The Literate West of Nineteenth-Century Periodicals

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Contribution to Books

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Asked to picture a western scene, most literate Americans in the nineteenth century, as today, would describe an outdoor landscape, with or without people in it. Few would conjure up a picture of a young woman writing by lamplight at her home, a girl searching her father's pockets for a book from the circulating library, a married couple reading letters in their one-room cabin, or a printer leaning over his typecase. Yet these images, if not uniquely western, belonged to the nineteenth-century West as much as did sublime mountainscapes, buckskinned hunters, or battle scenes between Plains Indians and the US army. In the popular imagination, literacy was crucial to eastern sentiment - allowing colonists to organize themselves with documents like the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, and the US Constitution - but unimportant to a region of armed conflict, oral, negotiation, lynching, and squatters' rights.