rom River of Shadows both landscape and the Native Americans who inhabited it “were being kicked out of the real world, but invited into art and entertainment, into dime novels, Wild West circuses, paintings, and photographs.” Tackling modernism from the perspective of the frontier allows Solnit to move seamlessly between mass cultural forms, like dime novels, and high art forms, like painting. The lack of distinction between high and mass culture in frontier modernism reflects photography’s straddling of that boundary better than more familiar European high-cultural approaches to modernism. We get another compelling glimpse of frontier modernity when Solnit describes Leland Stanford driving the Golden Spike to complete the transcontinental railroad, an event that was “simulcast” by telegraph. This coverage established the event as one of importance to all Americans, even though it took place at radically different times in radically distant, and different, cities: 12′:45 local time at Promontory point, Utah, 1:53 in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and 2:47 in Washington, D.u> fUniform time zones had not yet been adopted. Standardized time, one of the many violent globalizing abstractions of modernity imposed by the railroad and its superhuman schedules, would initially be known as Railroad Time before it became Eastern and Western parts of the country were two different worlds, the abstraction of standardized time and the supposedly national event at Promontory Point allowed Americans to think of themselves as belonging to a single group. The psychological dis tance between East and West was further diminished when Muybridge and Watkins’ photographs of iconic Western landscapes like Yosemite were sent east. Meanwhile, the mechanization of time was a necessary precursor to photographers’ use of exposure times of fractions of a second, which allowed photography to progress beyond landscape. Solnit builds on this kind of metaphorical convergence, which lends the book its passion. Her lyrical writing allows the importance of an event of historical proportion, like driving the last spike of the transcontinental railroad, to reverberate. She evocatively describes the army’s attempt to “annihilate the buffalo [and] sabotage the nomadic hunting way life of the Plains Indians” to safeguard the railroads. The slaughter of the buffalo also fueled the further industrialization of the United States. “The unromantic destiny of most of [their] hides was factories,” she writes. “Before rubberized drive belts, the belts that drove the Industrial Revolution’s factories were made of leather, and buffalo hide was thick and durable.” The metaphor comes full circle because the hides were, of course, transported by rail. Solnit’s lyricism reveals the author’s profound understanding of the connectedness of different histories. It echoes the massive changes, both physical and psychical, that modernization brought, even as seen from one corner of one part of the world. Occasionally her metaphors are more lyrical than they need to be: They sometimes offer a poor alibi for scant information. Solnit would do better to come clean about why there is so little information about Muybridge and why she has chosen to try to say something about him anyway. Her poeticizing seems particularly clumsy when she tries to describe Native American resistance. She has little to add about the way Native American groups experienced the march toward modernity and reverts to heavy-handed poeticism. She writes, for instance: “With their guns and horses, the Modoc [of California] had already embraced the accelerations brought from Europe; what they were not ready for was the concomitant detachment from ritual time and intimate space that came as part of the package. The part they accepted made it easier for them to resist the restthat is, they could fight with the guns and the horses.” Her efforts to poeticize the Modoc yield little new historical information in a tangle of cumbersome prose. As a friend of mine said when he read a draft of this review, lyricism without proportion is sentimentalityand we have plenty of that already when it comes to both Native Americans and the narrative of American progress. Solnit’s ultimate claimthat artistic and technological innovation, specifically cinema and Silicon Valley, are the natural byproducts of the Wild West’s modernizationis engaging, but never fully developed. What she does manage to accomplish is to show us how the Westas microcosm of “the West” in its other senseunderwent vast, interconnected changes in the last third of the 19th century. River of Shadows brings to life shifts in the way people think, which makes it well worth the read. Cameron Scott teaches Spanish at the University of Texas at Austin. 5/23/03 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 23
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