth of the West — that seductive collection of icons, images and articles of faith installed in millions of minds and souls worldwide.