American West: Historical Reality and Cultural Memory

Sean Munger
What was the "Old West" really like? Did it resemble at all the vision we have of it from movies, TV and popular culture? In this seminar you will gain insights on how the real West compares to the mythology, and learn how and why the popular image of the West is important in our cultural history.
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For over a century American society has been steeped in representations of the Old West, from the original traveling cowboy carnivals of the 1880s to the 2020s Westworld television series on HBO. In reality, the expansion of the United States into its western frontier was a dangerous, uncertain and deadly process. In this seminar, we'll use historical and geographical examples to tear away the layers of pop culture mythology around the "Old West," try to find out what it really was like, and why the reality of it has been the subject of such myth-making in American history and culture.

This seminar will utilize a geographic approach, with heavy use of map software and on-the-ground photo panoramas -- thus it will be a much of a "virtual tour" of important places in Western history as it will be a historical seminar. You will be able to see many of the places important to the history of the real West, and you can ask questions, follow up and discuss for a fuller and more personalized understanding than you could get from reading a self-selected book or watching a documentary. Subjects covered will include Native Americans and how the Western mythos tried to write them out of history, gold rushes and range wars, how the U.S. Western experience resembled the frontier expansion of other countries like Russia and China, how the "Western" became a staple of books, movies and TV shows, and how our thinking about the West has changed. 

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