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Reporting From The Field

Though Olmsted’s account makes for a compelling primary source,  we must consider the density of what Olmsted was attempting to describe, and how that might have informed the choices he made when writing his famous letters. These letters were written to “judge the impact of slavery on that frontier state” – an almost Herculean task for a 19th century journalist to undertake.

As Dr. Stockton mentioned, the South was viewed with outright condescension by those in the northern part of the country. Olmsted is not necessarily immune to this; despite the anthropology he imbues in his writing, he also seems interested in giving his readers a bemused depiction of rascally desert folk. Olmsted is on an adventure, and he is expected to provide a vicarious adventure for his constituency. Though his compelling prose makes for an excellent textual portrayal of an era, we must keep in mind that Olmsted was commissioned to go to Texas and write these accounts. Though the narratives he provides are invaluable to our understanding of the era, one must wonder what priceless descriptions went unwritten so that room could be had for more thrilling material. Moreover, I wonder what scenes of brutality and unscenic treatment went undocumented to avoid offending his paper’s more delicate readers (which has subsequently piqued my interest into the history of slavery in New York City. But that may have to wait for another semester…)

In re-reading these accounts, I cannot help but imagine Olmsted as the quintessential stranger in a strange land. Moreover, I imagine him as a storyteller confronted with a bizarre kind of reality that is near impossible to recreate.  Though it is tempting to take Olmsted’s account as pure and unheeded truth, we must keep in mind that his piece was ultimately written with entertainment in mind (however informative and relevatory it was). Nonetheless, his account will undoubtedly be instrumental in our continuing exploration of the history of slavery in our state.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. February 8, 2011 at 10:23 pm

    Dr. Samuel, you’re hit the nail on the head. It is desperately important, especially in the types of research that we’ll be doing for the types of questions we’re going to attempt to answer, that we keep in mind the biases, motives, and biographies of the authors involved with each source we turn to — especially when we may be attempting to utilize that source as a means of explaining not the author’s experience, but the experience of someone the author is commenting on — Olmsted may be a primary source, but there are still large degrees of separation between his experience and that of the African Americans he was describing.

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