Monday, May 21, 2012

Joint Reading: Lions of the West, Chapter 9


Here we are on the final chapter of Aarti’s and my joint reading of Robert Morgan’s Lions of the West (except for the epilogue and final thoughts, which she’ll post later this week!). This book looks at America’s westward expansion by way of a few key figures that made a big impact during the era. Chapter 9 focuses on Nicholas Trist, a person I had never heard of and, frankly, didn’t much impress me. However, the point of this joint reading was for Aarti and I to share our agreements, disagreements, and discover how our own personal experiences with history have shaped our opinions.

We hope these posts have been informative, enlightening, thought-provoking, or maybe inspired you a little bit to explore some history on your own. You can read up on the rest of the book both here and over at BookLust.

Nicholas Trist: The Search for a Father Voice

Kari: Nicholas Trist really seems to be the biggest pansy out of this group. I mean, look at him! He was basically a secretary, turned advisor, turned negotiator, strictly because of his political connections. He didn’t discover anything; he didn’t fight a war; he didn’t win an election. Overall, it was hard for me to figure out what on earth he did to earn him a chapter in this book. 

Aarti: Aw, I liked Trist! I actually thought Morgan gave him the short end of the stick. While he didn’t go conquer the Western states for America, he did bring a lot of diplomacy to the table, and I enjoyed learning about someone who did more of the grunt work. But I agree that he wasn’t particularly lovable. 🙂

Kari: Throughout his chapter, I just kept thinking that this is an unfortunate soul who could’ve done a lot more than he did. He was incredibly well-educated. He was well connected. He showed some fire and initiative by dropping out of West Point, despite Jefferson wanting him to go. But it’s like he just never really decided what he wanted to do with himself, and he stuck around Jefferson because he was in love with Jefferson’s granddaughter. He just sorta did what he did because people expected him or urged him to. He didn’t seem to make many decisions of his own, which is completely opposite of the Western mentality that has dominated the characters of this book.

On the other hand, it is commendable how Trist worked his way into so many political machines. He was a trusted and respected advisor to many. I can only think that perhaps Morgan included Trist in this book to show an example of a “little man” who can have a big influence on the decision-makers—to show the complexities and nuances that led to the US expansion. His biggest role was that of negotiating with Mexico, but even that is something he fell into; he didn’t seek out that role on his own.  

Aarti: It does seem as though Trist was more an observer than a dominant force in his own life. But I have known people like that myself. While I think I’m intelligent and have strong opinions, I don’t know that I’m necessarily a leader on the scale of Thomas Jefferson- but hopefully that doesn’t mean that I don’t have something to offer, too. In that way, I appreciated the inclusion of Trist in this book, but I agree with you that he seems an awkward choice for a book called Lions of the West. There wasn’t anything lion-like in Trist’s personality that I could see, and this book was supposed to be about the people who really made the decisions and dreamed big, not the ones who carried out other people’s orders.

Kari: The most interesting thing Morgan says about Trist is how disillusioned he became with American society, and this really gives a picture of how the country changed after the era of the founders. He says, “The whole nation seemed bent mostly on making money. The neoclassical, agrarian world of reason, dignity, and liberty that Jefferson and Madison had envisioned had not come about. Instead, schemers, con men, salesmen, and revival preachers seemed to have overrun the new society.” This sums up, in a nutshell, what expansion and the west symbolize; any person in the country now has the opportunity for success and fortune. The west has no rules, no code; you don’t need to be born into wealth or position to make something of yourself. This is what has ultimately defined the United States, but at the time, it apparently threatened the classicists like Trist who envisioned a different kind of country. It makes me wonder what America would be like today if it had followed their “vision,” whatever that was. 

Aarti: I love this whole paragraph of yours because it sums everything up so nicely. That quote seems to describe America today just as well as it did in Trist’s time. (And maybe that was Morgan’s goal.) In many ways, it seems like America hasn’t lived up to the ideal we all set for it, the grandiose idea of people living free to do their best and most important work. And I can see why Trist became so disillusioned, if he had worked so hard to bring that America about.

1 comment:

zibilee said…

I really liked the contrast of this post, and the way that you both held strong opinions without being overbearing or combative with each other. It's discussions like this that I always find interesting; when two people respectfully disagree, and make interesting and valid points that both show they digested and disseminated the material on many levels. Great post today, you two!