The Magazine

The Health of the Country

Go West, Young Valetudinarian.

Sep 16, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 01 • By VICTOR DAVIS HANSON
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The Health of the Country:
How American Settlers Understood Themselves and Their Land
by Conevery Bolton Valencius
Basic, 384 pp., $30

We often envision frontiersmen and settlers mostly as impoverished immigrants who went west to find wealth, cheap land, or escape from the law, creditors, and Eastern monotony. Traditional histories of the American expansion revolve around their wars -- massacres and counter-massacres between whites, Indians, Mormons, and Mexicans -- and the politics of statehood, open rangeland, water and mineral rights, and the railroads.

But according to Conevery Valencius in The Health of the Country: How American Settlers Understood Themselves and Their Land, none of these conventional approaches makes much sense without uncovering the mentality of American settlers -- specifically the obsessive ways in which they viewed their own health and its total dependence upon the natural environment.

Today, divorced from hard physical work, ignorant of farming, surrounded by appliances, and the beneficiaries of high-tech medical science, few of us worry much about the effect of water, air, heat, and soil upon our daily well-being. We become sick because of a particular virus, bacterium, parasite, or tumor -- and expect to be diagnosed properly and cured promptly through the proper antibiotic, antiviral agent, surgery, or chemotherapy. CAT scans, MRIs, spinal taps, blood tests, and a host of other diagnostic tools seek to establish cause and effect: A particular pathogen makes us sick, and thus its elimination can make us well. In the meantime, we go on with our lives, hardly worried whether it rains or snows, whether cumulus clouds are on the horizon, whether pools of rainwater collect in the street, or whether we get transferred to sultry Houston or crisp Minneapolis.

No so our ancestors on the frontier. Still captive after 2,400 years to a Hippocratic exegesis of wellness as the proper mixture of four humors -- blood, phlegm, yellow and black bile -- early Americans saw health's balance as precarious. Being well or sick depended almost entirely on the immediate surrounding landscape, one that was foreign and exotic to most arrivals from the east. Unlike modern man, nineteenth-century people could not trump their environment, and thus sought to bend to its frightening dictates in almost every aspect of travel, sleep, work, and eating.

Ague (malaria), consumption (tuberculosis), boils (tumors and infected wounds), chills (infectious disease), and flux (dysentery) were thought to be the results of extremes of temperature, malodorous air, sudden changes of scenery, out-of-season rains, and standing water. The remedy was two-fold: migrating to a healthier climate (usually somewhere drier, higher, colder -- and poorer) and undergoing a frightening regimen that might include blood-letting, purges, or the ingestion of opium and mercury that often were more likely to kill than cure the patient. At its best, early medicine at least understood that particular habits -- plenty of rest, hard physical work, normal sleeping hours, avoidance of alcohol and obesity -- could create a healthy "constitution" that might withstand the land and elements, and therefore not "break" under the assaults of both.

Valencius's purposes in The Health of the Country transcend her fascinating descriptions of private letters and diaries attesting to frontier people's terror of and close attention to the sickly seasons of the new western environment. Much of her narrative revolves around Arkansas, Missouri, and the Mississippi Valley, explaining in novel ways the rather peculiar culture of the South -- a region deemed unhealthy for white people from northern Europe but in turn ideal for Africans who purportedly alone could withstand the temperatures and were believed better immune from attendant tropical maladies.

Today we care little for such environmental determinism, when air-conditioners, an array of medicines, and chlorinated drinking water and swimming pools can make tropical life not merely endurable, but often a vacation paradise. But for Europeans two centuries ago to survive in the "effluvia" and "miasma" of swampland, others more "naturally" acclimated to such an environment would have to do the menial work. Meanwhile, periodic naps and rests, confinement indoors, a less frenzied pace, and periodic seasonal changes of residence were essential for survival. It was not merely the racist pseudo-science of genetic inferiority that was the basis for chattel slavery, but also a strange belief in the physical superiority of blacks over whites.