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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Masculine Heroes

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American Expansion, 1820-1900

In 1898, Frederick Jackson Turner declared the frontier the defining feature of American culture, but American authors had uncovered its significance much earlier. This program turns to three key writers of the early national period (James Fenimore Cooper, John Rollin Ridge, and Walt Whitman) and examines the influential visions of American manhood offered by each author.

Instructor Overview

In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner delivered a paper entitled “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. Looking back over the course of American history, Turner concluded that the presence of unexplored land–“free land,” as he termed it–gave a unique dynamism to American culture. For Turner, the frontier was “the meeting point between savagery and civilization.” Ever since Turner made this famous pronouncement, Americans have been debating the definition and significance of the “frontier.” As many scholars have pointed out, “frontier” is a term used by conquerors. It masks a reality of imperial invasion and colonialism under a veil of innocence and exceptionalism. That is, the idea of “free land” does not take into account the many other peoples who were displaced–sometimes violently–to make way for European-American expansion. As historian Patricia Nelson Limerick puts it, “the term ‘frontier’ blurs the fact of conquest.”

To combat this problem, scholars have suggested other ways of thinking about the lands and historical events we have traditionally associated with the “frontier.” Along these lines, we might think of the frontier as a permeable zone where distinct cultures struggle and mix, or as a space of contact and contest among diverse groups. The Spanish word “la frontera,” which describes the borderlands between Mexico and the United States, is perhaps a more useful term than “frontier.” Because the concept of a border does not contain a fantasy of “free land” or uninhabited space, it is a more realistic way to describe a place where cultures meet and where trade, violence, and cultural exchange shape a variety of individual experiences.

Whatever term we adopt, there are no simple ways to define or conceptualize nineteenth-century American expansion, a problem faced by all of the writers featured in Unit 5, “Masculine Heroes: American Expansion, 1820-1900.” As they recorded and commented on the difficult issues that arose as European-Americans moved west and north, the writers in Unit 5 also struggled with related issues of gender and race and their role in the formation of American identity. This unit explores representations of gender and American expansion in a wide variety of nineteenth-century works, including the musical corridos that developed in the southwestern borderlands and texts composed by James Fenimore Cooper, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, the Cherokee Memorialists, Caroline Stansbury Kirkland, John Rollin Ridge, Louise Amelia Smith Clappe, Walt Whitman, Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, and Nat Love. By focusing on these diverse authors, Unit 5 also traces the geographic movement of Anglo-American expansion, from the push into upstate New York and the “northwest territories” of Illinois and Ohio, to the colonization of California. Unit 5 provides contextual background and classroom materials designed to explore the way these writers both celebrated and challenged American ideals of masculinity and expansion. The video for Unit 5 focuses on three influential creators of masculine heroes: James Fenimore Cooper, John Rollin Ridge, and Walt Whitman. Cooper wrote the Leather-Stocking Tales about Natty Bumppo, a man who lives on the border between Native American and white culture and articulates tensions between “civilization” and “nature.” John Rollin Ridge voiced his outrage at the atrocities committed by white Americans in California with his tale of the Mexican outlaw hero Joaquin Murieta. More sanguine about expansion, Walt Whitman used his innovative free-verse poetry to glorify the vastness of America’s territories while adopting a tolerant, inclusive attitude toward all of its diverse inhabitants and to celebrate the poet as American hero. All of these writers created innovative literary styles and enduring themes that continue to influence American ideas about land, gender, and race.

In its coverage of these writers and texts, the video for Unit 5 introduces students to the complexities of the concept of the “frontier” and foregrounds the relationship between expansion and constructions of masculinity. How do these texts represent the violence and exploitation that were part of American expansion? How do they figure the expulsion of indigenous people from their traditional lands? How do they reconcile American ideals of democracy, equality, and freedom with the reality of conquest? How does race intersect with gender in the formation of American identity? What new literary forms emerge from the tensions of representing American expansion? Unit 5 helps answer these questions by offering suggestions on how to connect these writers to their cultural contexts, to other units in the series, and to other key writers of the era. The curriculum materials help fill in the video’s introduction to territorial expansion and gender by exploring writers who articulated other, diverse experiences, such as the Cherokee Memorialists (who protested the federal government’s decision to move them off their traditional homelands), Louise Clappe (a woman who lived in the predominantly male community of a Gold Rush camp), and Nat Love (an African American cowboy).

The video, the archive, and the curriculum materials situate these writers within several of the historical contexts and artistic movements that shaped their texts: (1) the transcontinental railroad and “Manifest Destiny”; (2) the California Gold Rush as a site of cultural exchange and conflict; (3) the social identity of the bachelor; (4) the use of American flag imagery in Native American Art; and (5) the aesthetic developed by the Hudson River School landscape painters.

The archive and the curriculum materials in Unit 5 suggest how these authors and texts relate to those covered in other American Passages units: How have American concepts of masculinity and heroism evolved over time? How have nineteenth-century ideas about landscape shaped contemporary aesthetics? How did Walt Whitman’s development of free verse influence modern American poetry? How did the historical novel shape subsequent literary traditions? How have American ideas about the relationship between humans and their natural environment changed over time? How have notions of the “frontier” shaped American culture and politics?

Learning Objectives

After students have viewed the video, read the headnotes and literary selections in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, and explored related archival materials on the American Passages Web site, they should be able to

  1. understand the conflicts and tensions inherent in the American concept of the “frontier”;
  2. discuss the importance of gender in shaping the experiences and opportunities of immigrants and inhabitants of the American West;
  3. discuss the importance of race and ethnicity in shaping the experiences and opportunities of immigrants and inhabitants of the American West;
  4. understand nineteenth-century American debates about the relationship between humans and the natural environment and explain the impact of those debates on the development of American literature.

Using the Video

Video Authors:
James Fenimore Cooper, John Rollin Ridge (Yellow Bird), Walt Whitman

Who’s Interviewed:
Sherman Alexie, author and filmmaker; Blake Almendinger, professor of English (University of California, Los Angeles); Ramon Saldivar, professor of American literature (Stanford University); April Selley, associate professor of English (College of Saint Rose); Richard Slotkin, professor of American studies (Wesleyan University)

Points Covered:

  • Introduction to nineteenth-century American ideas about expansion, immigration, and the movement west. Westward expansion created new identities and conflicts over who and what was American. Writers responded by creating masculine heroes who both challenged and celebrated the idea of the “frontier.”
  • James Fenimore Cooper invented the language for subsequent literature about American expansion with his Leather-Stocking Tales, which focus on the adventures of Natty Bumppo. A man living on the border between “wilderness” and “civilization” and between Native American and European culture, Natty challenges notions about American identity. Cooper’s adoption of feminine imagery to describe the American landscape and his romantic yet ultimately dismissive view of Native Americans problematizes the role of gender and race in the construction of American identity.
  • John Rollin Ridge, a Cherokee journalist, moved racial minorities from the sidelines of American literature into the spotlight with his creation of Joaquin Murieta, a Mexican outlaw who heroically fights the atrocities and injustices perpetrated by white American invaders in California. Ridge’s own divided ethnicity (he had both European and Cherokee heritage) may have influenced his exploration of racial tensions in his novel.
  • Walt Whitman was more celebratory of American expansion than either Cooper or Ridge, but also more inclusive and tolerant of diversity. Heeding Emerson’s call for a national poet and a “true American voice,” Whitman wanted his epic poetry collection Leaves of Grass to express the plurality of voices that constitute America. His innovative style and development of free verse was foundational for modern American poetry.
  • These authors constructed ideals of American masculinity and American expansion that are marked by tensions and contradictions. Celebrating Manifest Destiny and industrialization while also writing nostalgically about the people and cultures destroyed by American expansion, they created a complex portrait of the American frontier and the American hero that continues to shape popular culture in this country.


  1. Preview the video: In the nineteenth century, the United States acquired vast new territories as a result of exploration, wars, treaties, and land purchases. As people of different racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds began moving into these territories, tensions developed over who and what should be considered “American.” Writers responded by creating a literature centered on masculine heroes who both celebrate and question the ideals of American expansion. James Fenimore Cooper wrote the Leather-Stocking Tales, a series of five historical novels about the adventures of Natty Bumppo. A man who lives on the border between Native American and white culture, Natty articulates tensions between “civilization” and “nature.” John Rollin Ridge voiced his outrage at the atrocities committed by white Americans in California with his tale of the Mexican outlaw hero Joaquin Murieta. More sanguine about expansion, Walt Whitman glorified the vastness of America’s territories while adopting a tolerant, inclusive attitude toward all of its diverse inhabitants. All of these writers created innovative literary styles and enduring themes that continue to influence American ideas about land and about masculinity.
  2. What to think about while watching: How do these authors both celebrate and challenge nineteenth-century American expansionist goals? What racial and ethnic groups inhabited the American West? How did racial tensions shape the American movement west? How do the writers and texts explored in the video create new American heroes and new ideals of masculinity? How have their efforts influenced American culture and literature?
  3. Tying the video to the unit content: Unit 5 expands on the issues outlined in the video to further explore the contradictions and tensions inherent in American ideas about the “frontier” and about borderlands. The curriculum materials offer background on Native American, Mexican, Mexican American, African American, and European-American writers and texts not featured in the video. Introducing literature by women into the discussion of the movement west, the curriculum materials build on the video’s examination of the construction of masculinity and gender norms. Unit 5 offers contextual background to expand on the video’s introduction to the political issues, historical events, and literary styles that shaped the literature of masculinity and western expansion in the United States.

Suggested Author Pairings

James Fenimore Cooper, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, and the Cherokee Memorialists
Writing in the first half of the nineteenth century, these authors explored issues of Euro-American incursions into traditional Native American lands in the eastern United States. Cooper and Sedgwick both worked in the tradition of the historical novel. Though they focused on different time periods and geographic settings in their most famous works–Sedgwick set Hope Leslie in the Puritan community in seventeenth-century Massachusetts, while Cooper set his Leather-Stocking novels in the Great Lakes region in the eighteenth century–they both grappled with the questions of the evolving American character and the racial tensions that complicated Native American and Euro-American relations. Although Cooper and Sedgwick are sympathetic to many of their Native American characters, they still rely on stereotypical depictions and often present Native American culture as anachronistic and untenable in the modern world. The Cherokee memorials contrast interestingly with the works of Cooper and Sedgwick because the memorialists insist so forcefully on the living, vibrant, and evolving nature of Native American societies.

Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, Louise Amelia Smith Clappe, and John Rollin Ridge
Burton, Clappe, and Ridge all write eloquently about the enormous economic and cultural changes shaping California at the end of the nineteenth century. Because they write from very different points of view–Ruiz de Burton as a Latina woman interested in the plight of displaced Latinos, Clappe as a white woman living in a Gold Rush boomtown, and Ridge as a Cherokee èmigrè to California who identifies with embattled Latinos–they supplement each other to create a rich picture of the diverse culture of California during the Gold Rush and railroad booms. Ridge’s masculinist depiction of Joaquin Murieta as an outlaw hero makes an interesting contrast to Ruiz de Burton’s explorations of powerful female characters and to Clappe’s depiction of her own position as a woman in an environment dominated by male miners.

Walt Whitman and the Corridos
Both Whitman’s work and the corridos can be characterized as poetry that seeks to define a new kind of American hero. While the corridos adhere to formal conventions and metrical structure in a way that Whitman’s poetry does not, they use their lyrics to question boundaries and celebrate resistance to rules and dominant conventions. These two poetic forms have had a lasting and ongoing influence on American verse and music–Whitman’s development of free verse transformed American poetry, while the spirit of the corridos continues to live in contemporary Latino verse and song.

Caroline Stansbury Kirkland and Nat Love
Though they come from very different backgrounds and espoused extremely different values, Kirkland and Love both employed an autobiographical mode to narrate their impressions of life on what they considered the “frontier.” Kirkland’s interest in “domesticating” the West makes an effective contrast to Love’s celebration of his time roaming the plains as a cowherd with no permanent home. (The extent to which Kirkland’s model won out might be gauged by the fact that Love soon found the cowboy life untenable and took to the more domestic position of porter on the railroads.) Kirkland’s female perspective is reflected in her chronicles of everyday experiences of hardworking women, an aspect of western life that usually went unreported. Love, on the other hand, is much more interested in constructing himself as a masculine hero and turns to “tall tales” and accounts of exciting adventures more often than realistic description to narrate his adventures in the West.


border – Sometimes used as a replacement for the culturally insensitive term “frontier.” Borders are places where cultures meet, and where trade, violence, and cultural exchange shape a variety of individual experiences.

corrido – A narrative ballad usually sung or spoken to music, the corrido was the most important literary genre of the southwestern border region, where it was popular between the 1830s and the 1930s. Developed by Mexicans and Mexican Americans, the corridos drew upon traditional Spanish ballad forms to articulate singers’ experiences of cultural conflict in the borderlands. Characterized by a rapid tempo and brisk narrative pace, these ballads often focus on an “outlaw” hero who defends his rights–as well as those of other Mexicans–against the unjust authority of American officials.

epic – A long narrative poem celebrating the adventures and accomplishments of a hero. More generally, the term “epic” has come to be applied to any narration of national or cultural identity that has a broad, all-encompassing scope.

free verse – Poetry that does not adhere to conventional metrical patterns and has either irregular rhyme or no rhyme at all. Walt Whitman pioneered the use of free verse in American poetry, and his “Song of Myself” is a classic example.

frontier – Traditionally, the term Americans have used to describe the unexplored or contested land to the west of the eastern settlements on the Atlantic coast. Scholars have pointed out that the term “blurs the facts of conquest” and does not take into account the many other peoples who were displaced–sometimes violently–to make way for U.S. expansion.

homosocial/homosexual continuum – The relationship between non-sexual same-sex bonding activities and sexual contact between people of the same sex. While American culture has traditionally insisted that homosexuality is distinct from non-sexual same-sex relationships, scholars and theorists argue that the division between the two is always unstable.

Hudson River School – A group of landscape painters originally known as simply “American” or “Native” painters, the Hudson River School acquired its present name because of its early focus on the dramatic landscape of the Hudson River Valley in New York. While Thomas Cole is usually considered the “father” of the Hudson River tradition, other important painters including Asher Durand, Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt, and Martin Johnson Heade contributed to the development of this movement. Highlighting the awesome, monumental quality of the American landscape, these artists were fundamentally optimistic about westward expansion and the promise of democracy. In their quest for new and spectacular effects, the Hudson River artists journeyed far beyond the Hudson River by the mid-nineteenth century, traveling to the Rocky Mountains, California, and even South America to record the expanse and grandeur of the continents.

Indian Removal Act of 1830 – In 1830 the United States Congress, with the support of President Andrew Jackson, attempted to legislate a permanent solution to their land disputes with eastern Native American tribes by passing the Indian Removal Act. Passed by a narrow margin, the Act stipulated that the government could forcibly relocate Native Americans living within their traditional lands in eastern states to areas west of the Mississippi designated as “Indian Territory” (much of this land was in present-day Oklahoma). With this stroke, the federal government sanctioned the racist view that Native Americans had no valid claims to their homelands and should be moved westward to make way for white settlers and white culture. The Indian Removal Act enabled the tragic “Trail of Tears” migration, in which a third of the population of the Cherokee tribe died.

Manifest Destiny – The belief that American control of the land that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific was inevitable and divinely sanctioned. Because of this culturally arrogant conviction, American policy makers had few scruples about displacing Native Americans, Mexicans, and other groups inhabiting the land from the Great Plains to California.

memorial – A direct appeal to Congress, the courts, or another official federal body, a “memorial” was the nineteenth-century equivalent of a petition. The Cherokee tribe produced articulate and compelling memorials asking the United States Congress to allow them to stay in their traditional homelands east of the Mississippi. The Cherokee Council, which was the official leadership body of the tribe, composed its own memorial to send to Congress, while also submitting twelve other memorials written by Cherokee citizens. Despite their eloquence, the Cherokee memorials were not effective and the tribe was relocated in 1838.

Bibliography & Resources

Selected Bibliography
Allmendinger, Blake. The Cowboy: Representations of Labor in an American Work Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.

Chudacoff, Howard P. The Age of the Bachelor: Creating an American Subculture. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999.

Herrera-Sobek, Maria. Northward Bound: The Mexican Immigrant Experience in Ballad and Song. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993.

Johnson, Susan Lee. Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2000.

Leverenz, David. Manhood and the American Renaissance. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989.

Limerick, Patricia Nelson. “The Adventures of the Frontier in the Twentieth Century.” In The Frontier in American Culture, ed. James R. Grossman. Berkeley: U of California P, 1994.

Matsumoto, Valerie J., and Blake Allmendinger, eds. Over the Edge: Remapping the American West. Berkeley: U of California P, 1999.

Nelson, Dana D. National Manhood: Capitalist Citizenship and the Imagined Fraternity of White Men. Durham: Duke UP, 1998.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia UP, 1985.

Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1973.

Yin, Xiao-huang. Chinese American Literature since the 1850s. Chicago: U of Illinois P, 2000.

Further Resources
The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez [videorecording]. Moctesuma Esparza Productions, Inc.; screenplay by Victor Villaseñor; produced by Moctesuma Esparza and Michael Hausman; directed by Robert M. Young. Santa Monica, CA: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Home Entertainment, 2000.

Carved in Silence [videorecording on Angel Island]. Produced and directed by Felicia Lowe; written by Felicia Lowe and Charlie Pearson. San Francisco, CA: Felicia Lowe Productions: distributed by Cross Current Media, 1987.

Corridos Sin Fronteras: A Traveling Exhibition and Educational Web Site Celebrating the Narrative Songs Known as Corridos. Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES). Smithsonian Institution, PO Box 37012, QUAD Room 3146, MRC 706. Washington, DC 20013-7012. Phone (202) 357-3168; Fax (202) 357-4324.

Cowboy Songs, Ballads, and Cattle Calls from Texas [sound recording]. Cambridge: Rounder, 1999.

George Catlin and His Indian Gallery [virtual and actual exhibit]. Renwick Gallery. Smithsonian American Art Museum. 750 Ninth Street, N.W., Suite 3100. Washington, DC 20001-4505. Phone (202) 275-1500.

Grossman, James R., ed. The Frontier in American Culture: An Exhibition at the Newberry Library, August 26, 1994-January 7, 1995, Essays by Richard White, Patricia Nelson Limerick. Berkeley: U of California P, 1994.

Herbst, Toby, and Joel Kopp. The Flag in American Indian Art. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1993.

Johns, Joshua Scott. All Aboard: The Role of the Railroads in Protecting, Promoting, and Selling Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks. Aug. 1, 1996

Minks, Louise. The Hudson River School. New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1998.

Paredes, Amèrico. A Texas-Mexican Cancionero: Folksongs of the Lower Border. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1976.

Phillips, Sandra S., et al. Crossing the Frontier: Photographs of the Developing West, 1849 to the Present. San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1996.

Wald, Elijah. Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas. New York: Harper Collins, 2002.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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