Open Spaces: A place of challenge for people in search of identity and self-realization

Aus ZUM-Unterrichten

Dieser Text ist ein Gemeinschaftswerk aus dem Unterricht der Klasse 12a (Kurs auf erhöhtem Anforderungsniveau) des Werner-von-Siemens-Gymnasiums in Niedersachsen und entstand im Schuljahr 2007/2008.

Myth of the American West

Explanation of the term

Open spaces, that is the topic of our group. You have to admit that it fits perfectly to the American West. When you think of the American West you think about wide open fields, abandoned landscapes, dry deserts and huge areas of forest.

This is something people in the East of the United States or in Europe don’t have. It is a totally different area with totally different attributes.

Like always when people of one culture face a different world of which they have never heard before this brings up various stories and legends of that unknown area. The summation of them is what we call the “Myth of the American West”.

Development of the myth

The development of the myth is a typical one. The people lived in our occidental culture, in this case mainly in the East of the U.S. and in Europe. Densely built cities without any free space for the individual, so to say the total opposite of Open Spaces, this was their living space. After the first people began telling stories about the newly discovered West, people were fascinated by them. They heard stories of a free and self-determined life without the oppression of an industrial town in the 19th century. Thousands and even millions of acres of empty land, god-given and enough for every American – this was the guarantee of a free and carefree life.

But there was one problem. Only few of those people ever heard the real story about the American West. The stories which were told and readable in many books were hardly the reality. Early, almost right from the beginning of the inhabitation of the American West, several authors came up with the idea of putting their expressions into written stories. Of course they discovered that the reality of life there wouldn’t sell too good in the East. Nobody back in that time was interested in reading stories about people suffering in their new home. A harmonious life, a beautiful countryside, a life full with love and action, but of course not deadly for themselves, was what Americans in the East and Europeans wanted to read about. So it happened that authors soon began to change the reality a little bit. Readers at the East Coast and in Europe were fascinated by those stories which they accepted as true. For many of them this was the starting signal to move west. They just didn’t know better and were unaware of the truth.

The myth itself

Now let us see what was behind this myth which caused so many people to move westwards into these unknown regions.

Everyone of us has at least once heard of this myth. Maybe you have read about it or seen something on TV. Of course, people back in that time – that means the 19th century – c had only the first of these two possibilities. As already mentioned in the part before they read in several novels about the myth of the American West and what they read seemed quite pleasant to them. In general the myth can be divided into three parts:

The landscape

Nearly every novel available in the East and in Europe described the American West as a beautiful area with wide open spaces. There are regions where you can stand at one point and look to the horizon and you would see nothing but flat countryside. Then again there are hilly regions with snowy mountains of an unimaginable height. Waterfalls and lakes with clear, blue water. Dry and hot deserts and cold and wet forests. A huge variety of different landscapes which had all one thing in common: There were so many of them and they were so big that you could easily loose the oversight. And that was the point for the designated settlers. Not only was there beautiful countryside but also there was so much of it that it would be enough for everyone.

Life and fortune

The second important part of the myth were the possibilities every single person had in the American West for life and for his personal fortune. Before the settlers began to move westwards of course they had a clear idea of what they would do there. Some planned to become breeders others to open a shop and of course there were the miners who came to profit from the Gold Rush at the West Coast. No matter what it was they all had one thing in common: their hope of a quick and unproblematic success and a wealthy life. They couldn’t know how hard it would be since they only knew about the West from their novels in whose content they believed. “Go there, take some acres of land, do whatever you feel like and get rich”, something like that was the message of the stories. Life in the West was always full of action. You could easily get into a shooting as everybody ran around with a gun or become the victim of a robbery. Of course there would never be any serious harm for oneself, so the myth told and at least you would be thankful for the experience. Possible problems were not mentioned in any of those novels they were just not part of the myth.

Heroes of the American West

If there was one thing you could learn from those stories told about the West than it was that Cowboys were the absolute heroes there. In fact many people did not realize that the only job of a Cowboy was to watch for the cattle on the fields which was a bad-paid job by the way. No, they learned that Cowboys chased after feared gangsters and arrested them for no money of course, but only to serve the society. So, they had a very good reputation and were the most esteemed people in the western society. Then there was the sheriff, one in each town, the man of law, maybe the only permanent resident you could trust in. His job was to keep his town safe for its residents and to arrest criminals of course only if it hasn’t already be done by a Cowboy.


As a result it can be said that the myth made up very much out of nothing. Life wasn’t as easy and comfortable in reality and wealth was not guaranteed. Cowboys were not such big heroes like in the books and also the Sheriff was not always the trustworthiest person in a town. At least the landscape was nearly like described in the stories but it was not only fascinating but also very dangerous in some cases. However, people really believed in these stories they heard about or which they read in books. They did not have any choice since those stories where nearly the only source of information they could get about this unknown region.

When we look at this myth from our perspective you can notice one thing: Although we should know better about it nowadays many of us still think of the American West mainly like described in the myth. TV shows, movies like Winnetou, comics like Lucky Luke still maintain the myth and keep it alive in our heads until today.

Movies about “open spaces“


The young man Christopher Johnson McCandless has suicidal tendencies, so he goes west to find a new sense in his life. Finally he dies in the spring of 1992.

In this movie the protagonist sees the “open spaces” as a place where he has a new chance to change his life, all his hopes are focused in the west. In many films the characters find what they are looking for, but in “wide-open-spaces” all the hopes were disappointed and the protagonist dies at the end of the film.

Forrest Gump

Young Forrest lives with his mother in a house in Greenbow, Alabama. He isn’t as intelligent as other children, that’s why he has got problems with the other children in his school and only Jenny decides to be Forrest’s friend.

He takes part in the Vietnam War and saves a lot of lives during an attack, so he gets a decoration and an invitation into the white house.

Jenny and Forrest are still friends and after having spent a night together Jenny is pregnant but she doesn’t tell Forrest about this.

When his mother dies he is very lonely and he decides to run through America, later on many people follow him because they hope to get a new sense in their lives by running with Forrest. After having run a lot of miles he is very tired and decides to stop and to go home, the people are really surprised about the fast ending.

Years later, Jenny and Forrest meet again in Jenny’s own little apartment in Savannah. Now Jenny tells him about his son who has the name Forrest too. Jenny and her little son go with Forrest to live in his house. When Jenny dies, Forrest is very sad but he takes care of his son, the little Forrest.

Typical for the “open spaces movies” is the search for a new reason to live, also in “Forrest Gump”. He runs west only because he doesn’t know what to do with himself. Maybe the west is a synonym for the possibility or liberty to go wherever you want to go.

Dances with the Wolf

The movie tells about the soldier Dunbar who took part in the American Civil War. After being injured and honored he decides to go west to continue doing his job. The place where he has to live and to work now is really desolate and he does his best to arrange the place. Later a wolf comes everyday and Dunbar is able to tame the wolf.

After a long time he meets an Indian girl who belongs to the Lakota. Dunbar and the Indians are afraid because they don’t know each other but after a long time and many presents they begin to gain confidence.

Dunbar goes west after having seen many terrible things in the American Civil War. For him the west is a place to forget all those terrible things that happened, also a new beginning for a new life.

In all these movies the protagonists are looking for a change in their lives. They could be successful but sometimes they can fail like our main character in “wide-open-spaces”.

The new meaning of frontier

The United States can be seen as a country always on the move from a shabby today, which many consider a betrayal of the Founding Father’s designs and lofty hope, to a radiant tomorrow. It has been compared to a man on a bicycle who falls if he stops pedaling an moving ahead. (1983, New York) (additional material „Moon Palace“ )

An example, illustrating this constant development of the U.S.A., is the westward movement, also known as "going-west-act". Back in this period, people from everywhere in the world came to America to explore the unknown areas of the continent. Their recipe of success was the ambition to find their luck in the west, which implied that they never stopped moving until they found a place to settle down and start a new individual life. In the future there will be much more space to move to, maybe even other planets.

The Moon as a new place to live

The maybe biggest “open space” which is reachable for the humans is the moon. The "moon" is a leitmotif, constantly emerging in the novel.

Paul Auster in an interview about moon palace, where he compares the moon with the happenings of the book and the topics the book is about.

“The moon is many things all at once, a touchstone. It’s the moon as myth, as ‘radiant Diana, image of all that is dark within us’; the imagination, love, madness. At the same time, it’s the moon as object, as celestial body, as lifeless stone hovering in the sky. But it’s also the longing for what is not, the unattainable, the human desire for transcendence. And yet it’s history as well, particularly American history. First, there’s Columbus, then there was the discovery of the west, then finally there is outer space: the moon as the last frontier. But Columbus had no idea that he’d discovered America. He thought he had sailed to India, to China. In some sense Moon Palace is the embodiment of that misconception, an attempt to think of America as China. But the moon is also repetition, the cyclical nature of human experience. There are three stories in the book, and each one is finally the same. Each generation repeats the mistakes of the previous generation. So it’s also a critique of the notion of progress.” New York City/ ‘The Big Apple’: A place of fulfillment and failure


lack of success in doing or achieving somethingà Opposite of success
somebody or something that is not successful for example:
“The whole thing was a failure.”
to fulfil (fulfilled, fulfilling)
1 achieve or realize (something desired, promised, or predicted).
2 satisfy or meet (a requirement or condition).
3 (fulfil oneself) gain happiness or satisfaction by fully achieving one’s potential.
the fulfilment of dreams/desires/hopes to find emotional/personal fulfilment
Salad Bowl
The term “Salad Bowl” is a cultural idea. It contents the immigration of many different cultures to the USA mixed like the ingredients of a salad. It’s not a homogeneous culture, for example the salad does not take the traits of a tomato. In Canada they call this system “cultural mosaic” and it stands for multiculturalism.
Melting Pot
The idea of the melting pot is a metaphor for homogeneous societies. It means that the ingredients (people of different races, cultures, etc.) are combined.
The cultures “melt” together without staying individual.
White people 44.66 %
Latin-American people 26,98%
Afro-Americans 26.59%
Asian people 9.83%
Indian people 0.52%
People from the pacific islands 0.07%
35.9% of the Americans are born in foreign countries and not in the USA.
New York City has got the biggest Jewish community (972.000) of the USA.


  • The island of Manhattan was discovered by Giovanni da Verranzano in 1524
  • Native Indians called the island “Mana-hatta” or “Manathin”
  • Broadway was an important channel of trade for the native citizens
  • Henry Hudson, by order of the Dutch West India Company (WIC), recognized the good trading conditions of that region in 1609; first settlers reached the new area in 1613
  • The Dutch West India Company acquired the rights to trade for the whole territory in 1621
  • Allegedly, the Indians sold their Island for no less than some pearls and some drossy stuff to the Europeans
  • Great Britain started to get interested in the colony, because it increased very fast, and conquered the island in 1664
  • 10 years later (1674) they changed its name to New York


  • Between 1894 to 1954 about 17 million immigrants moved from Europe to New York and reached Ellis Island in order to start a new life and to search a new identity
  • “Melting Pot” was a synonym for New York because people who were scattered all around the world came together and built a new “race of men”, who called themselves Americans. Thus the Big Apple grew up to the centre of economy because its population increased steadily from 3.5 million to 5 million citizens within 15 years of development.
  • The skyscrapers seem to be a symbol of New York’s fulfilment because they were constructed due to the shortage of space, which was a result of its evolution
  • The statue of liberty pictures another symbol of fulfilment because it actually was a present from France for 100 years independence of America
  • The parade in honour of Neil Armstrong after he managed an expansion to the moon was set in New York. Thus the city was also a place of technical fulfilment


  • Many immigrants, who renounced every part of their property, were sent back to Europe after they had arrived in Ellis Island to start a new life and now were marred
  • There was a major blackout in New York in 1965 which held on about 29 hours and had the consequence of huge deficit (1.05 billion dollars)
  • New York was forced to adjudge its bankrupt in 1975, because the city was in debt about 3.3 billion dollars
  • New York was the centre of economy and on the 24th October of 1929 the Big Apples’ stock exchange broke almost down completely. This date applies as the initial point of the global economic crisis and is called “Black Thursday”
  • The terrorist attack on the 11th September of 2001 on the World Trade Centre, where about 2.800 people died

China Town in New York

There are many China Towns in different cities of the world but the biggest of these is located on the lower East-Side of Manhattan in New York City. About 70,000 to 150,000 Chinese people are living in this borough since the immigration to the United States of America begun. During the years this neighbourhood also became the preferred living area of Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Burmese, Vietnamese and Filipinos.

This begun between 1840 to 1850. During these years many people were lured to the Pacific coast by the myth of the Gold Rush and these people were not only Americans. People in foreign countries of the world heard about this and decided to travel to California and the West of the USA to try to find some gold and became wealthy. This was the main reason for Chinese people, too. Most of them did not find gold but they got labour in railroad companies which built the Central Pacific Railroad at this time. Their new ambition was earning as much money as possible and moving back to China, building a small house and marrying. But their plans changed and most of them stayed in the USA and spread out across the whole United States. During the immigration through Ellis Island, New York, many Chinese passed this island and stayed in New York where the China Town borough grew bigger and bigger. Today everywhere in the United States culture you can see the influence of the immigrants. You can find restaurants, schools, artists, stores and people of every culture of the world in New York. One place with a big Asian influence is the Columbus Park, the largest park of China Town built in 1890. If you take a walk there in the early morning you would see many people who are practising tai chi or yoga. This park also gives place to many Chinese festivals and other events.

Another example for the mix of the cultures is that the oldest Catholic church of New York, the Church of Transfiguration, became the home of the Catholic Chinese community, which is still growing because the different cultures are mixing themselves.

But the main example for the integration of the Chinese culture is that they built the Mahayana Buddhist Temple in New York. In this temple you can see a 16 feet golden Buddha statue. You can find sculptures like this just in cities that totally accepted the religion and the culture as it happened in New York many decades before.

Ellis Island

Ellis Island is an island, located at New York Harbor. The northern part of the Island belongs to the state of New York, the southern part to New Jersey. It was sold by Samuel Ellis and was originally named Oyster Island. It was used by the government as a point of reference for immigrants who entered the United States.

Today it houses a museum, which you can reach by ferry or by bridge that connects the island with Liberty State Park in New Jersey. There was a wall of honor erected outside next to the main building, which functions as the museum now. This wall honors every immigrant in a time span of about 400 years, that ever reached the USA by entering at the east coast, not only through the Ellis Island facilities.

Ellis Island was used as the main facility for entry from January 1, 1892 till December 12, 1945. Approximately 12 million people immigrated to the US during this time.

The First person to come to New York and pass through Ellis Island was 15-year-old Annie Moore from Ireland. As a price she was given a gold piece, worth $ 10,000. The last person who is recorded was the Norwegian merchant seaman Arne Peterssen.

Ellis Island had to only be passed through by third class immigrants, first and second class people were granted immediate entry and had to only pass a short physical at the ship they came in. About 70% of all immigrants who entered the US from 1892 till 1945 were third class passengers. They had to pass a medical examination and in addition to that were asked questions about themselves and their reason for coming. Those who had visible health problems, diseases or mental disabilities were held at the hospital or sent back. About 2% of those who came to Ellis Island were sent back. Because of this the island was also known as “The Island of Tears” or “Heartbreak Island”.

Following, there is an example of success in New York by people immigrating through the Ellis Island facilities.

A story about Seymour Rechtzeit

Seymour Rechtzeit was a Jewish boy born in Poland in 1912. He started singing at four years of age and was known as the Wonder Child. Because of this his family decided to bring him to America. His uncle, who lived in America, sent two tickets for Seymour and his father. The plan was that the father should make money to bring the rest of the family to the USA. In 1920 they started the journey to America and were for two weeks on a ship. To be allowed to enter the country, immigrants had to pass a medical examination at Ellis Island and answer questions like “What are your plans in America?” Because Seymour had a cold he couldn’t enter and had to stay at Ellis Island. After the cold went away he was able to leave and stay with his uncle und father. He was sent to school there and he started singing in concerts and making money to help the rest of his family. Seymour became a child star of vaudeville (a kind of entertainment in which actors sing and tell stories) and was very popular. In 1924 he had enough money to bring his mother and sister to America, but not as many immigrants were allowed to enter. A congressman arranged him to sing in Washington D.C. for leaders at the capitol. The politicians liked him and gave him an invitation to sing for the president, Calvin Coolidge, in the White House. The president wanted to meet Seymour and help to bring his family to the USA. Years later he became a star of a Yiddish Theater. Then he went back to Europe, traveling as an actor, but he never returned to Poland.

This story about the little boy who travels just with his father to America is a good example for success. First he got money to help his family come to America and then he became a successful singer and actor in America and later in Europe.

Fulfillment and failure in the novel ‘Moon Palace’ by Paul Auster


The first person we have a look at is Marco Stanly Fogg. After his difficult start in New York (which we will elaborate on later), he finds Central Park as a place to think about things which happened, which also offers him kind of openness and freedom from social control and psychological pressures. Whereas he doesn’t feel well but foreign in the city, Central Park gives him privacy. Central Park is also a kind of training for going West in the end of the novel.

Besides, Marco gets to know some very kind people while living in New York. He meets Zimmer, who has always been a good friend of his and Marco can always rely on him. This becomes especially clear when Zimmer pays food and the rent for the apartment for Marco, who has serious financial problems at that time. The second person he can always trust is Kitty Wu. After she rescues him from death in Central Park, she is the one who changes his life into a better one. She makes him feel happy and self-confident and she helps him to solve his conflicts with Effing. Later Marco lives happily with Kitty Wu in China Town, so you could say that he finds his big love in New York. An aspect underlining this assumption is that Marco himself says that he had the best time of his life when being with Kitty in New York. So the second person, who makes the experience of fulfillment in New York, is Kitty Wu. Once she had emigrated from Asia to New York to get a better school education, she is offered everything a young girl needs, e.g. she is given the chance to go to ballet lessons. Other persons whose lives improve in New York are Solomon Barber and his long lost father Thomas Effing. After a lot of difficulties Thomas Effing finds his final place to live in New York. With the help of his housekeeper and nurse, Mrs Hume, he enjoys his life and the given silence. While searching for somebody to entertain him, he finds his grandson, Marco Stanley Fogg, in the person he engages. Solomon Barber also meets Marco in New York and he soon realizes that this boy is his son. Apart from that, Marco is the only person who wants to help Solomon to fulfill his dream - to search for Effing’s cave in the desert.


Also in this subject Marco is the first person we want to have a look at. When he comes to New York to go to Columbia University, his Uncle, who always took care of him, dies in a traffic accident. So he is alone and has to do all the things on his own. That’s why he soon gets financial problems and he has to leave the rented apartment and in the end he even doesn’t have enough money to buy some food. So he decides to live in Central Park. Even though he has the time to think about the death of his uncle and his mind becomes clear, he gets to know what homelessness and violence mean. His physical condition becomes worse and worse, he loses weight and later he is even close to death. Marco doesn’t feel well in the city and lives just temporarily in different apartments, which are barely furnished. One big reason for his bad condition is that he thinks that people are staring at him, especially in the time when he is homeless. All in all Marco doesn’t find his fulfilment in New York City, otherwise he wouldn’t have gone away to search for his real identity in the desert.

The relationship between Marco and Kitty Wu goes well at first until Kitty gets pregnant. Whereas he is of the opinion that having a baby would get him out of the long-lost-father-vicious circle, Kitty Wu thinks that she is too young for having a child and she decides to abort the pregnancy. The result is a shocked and lonely-feeling Marco who isn’t attracted by anything in the city and follows Solomon’s plan to search for Effing’s cave in the desert.

Siehe auch