To The Halls Of The Montezumas: The Mexican-American War In The American Imagination, by Robert W. Johannsen
What influence did the Mexican-American War have on American culture? This is a difficult and complicated question. After all, the Mexican-American War brought the Southwestern United States into the United States, so the aspects of American culture that depend on the areas of Utah, much of Colorado and Wyoming, California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona are all thanks in part at least indirectly to the war. Likewise, the war had a great effect on soldiers (many of whom wrote their travel experiences to local newspapers and family and friends, sometimes to the annoyance of the War Department). Then, of course, there is the question of diet, as Americans first became familiar with Mexican cuisine as a result of invading the country. There are better ways to know a nation’s cuisine, but it certainly accounts at least in part for the fondness of Americans for such cuisine in the nearly two centuries since the war. Likewise, it is striking that the Mexican-American War, despite being an intensely interesting saga, has not inspired a great deal of amazing American literature or drama, although at least some works deal with the subject thoughtfully in one way or another.
This book is organized in a thematic fashion that is only roughly chronological, taking up more than 300 pages of material in ten chapters bookended by a prologue that looks to Washington DC on July 4, 1848 as peace was announced and ends with an epilogue that discusses the ambiguous new epoch in American history that followed the Mexican-American War. In between there are chapters about the nature of the Mexican-American War as the first foreign war (1), with all that entails for cross-cultural experiences. The author praises the dare-devil spirit of many soldiers (2) as well as the true spirit of patriot virtue that was praised in official accounts as well as the self-memory of many soldiers (3) and the romantic visions of glory and romance that were sometimes dashed in grim atrocities (4). The author discusses the new stock of heroes that came to prominence because of the war (5) as well as the travel-literature that was greatly increased by the war (6). The author talks about the war-literature that came about from the accounts of second-hand novel writers frequently in sub-literary fashion (7) as well as the influence of war on poetry and the popular arts (8). Finally the author takes on the way that historians treated the war at the time (9) and how the war led many people to be concerned about the fate of the republic (10), a not unreasonable concern to have given the context of the war in American history.
What is it that prevented the Mexican-American War from having the same sort of effect on American culture that the Civil War had? Many people, including the author and some of the sources he cites, blame the proximity of the Civil War and the way that the Mexican-American War got embedded as one of the causes of that war, for overwhelming the earlier conflict as a matter on its own. It is also interesting that a great many of the eminent historians and writers of the period wanted little to do with writing about the war, whether their feelings about it were ambivalent or whether they had partisan praise. When Nathaniel Hawthorne only writes about the war to the extent that he can help the unworthy Franklin Pierce win election and one eminent historian decides that he’d rather write about Philip II then the war, then one can understand that part of the problem with regards to the influence of the Mexican-American war was that many authors of quality avoided writing about it at depth and those who did write about it stumbled for one reason or another, including a lack of vivid imagination aw well as a lack of skill.