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The New YorkerBefore the first postcards arrived back East showing sunlit cactuses and mesas, railroad-company photographers and government surveyors had already begun to document the American West for commercial gain. In Print The Legend, Martha A. Sandweiss writes that as early as the eighteen-sixties daguerreotypes, album plates, and glass lantern slides encouraged railroad barons and real-estate developers to plot their next moves. Desolate flatlands were paired with optimistic text, depicting "a visual story that affirmed and expanded the central fictions of nineteenth-century western history."
The rodeo circuit provides another framework for Western legend; barrel-racing cowgirls spent their time away from the arena "polishing white boots and powdering white hats," according to Rodeo Queens and The American Dream. Author Joan Burbick interviews female rodeo stars, starting with the foremothers of the nineteen-thirties. "Buckle bunnies," as they were called, "were on a strict work schedule. Western heritage was serious business."
Farther west lay California, and particularly Southern California, with its stark contrasts of reality and fakery, history and amnesia. "Accept no man's statement that he knows this Country of Lost Borders well," Mary Austin warned in 1909, but more than seventy contributors take a shot in Writing Los Angeles. One of them, Helen Hunt Jackson, described L.A. in 1883 as a city of "century-long summers" -- an earlier version of Truman Capote's assessment: "Snow is on the mountains, yet flowers color the land, a summer sun juxtaposes December's winter sea." In other words, wish you were here.(Lauren Porcaro)