The American West in the European Imagination
The "Wild West" is alive and well in Europe! But it's a Wild West that has very little to do with a reality called America. The Wild West for many Europeans has been, always will be a mythical place for Europeans to stage their own adventures, fight their own battles, settle their own quarrels. If the Wild West had never existed Europeans would have had to invent it!
Americans have been brought up on the notion of the Frontier as something quintessentially American. It defines American character and its self-images. But the Frontier is also an European myth. After all, what else is America but Europe's own search for the Last Frontier? Seen in this context, the cowboy is very much an European invention, the white male adventurer who tames the wilderness and battles Nature and heathen Savages.
For more than five hundred years, European writers have invented an American West as a backdrop for stories that basically reflect Europe's quarrels and fantasies about itself, not about America. Remember Jonathan Swift's imaginary land and imaginary people - the Lilliputians - whom he invented to better comment on his native England? Well, to a large extent that's the role the West fulfills in the European imagination. Take Europeans and the native-American, or as every self-respecting European still calls him - the Red Indian. Since 1492, Europeans can never make up their minds about him. Is he human or animal? Can you talk to him or can you hunt him?
Until the nineteenth century he was the object of a great debate. If he was human that meant he could be converted to Christianity. This assumed great importance for Spain which could then New World for itself in the name of God. Imagine the prestige and legitimacy to be won by saving all those millions of unbelievers for Catholicism! Of course, if the Indian was animal it meant he could be hunted down, his property stolen with a clear conscience.
In eighteenth century Europe, this ambivalence took on added significance. For liberals, the Red Indian was widely believed to be a throwback to a supposed Golden Age, a time of Innocence, living in a society unblemished by all the vices and decadence a weary Europe called Civilization. Rousseau called him a "Noble savage" free of laws and constraints on his behavior. Paintings and sculptures of the period invariably show the Indian as a Roman or Greek, who just happens to have copper-colored skin. The Red Indian, in other words, was the ideal to which liberal Europeans could aspire if only they could throw off the yoke of despotism and tyranny.