Tuesday, August 03, 2010

On the American Acquisition of Property

"If Hollywood wanted to capture the emotional center of Western history, its movies would be about real estate.  John  Wayne would have been neither a gunfighter nor a sheriff but a surveyor, speculator or claims lawyer.  The showdowns would occur in the land office or the courtroom; weapons would be deeds and lawsuits, not six-guns.  Moviemakers would have to find some cinematic way in which proliferating lines on a map could keep the audience rapt.

"Western history is a story structured by the drawing of lines and the marking of borders.  From macrocosm to microcosm, from imperial struggles for territory to the parceling out of townsite claims, Western American history was an effort first to draw lines dividing the West into manageable units of property and then to persuade people to treat those lines with respect.

"White Americans saw the acquisition of property as a cultural imperative, manifestly the right way to go about things.  There was one appropriate way to treat land--divide it, distribute it, register it.  This relationship to physical matter seems to us so commonplace that we must struggle to avoid taking it for granted, to grasp instead the vastness of the continent and the enormous project of measuring, allocating and record keeping involved in turning the open expanses of North America into tranferable parcels of real estate.  Like the settlers themselves we steadfastly believe in the social fiction that lines on a map and signatures on a deed legitimately divide the earth.  Of all the persistent qualities in American history, the values attached to property retain the most power."


The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West by Patricia Nelson Limerick (pp. 55-56)

No comments: