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Creatures of the West: Humanity, Animality, and the Zooanthropological Imaginary in the Era of American Westward Expansion

This project engages with the significance of animality and human-animal relations in the context of nineteenth-century American westward expansion. It argues that, beginning in the antebellum decades, Western environments increasingly served not only as spaces of exploration and adventure or for projections of a future continental empire, but, often intersecting with these functions, also constituted a domain of ontological speculation and experimentation that influenced contemporary notions of animality and humanity in an era in which both concepts were undergoing substantial transformation. The project develops the concept of the ‘zooanthropological imaginary’ as an analytic lens in order to make sense of the plethora of writing by literati, journalists, (amateur) historians, explorers, travelers and others in the context of an emerging antebellum print culture that engages with widely debated issues like the supposed bifurcation of human and animal worlds, the fixity or malleability of ‘human nature,’ the uniqueness of human sociality or the implications of human-animal kinship. ‘The West’ – a place that was as elusive as it was concrete, as much an imagined as it was a physical geography – and the liminal spaces of the frontier in particular played a key role in these debates: perceived as lying beyond the pale of civilized society, Western environments seemed to bring humans “back to the wants and resources of their original natures” (Francis Parkman), thus supposedly affording unique and authentic zooanthropological insights. The often commented on presence of, and encounters with, Western indigenous people(s) also throws into sharp relief the inherently political nature of nineteenth-century zooanthropological imaginings, informed as they were by the intersectional dynamics between animality and other vectors of difference such as gender and race.

Besides the ‘savage’ lifeways of Western indigenes, it was in particular the ambivalent figure of the white frontiersman that captured the attention of many contemporary Americans. Supposedly walking the line between ‘savagery’ and ‘civilization,’ this figure occupied a contradictory and precarious dual role: widely recognized as authorities of knowledge about Western life and heralds of the promises of the West, especially in the antebellum decades the men of the frontier – their altered bodies, peculiar habits and speech, and troubling associations with supposedly inferior, ‘animal-like’ types of humanity – also became subjects of anxious zooanthropological inquiry. How, many contemporaries wondered, would the unpredictable forms of environmental and animal agency and the relations between civilized Americans and savage indigenes and wild animals in the sociospatial arrangements of the West affect those individuals (and, by extension, the nation as a whole) who worked there for extended periods of time or even lived there permanently? Did Western environments reinforce or subvert the hierarchical ordering of human and animal ways of being? Did they encourage, or even impose, modes of life beyond the normative framework of civilized manhood and humanity, which had served to legitimize American expansionism in the first place? More than merely an inhabitant of liminal Western frontier environments, the figure of the frontiersman seemingly represented a living embodiment of the boundaries between savagery and civilization, animality and humanity, and the limits of whiteness.

My project argues that contemporary sources testify to a widespread perception of Western environments as ‘animal geographies’ that were characterized by exceptional forms of animal presence and agency and by unique forms of human-animal relations that differed significantly from those in the more anthropogenic rural or built environments of the East, with their strongly regulated forms and spaces of human-animal encounter. Westering Americans who commented on the ‘wild liberty’ of the mustang, the thundering immensity of bison herds, or even the curious subterranean ‘republics’ of prairie dogs acknowledged the relative autonomy of animal bodies, movements, and lifeways in expressly more-than-human environments that implicitly questioned Manifest Destiny’s fantasies of white anthro- and androsupremacy – even as they also provided the very setting for the kind of masculinist performances of Western ‘conquest’ at the heart of what Richard Slotkin has termed the ‘myth-history’ of the frontier. While Western environments, imagined as a domain of human and animal ‘savagery’ in need of ‘domestication,’ thus fueled American expansionist endeavors, the material conditions and necessities, the proximity and co-presence of human and animal bodies, and the forceful experience of the (vulnerability of the) human animal body in the West posed challenges not only to the strict ontological separation of human and animal life but also to the violent ontologies of ‘Man’ through which animality – understood in terms of inferiority or retrogression – was displaced onto the bodies of racialized others.