Where the West Begins


When Hollywood commissioned a comic ballad about the Old West from Cole Porter, that most urbane of American songwriters, he gave outlaw Wildcat Kelly the suave if plaintive verse in "Don't Fence Me In" (1934):

Before witty Porter, there was earnest Arthur Chapman and his much anthologized poem "Out Where the West Begins" (1917). Chapman, a Denver newspaperman, placed the West in a kind of socialist summer camp:

The exact location of the spot where the fences ran out and the singing began had already been debated by legislators and academics in Texas, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Illinois, and even Louisiana. Everything west of the Mississippi was the West at one point, a West defined less by the sinuous geography of the Mississippi than by the scarcity of year-round rainfall. In the mid-19th Century, the West also was the Great American Desert.

Roosevelt at Yosemite
Roosevelt at Yosemite |Photo courtesy Library of Congress

The West was later declared to be everything to the left of the 100th meridian. It slices north to south along the right edge of the Texas panhandle.

Today, St. Louis still says the West begins at its iconic Arch. The travel writer William Least Heat-Moon, in PrairyErth, locates the start of the West on the tall-grass prairie of Chase County, Kansas.

In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt complicated the imaginary map of the West by telling an enthusiastic crowd of Ventura citizens "When I come here to California, I am not in the West; I am west of the West. It is just California." His audience applauded appreciatively at the president's suggestion that California -- particularly Southern California -- was a kind of island off the shore of the continent. "Just California" would propel another hundred years of imagining the state as "the great exception."

Perhaps taken aback by his rhetoric of disunion, Roosevelt went on to reconnect California to the rest of America through the traumas of the Civil War. For Roosevelt, as for Lincoln, the war had made southerners and northerners, Californians and New Yorkers, into Americans.

"When I speak to you who dwell beside the Pacific, I, who have come from beside the Atlantic, am speaking to my own people," Roosevelt said, "with the same thoughts and the same ideals. ... How could it be otherwise in a community where I am greeted first by the men of the Grand Army, by the men who, in the days that tried men's souls, so worked and so fought that today we have one country and one flag ..."

Some effort is being made today to make Roosevelt's post-Civil War ideal of "one flag" more real. But efforts to maroon California continue.

In denouncing the Supreme Court's ruling on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage, Justice Antonin Scalia busted up the idea of America and replaced it with rigid, sectional identities.

"Four of the nine (justices of the Supreme Court) are natives of New York City. Eight of them grew up in east- and west-coast states. Only one hails from the vast expanse in-between," he wrote. "Not a single South-westerner or even to tell the truth, a genuine Westerner (California does not count)."

California isn't in the West because, in Justice Scalia's image of the nation, hippies still inhabit California's permanently unnatural landscape with their urgent promiscuity. Justice Scalia seems unaware that California's hippies long ago morphed into school teachers, organic broccoli growers, and a few billionaire tech moguls.

Having known hippies and marched and sang with them in protest, I only wish Justice Scalia was right, and the hippies I knew fifty years ago were still around to be consulted on the inhuman qualities of war and commerce and a joyless life.

California is a flawed place, as flawed as we are who make our home here. But from time to time, California has meant joy. Has meant enough play to temper duty. Has meant "more of singing and less of sighing."

If the Westerner of Justice Scalia's imagination is only the stoic Marlboro Man, then I'm reminded that he no longer looms over Sunset Boulevard from a billboard near the Chateau Marmont.

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The template for the Marlboro Man (and for all Western nostalgia) was created in Owen Wister's 1902 novel "The Virginian." Wister, a friend of Theodore Roosevelt and, like him, familiar with Western life, was a distinguished member of Philadelphia society. He wrote "The Virginian" in the library of The Philadelphia Club, where he was a member. Perhaps the West began there.

That West went west from Philadelphia to Hollywood, where Cecil B. DeMille adapted "The Virginian" into a film in 1914. Its image of the Westerner as a solitary knight errant flickers through hundreds of later films and TV serials. Californians -- who were Eastern European studio bosses, English and German directors, New York-born scriptwriters, and actors from everywhere -- created the West that Justice Scalia does not think California is part of.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who joined each of the Supreme Court's thin majorities since 1990 to expanded social rights, is a Californian. He was born and educated and began his legal career in Sacramento, along the way becoming a teacher and mentor of students at Sacramento's McGeorge School of Law. If you think California or Sacramento made any part of Justice Kennedy, then you are free to consider how much hippiness has leaked into his decisions.

Justice Scalia's parenthetical assumption about the exceptional irrelevance of California to the broad American vista only looks peevish and trivial. It isn't. Historian Kevin Starr, observing the state from the eminence of his "Americans and the California Dream" series, asked himself in "Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003," "(w)as California an aberration, a sideshow, or, worse, a case study in how things could go wrong for the United States? ... I had invested most of my professional energies in California in the belief that the history of California was mainstream American history ... Had I made a terrible mistake?"

If Starr's fear about the relevance of the California experience is real, then Justice Scalia's angry spirit of disunion would eventually turn every state banner into a rebel flag of secession. Equality under the law would mean something different in Alabama than in Alaska, if legislators and voters wanted it that way. Once (and until quite recently), the application of equality did mean something different in Alabama and other places.

By increments, even as social equality grows and Justice Scalia fumes, a majority of the Supreme Court is reading new inequalities into laws relating to corporations, wealthy political donors, and the security apparatus of the federal government.

Without a doubt, the West is a different place and California's differences have a place in the West. But like a fractal figure, in which the smallest part repeats the shape of the whole, the California experience is a genuine instance of the West, just as the West is an authentic instance of the American experience. And the arc of that experience bends, if only slowly, toward equality and justice.

Roosevelt understood that those who fought under Confederate flags embraced liberty rather than equality and rule more than justice. They rejected the greater part of the premise of America and the moral imagination from which it arose. Justice Scalia sympathizes with secession. He finds his America in a much smaller, meaner place than either the West or California.

I expect to find America in the better places where "fewer hearts in despair are aching" this week.

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