Our Eyes Ached with the Very Vastness:
Imagining the Great American Desert as the Great American Prairie
Article to appear in an upcoming issue of Great Plains Quarterly. In the early nineteenth century, the Great Plains represented a region contested on the ground and in the imagination. For decades, US culture leaders debated about how to make sense of the vast grasslands in the center of North America. The cautious among them perceived the territory as a wasteland that would impede future prosperity. Their more audacious contemporaries imparted a boundlessness that promised exhilaration and transformation. By the mid-1840s as the United States marched toward war with Mexico, these romantics seemed to have gained ascendancy. The conceptual tension between the Great American Desert and the Great American Prairie did not fall along a clear temporal divide, but in that moment of conquest, visionary expansionists had succeeded in positioning the Great Plains as an emblem of exceptionalism that reinforced US professions of nationhood and empire.
For the full version of George Catlin's painting see the Smithsonian American Art Museum website.