While we might like to believe that we are each the masters of our own fate, in fact the environment plays an important role in shaping who we become. Guthrie makes this point in The Big Sky, for Boone, Summers and Teal Eye are all more the product of their environment than they are the creators of the world around them. Guthrie suggests that this being-shaped-by rather than shaping-of the environment is especially strong in the West, but he also at least suggests that the environment is a potent force in shaping the lives of people everywhere.
It has become fashionable in recent years to scoff at the myth of the West and to replace this myth with history. This is in large measure what Guthrie has set out to do. He is intent on telling a real story about a real place, and in particular in telling an environmental story about the fragility of the Plains, with their uncertain and limited rainfall. Looking at a part of the country that was once the West - Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming - West looks very carefully at the historical record of the place, at what lured families from the East, what made them stay or move on, what made them succeed or fail. He is most particularly interested in the relationship between the environment and the people living on it - whether those people were American Indians or white settlers.
Guthrie's central point is that the Plains are a far more complex region that either Westerners or non-Westerners tend to give them credit for being. People who have moved into the Plains have been impressed by their flatness and this lack of altitudinal changes has inclined people to overlook the ways in which different parts of the Plains are in fact quite different from each other at least in environmental terms. In each part of the Plains nature and humans created intertwined and complex relationships, which in turn produced dramatically different microclimates. As a result, no one "story" - whether historical, biological, environmental or anthropological - explains the history of the Plains and of the West in general Guthrie's emphasis on the need to write separate stories for different parts of the Plains overall makes his book a convincing one as well as an entertaining one.
It is certainly true that this book - now published more than a half-century ago - is dated in depicting the West as a more Romantic place than it actually is. In following the adventures of Boone Caudill, Jim Deakins, and Dick Summers, Guthrie takes us across down the Missouri River, traveling from the from St. Louis to the Rockies, the story shows us how each of these men is shaped by their environment as they work as trappers, guides, and explorers. Caudill, from the old West of Kentucky, embraces the challenges of life in the new West: He is given new life by the environment, by the vastness and the beauty of the West, by its uncontained and uncontainable energy.
Guthrie's story, as we might well expect from his generation, is one in which he is intent on examining the ways in which the environment shaped white settlers; he is far less interested in how it shaped the native peoples (perhaps because he saw their transformation by the Western environment as already complete by the time his own story begins).
It is striking to compare this version of the West, in which people are shaped by the world, to later versions of this story, in which we see the environment being shaped - in the form of irreversible damage - by people. In more recent depictions of the West we see acknowledgement both of the harm that settlers did to the Indians and the land - as well as an acknowledgement that the first peoples of this continent were perhaps not quite as noble as we have always been taught that they were, less good stewards of the land and the animals and other natural resources. The Indians might in time brought about their own ruin. Their great tragedy, as well as our own, is that they did not, and both the descendants of those Indians and many of the rest of us are therefore defined in some measure by how it came to be that they lost their herds and their lands.
But this was an earlier view of the West, one both closer in time to the closing of the frontier and yet also more dazzled by the mythmaking of the 19th century. It is a tribute to Guthrie's writing that we can appreciate his version of the West - one in which the great spaces and powerful forces of nature - had the power to transform white settlers (and had already transformed the natives) even as we recognize the limitations of his overly Romantic view of the West, one in which humans could do no harm to a land far bigger than they were.
The Cult of Domesticity in the West
Schlissel argues, through her examination of the journals of women who migrated to the West, that they maintained an internal attachment to the idea of the cult of domesticity and femininity that is greater than seems likely to have occurred, given the hardship of their lives and the fact that in the West there were few if any of the advantages of the cult of domesticity that had been allowed in the East. One of the few advantages that women had under this cultural model, which stripped them of nearly all public cultural power and much of their private power as well, was that it allowed them to exempt themselves from some of the back-breaking work of running a 19th-century household. This was not, however, the case in the West, as Schlissel demonstrates.
An essential part of the cult of domesticity and the ideals of femininity that surrounded 19th-century womanhood was that women were perceived as essentially weak. But frontier women were not weak, and even their desire to see themselves as feminine could not prevent them from seeing themselves also as powerful if not precisely empowered. Their understanding of their own strength and the contradictions that this created for them in wishing to see themselves as the kind of women that they once were and the kind of women that they were raised to believe in as models for the sex had to be resolved by each individual on her own, but Schlissel suggests that one common strategy was for these women to defer their sense of femininity. They would return to being the kind of dainty ladies their mothers had raised them to be at some point in the future, when the initial work of building a home in the West was done. This allowed these women both to be strong in the present and to preserve whatever sense of femininity was important for them. It also allowed them to acknowledge their own physical and psychological strength - attributes that did not accord with then-current ideals of femininity but certainly must have been important on an individual basis to many pioneer women. (They may have been taught that they should be feminine; however, when faced with having to cut firewood during a snowstorm, knowing how to use an axe and having personal physical reserves to draw upon would be far more comforting to most than ideals of womanhood.)
The cult of domesticity not only established guidelines for how proper ladies should behave but also cast up as a negative model the ways in which women should not behave. These negative models often involved an awareness of personal strength. Nineteenth-century ideals of womanhood tended to create two very much opposing and very much exclusive ideals of womanhood:: Women are depicted as either virgins or whores (to use the language of modern feminist critiques of this model) either redemptive, chaste maternal figures or lethal harpies who destroy innocent men through their sexuality. The self-sufficient pioneer women inclined in many ways nearer the social stereotype of the harpy rather than the angel of the household.
The perfect icon of the domestic angel is Jane Eyre, as we see her described below:
Mr. Rochester continued blind the first two years of our union; perhaps it was that circumstance that drew us so very near -- that knit us so very close: for I was then his vision, as I am still his right hand. Literally, I was (what he often called me) the apple of his eye. He saw nature -- he saw books through me; and never did I weary of gazing for his behalf, and of putting into words the effect of field, tree, town, river, cloud, sunbeam -- of the landscape before us; of the weather round us -- and impressing by sound on his ear what light could no longer stamp on his eye.... He loved me so truly, that he knew no…