Go East, Young Man: Imagining the American West as the Orient.
By Richard V. Francaviglia (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2011, 310 pp., $36.95 cloth)
THIS IS A CREATIVE PERSPECTIVE, developed over several decades, of the American West reinterpreted as the Orient (defined as the Middle East to Asia) and the response of Americans to Asia and Asians. Francaviglia examines the geologic, climatic, and biotic similarities of the two landscapes while acknowledging that there are some differences; focuses on places and how they were perceived; and looks at the historical linkages in postcards, American and European literature, memoirs, travel narratives, folk songs, art, films, television, and other forms of popular culture. He also uses contemporary historians and writers who have similar ideas to support his position. Throughout his presentation, the American duality of positive and negative sentiments toward the Orient prevails and the emotions of fear, jealousy, and alienation are mixed with appreciation, admiration, and identification.
The book of ten chapters is divided into two parts: "The Frontier West as the Orient (ca. 1810-1920)" in seven chapters and "The Modern West as the Orient (ca. 1920-2010)" in three chapters. Francaviglia begins in the nineteenth century because Americans had become more sophisticated international travelers and often compared the exotic places they visited to their homeland (Colorado's Rocky Mountains were viewed as similar to the Swiss Alps). At the same time, there is an attraction to Oriental spiritualism. The Mormons viewed their settlement in Salt Lake City as similar to the Israelis settling near the Dead Sea and referred to the state of Utah as the Holy Land. Those experiencing the open landscape of the semiarid American West could relate to the Sahara, Arabia, Mongolia, and other exotic Oriental locations (John Charles Fremont, upon reaching the "remarkable rock" that reminded him of the Great Pyramid of Cheops, named the lake surrounding the rock Pyramid Lake in 1844). From a geomorphologic perspective, Nevada resembled eastern Uzbekistan and southern Nevada, the Sahara.
The Orient was an exotic place that fascinated Americans, and its culture influenced American thinkers, businessmen, writers, and artists from the early nineteenth century. The sexuality and charm of Mexican and Native American women attracted the attention of American military personnel as well as writers and artists (Charles M. Russell's painting Keeoma  of a Native American woman lounging in front of a tepee is reminiscent of a woman before a Middle Eastern odalisque). In the search for Eden, Douglas Cazaux Sackman promoted California as the place that produced the fruits of Eden--oranges. As landscapes as cultural analogies prevailed, the railroads chose such names for their towns as Phoenix, connoting something magical.
The story would not be complete without an examination of the Chinese and Japanese influence in the Far West. As miners, railroad workers, and others--part of the new territories--they were accepted and then rejected, as was typical of the American ambivalence toward Asians. The Chinese built their own temples and Chinatowns, often in their own style, while influencing Americans to build structures and gardens inspired by the Orient (Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood, California). The Northwest was imagined as having a Japan-like landscape (Mount Rainier was likened to Mount Fuji), a notion reinforced by Japanese immigrants who settled in Hood River, Oregon, whose Mount Hood also reminded them of their beloved mountain (the Mount Fuji connection continued in 2010 with the National Park Service's Mount Rainier-Mount Fuji Sister Mountain Curriculum Project). The Great Northern Railway named its premier Minneapolis-Seattle train the Oriental Limited. By the twentieth century, Oriental themes in stories and movies either endeared audiences to Orientals or, as seen in World War II--themed television shows and movies, furthered racism and discrimination.
Francaviglia has portrayed the Orientalized American West--with influences from the Middle East to East Asia--as not only a fragment of the larger United States but also a component of a broader American identity that is deep-seated in the American mind with both negative and positive images.
Go East, Young Man is full of colorful examples and is based on decades of Francaviglia's thinking about the topic (as early as 1979, he published a book and subsequently numerous articles about the Mormon landscape). It is very entertaining to read. Despite numerous and varied details, there are some errors, such as naming Gordon Chang of Stanford University as an Asian American art historian instead of a professor of American and Asian American history and citing Wang Lee instead of Ang Lee as the director of the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. When discussing the advent of camels in Virginia City, Nevada, in the 1800s in the misguided hope that they could be used to transport salt and other goods in the Nevada desert, he fails to point out that it was the Chinese who used camels to transport goods along the Silk Road beginning in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). Some art historians may argue about Francaviglia's comparisons of artworks and paintings, but one cannot deny that there certainly is "food for thought," which was the author's original intention. On that basis, I would highly recommend Go East, Young Man.
REVIEWED BY SUE FAWN CHUNG, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF HISTORY, UNIVERSITY OF NEVADA, LAS VEGAS, AND AUTHOR OF IN PURSUIT Of Gold: CHINESE AMERICAN MINERS AND MERCHANTS IN THE AMERICAN WEST