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Panoramic Vision, Telegraphic Language: Selling the American West, 1869–1884


Along with Appleton and Rand McNally, George A. Crofutt helped to establish and popularize the genre of the general traveller's guidebook in the United States. From 1869 to 1884, Crofutt would sell millions of his guides to the American West, which he distinguished from the competition by including copious illustrations. Although the guidebooks claim to arrange and order the West for easy, and almost passive, consumption – to “tell you what is worth seeing” – this article argues that there are two different yet also complimentary modes of representation operating in these popular works. While the images express a “panoramic” mode of vision, evoking the mythology of the endless frontier and a divinely inspired manifest destiny, the text exemplifies a “telegraphic” language based on instantaneity, fragmentation, and velocity – the thrilling, and disorienting, compression of time and space made possible by the railroad and the telegraph. Crofutt's railroad guidebooks mark a double transition: a historical shift in the concept of the West as a limitless, undefined frontier to a region of commerce and culture, and a corresponding aesthetic shift from a mode of representation based upon mythic expansiveness to one that mimics discrete aspects of modernity.

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1 Crofutt's first edition, Great Trans-Continental Railroad Guide, was published independently in Chicago under his own name. The next year, following the guide's success and increased demand, he moved his publishing operation to New York and renamed the book, Great Trans-Continental Tourist's Guide. He continued to publish under “Geo. A. Crofutt” in New York until 1874, producing revised editions at least once a year as Crofutt's Trans-Continental Tourist's Guide. The books were then published by G. W. Carleton & Co. in New York from 1875 to 1876, followed by the Overland Publishing Co. in Chicago for the 1878–79 and 1880 editions of Crofutt's New Overland Tourist and Pacific Coast Guide. The Overland Publishing Co. put out these guides from 1880 to 1884, but referenced Omaha as the place of publication. All editions of the Trans-Continental guide and the majority of the New Overland editions can be found at the Beineke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. The New-York Historical Society has two editions of both Trans-Continental and New Overland. Presumably a mark of their widespread popularity, the guidebooks can often be found in the main collections of public and academic libraries across the United States.

2 Competitors quickly picked up the term as well; see, for instance, the Alta California Pacific Coast and Trans-Continental Rail-Road Guide (San Francisco: MacCrellish Company, 1871). Fifer, J. Valerie, American Progress: The Growth of the Transport, Tourist, and Information Industries in the Nineteenth-Century West, Seen through the Life and Times of George A. Crofutt, Pioneer and Publicist of the Transcontinental Age (Chester, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1988), 17, 183. Fifer's text is an invaluable source on Crofutt and the industries that developed to promote western tourism in the late nineteenth century.

3 In his lengthy title to the 1878–79 edition, Crofutt himself states that his guides are “sold by news agents on the railroads, at news-stands, and at the bookstores throughout the United States.” J. Valerie Fifer discusses other sales outlets and figures. See Fifer, 171, 186, 210.

4 In his 1880 edition, Crofutt reprinted two pages of press reactions to his book, including several reviews commending the guide for its didactic merits. Resources of California advised that “every schoolchild in the country should obtain a copy,” while the Denver Rocky Mountain Herald asserted that “such a correct complete and splendid cyclopedia of western information” should “be in every family and school library, every business office and every reading room in the Union.” Crofutt, George A., Crofutt's New Overland Tourist and Pacific Coast Guide (Omaha: The Overland Publishing Co., 1880), unpaginated front matter.

5 Fifer, 186. I have often chosen to use the term “reader” when describing the tourist who engaged with Crofutt's guides. The author himself used the term throughout his books. I am defining the act of “reading,” as I believe Crofutt did as well, not only as a sustained, narrative practice, but as a more dynamic and varied activity that might have included scanning and skimming, as well as looking and annotating.

6 Crofutt, George A., Crofutt's Trans-Continental Tourist's Guide (New York: G. W. Carleton & Co., 1876), unpaginated preface. Ironically, Crofutt also cautioned his readers not to judge people by their appearance. In a section entitled “Ten Hints before We Start” in the 1874 edition, the tenth hint declares, “And finally – Do not judge of the people you meet by their clothes, or think you are going west to find fools; as a millionaire may be in a buckskin and a college graduate in rags.” Crofutt made no effort, however, to encourage avoidance of judgements based on race. Crofutt, George A., Crofutt's Trans-Continental Tourist's Guide (New York: Geo. A. Crofutt, 1874), unpaginated front matter, original emphasis.

7 Crofutt, George A., Crofutt's Trans-Continental Tourist's Guide (New York: Geo. A. Crofutt, 1871), 65.

8 Boime, Albert, The Magisterial Gaze: Manifest Destiny and American Landscape Painting c. 1830–1865 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), 1, 21.

9 Ibid., 21.

10 Wallach, Alan, “Making a Picture of the View from Mount Holyoke,” in Miller, David C., ed., American Iconology: New Approaches to Nineteenth-Century Art and Literature (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 8091, 83.

11 Slotkin, Richard, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization 1800–1890 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), 19.

12 For “the myth reader,” Barthes writes, “everything happens as if the picture naturally conjured up the concept, as if the signifier gave a foundation to the signified.” Barthes, Roland, “Myth Today,” in Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Lavers, Annette (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), 109–59, 129, 130.

13 Schivelbusch, Wolfgang, The Railway Journey: Trains and Travel in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Urizen, 1979), 36. Following Karl Marx's concept of “alienated labour,” Leo Marx describes the experience of railroad travel in terms of “alienation.” See Marx, Leo, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), 176–77, 207, 216.

14 Schivelbusch, 31.

15 Thoreau, Henry David, Walden (New York: Penguin Books, 1999; first published 1854), 2829, 42–43.

16 Appletons' Hand-Book of American Travel: Western Tour (New York: D. Appleton and Co., and London: Sampson Low, Son, and Marston, 1872), 117.

17 Fifer, American Progress, 18.

18 Ibid., 17–18. David M. Wrobel, in his important study on western promotional material, notes that “many boosters were themselves recent pioneers, and they enthusiastically and imaginatively portrayed their western places as promised lands because they desperately wanted their own dreams to be realized.” When advertising a location for settlement, the promoter had a vested interest in extolling the benefits of this new “promised land” while simultaneously emphasizing the negative aspects of the area that the settler would be leaving. Wrobel, David M., Promised Lands: Promotion, Memory, and the Creation of the American West (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002), 4.

19 Fifer, 11–12, 387–88.

20 For discussions of these forms of representation see Sandweiss, Martha A., Print the Legend: Photography and the American West (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 4786, 174–76. Sandweiss, ibid., 53, quotes a reporter for the St. Louis Weekly Reveille declaring in 1850 that the panorama was a “wonderful invention of annihilating time and space.”

21 Crofutt commissioned Gast to produce a small oil painting (American Progress, 1872, Museum of the American West, Autry National Center, Los Angeles) which was then engraved and included in his guidebooks. A larger chromolithographic version was also offered to his subscribers. Crofutt never gave Gast printed credit; the artist was not included in the “Annex” entitled “Our Artists.” For this section see Crofutt, George A., Crofutt's New Overland Tourist and Pacific Coast Guide (Omaha: The Overland Publishing Co., 1884), 259.

22 Barthes, 110, 131, 143, original emphasis.

23 Crofutt, George A., Crofutt's New Overland Tourist and Pacific Coast Guide (Chicago: The Overland Publishing Co., 1878–79), 300, original emphasis. Beginning in the 1878–79 edition, Crofutt included an “Annex” in the back of his New Overland Tourist and Pacific Coast Guide. While he had included a description of American Progress in prior volumes, this was the first to contain this discursive section. The author, in the preface to this edition, characterizes it as a “department … under which will be found a mass of condensed information, indirectly pertaining to the subject-matter of this work,” as well as “full descriptions of all the large, double-page illustrations contained in this, our new book.” Somewhat paradoxically, in this “mass of condensed information,” Crofutt rhapsodizes about the “wondrous vision” of this floating female heading West.

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid.

26 Barthes writes, “myth is constituted by the loss of the historical quality of things … A conjuring trick has taken place; it has turned reality inside out, it has emptied it of history and has filled it with nature.” Barthes, 142.

27 Crofutt, Trans-Continental Tourist's Guide (1871), 94.

28 Ibid., 192, 194.

29 Crofutt, Trans-Continental Tourist's Guide (1874), 145.

30 Crofutt, Trans-Continental Tourist's Guide (1876), unpaginated preface.

31 The first edition, Great Trans-Continental Railroad Guide (1869), was twenty centimeters high and 250 pages long, and sold for fifty cents. The following year, both a paper-bound edition (fifty cents) and a cloth-bound edition (one dollar) were available under the new title – Great Trans-Continental Tourist's Guide. As illustrations and maps were added, the price increased and other bindings became available; in 1872, a lightweight paper cover cost one dollar while cloth (in either a flexible or a hard binding) cost $1.25. For the 1874 edition, Crofutt debuted a new enlarged format: 25.5 cm high by 19.5 cm wide, 162 pages, 100 illustrations, $1.50 (flexible cloth binding). But while this size might have been fine for a lap, it is a little large to imagine easily trekking around with it on excursions away from the train. For the New Overland editions, Crofutt returned to the smaller size of his first guides but retained the larger number of illustrations.

32 Crofutt, Trans-Continental Tourist's Guide (1871), 4.

33 Fifer, American Progress, 191–92. One of Crofutt's friends apparently exclaimed, “The Guide is too slow for George now!” Ibid., 191.

34 Advertisement for Crofutt's Trans-Continental Tourist's Guide, in Crofutt's Western World, Jan. 1872, 11.

35 “Across the Continent,” Crofutt's Western World, Jan. 1872, 14.

36 Crofutt, Trans-Continental Tourist's Guide (1871), 42.

37 Ibid.

38 Ibid., 90–91.

39 Ibid., 95–96.

40 Kern, Stephen, The Culture of Time and Space 1880–1918 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 12.

41 Ibid. Kern also cites the importance of the telegraph in initiating uniform time. Sanford Fleming, a Canadian engineer, claimed that standardization was even more necessary after the advent of the telegraph because the new technology “subjects the whole surface of the globe to the observation of civilized communities and leaves no interval of time between widely separated places proportionate to their distances apart.” Fleming, “Time-Reckoning for the Twentieth Century,” Smithsonian Report (1886), 345–66, quoted in Kern, 11.

42 Crofutt, Trans-Continental Tourist's Guide (1871), 14.

43 Ibid., 202, original emphases.

44 Crofutt, New Overland Tourist and Pacific Coast Guide (1878–79), 26.

45 According to Fifer, American Progress, 186, Samuel F. B. Morse had himself recommended the guidebook.

46 Verne, Jules, Around the World in Eighty Days, trans. Butcher, William (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995; first published 1873), 8, 9, 201. One year earlier, Crofutt had begun including a map of the world in his guidebooks. And one year after the publication of Verne's novel, Crofutt added a new section entitled “Around the World,” in which he explained how passengers could take this more ambitious trip (albeit in ninety days). “The route will be found on the large colored map of the world in the back part of this book. The price of tickets is now $1,105 via China and Japan, and $985 via Australia and the Oriental line of steamships … A traveler or business man who, a few years ago, went to Hong Kong or Calcutta, made his will and arranged his affairs with a certain knowledge that at least a year or two of his life was required, and the possibilities were against his returning even then. To-day he packs his portmanteau for a run around the globe, transacts important business, and is back in his office in New York, San Francisco or London, in ninety days, after having enjoyed an agreeable tour, in which he is always in communication with the chief centres of business by telegraph and steam post routes … the vast distances of land travel have been decidedly shortened both in space and time.” Crofutt, Trans-Continental Tourist's Guide (1874), unpaginated front matter.

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