What ‘government’ meant – to some Americans (Part II)

I promised to track down the article (see previous post) and have managed to do so. ‘The unlamented West’, by novelist and travel writer Jonathan Raban, was published in The New Yorker on 20 May 1996. The sub-title read: ‘Militias, Freemen, mad bombers – why do so many extreme and dangerous individualists seem to come from one place?’ In this fascinating article, Raban describes how the Chicago, Milwaukee and St Paul Railroad spread out into essentially unfarmable land in Montana. The railroad company ‘flung infant cities into being at intervals of a dozen miles or so’, in a deliberate attempt to create demand for its own services. On the back of a government bill pushed through Congress for the benefit of the railroad companies, sharp advertising created the illusion that this was the promised land and many families, including many immigrant families, came in the hope of establishing a decent life as homesteaders. What they didn’t – couldn’t – know was that, where it existed, the topsoil was wafer thin and would soon be blown away, that the summers were arid and that the winters were terrifyingly cold. Within a few seasons most of the new arrivals were beaten and would pack up and head back to the nearest city: ‘The corporation bosses… ran their lines to the coast at … the expense of hundreds of thousands of would-be farmers, who bought the government pitch and saw their families ‘starve out’ on their claims.’ We should not be so surprised, writes Raban, that twenty million Americans still believe that the 1969 moon walk was a hoax, perpetrated in the Arizon desert by the federal government, for the financial benefit of the powerful corporations who were the NASA contractors: ‘After all, in 1909 the government really did drop people onto an expanse of land that closely resembles the dusty surface of the moon…’  The federal government, he concludes, ‘would be remembered by many in the West as a trickster, never to be trusted again.’


  1. Jeannette

    Martin, I may be mistaken but I think Raban has just had a book published about his experiences living and travelling in the US – I believe it was in yesterday’s Observer book reviews.. Yes, I just looked it up: Driving Home by Jonathan Raban. link here http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jul/18/jonathan-raban-driving-home-essays
    Very timely of you!

  2. Martin

    You’re right, Jeannette, but it was pure coincidence. I thought of mentioning it but it would have been a distraction from the point of the post. Interesting guy, this Raban.

  3. Jonathan Raban

    Actually “The Unlamented West” was a cut-and-paste job, done by a NYer editor, of serial excerpts from my then-forthcoming book, Bad Land, which is currently available in paperback. The book, I fondly think, is a lot better than the dog’s breakfast of bits and pieces that made up the NYer article–though I’m glad to see it caught your interest.

  4. Martin

    Maybe I was just in a receptive mood, having visited Ellis Island (I was doing ‘research’ for a saga-ish novel I am trying to write), and it’s true that there are several pieces to the article, but I found its basic thesis convincing. I shall order Bad Land forthwith! Martin PS Have you read Frank Norris’s Octopus? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Octopus:_A_California_Story)

  5. Jonathan Raban

    Thanks for that link. I do remember wading about halfway through The Octopus, when I was a graduate student, a century or so ago. (Which was long before I first visited the US.) Reading the synopsis of the book on Wikipedia this morning, I’m ashamed to say that I’d clean forgotten Norris’s theme of railroads v. farmers: The Octopus had better go on my future reading list…

  6. Martin

    By the way, I came across a Clive James reference to you over the summer in ‘North Face of Soho’: ‘I think Jonathan Raban, flying back from an assignment abroad, was the first participant ever to re-book his flight so that he would be in time for lunch, but later on a lot of us did the same.’ He is referring to the London literary lunches. It cretainly sounds as though you had a great deal of fun.

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