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Gasconade, historians, and the American West

February 20, 2012

This post is honor of this year’s centennial celebrations of New Mexico and Arizona’s admissions to the Union. 

Wallace Stegner’s 1954 Beyond the Hundredth Meridian:  John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West is an absolutely blockbuster biography – the best thing by far that I have read by Stegner.  Wallace considers the good Major not as a wild adventurer who had a nearly-out of control trip down the Colorado River, but rather as a scientist; as a professor of geology and the director of bureau of ethnology at the Smithsonian Institute, whose contributions to linguistic studies and geological surveys of the American West laid the foundation for the modern scientific studies of that region.  Stegner considers Powell’s major work not to be The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons but rather to be his The Arid Lands – which he argues was a work of prophecy that foresaw the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and the Water Wars of our own day.  (Stegner edited The Arid Lands for republication.)

The book starts strong, with Stegner’s dedication to Bernard DeVoto, the celebrated Western historian and Harvard instructor who had a particularly flamboyant style of writing.  (Stegner would later write a biography of DeVoto and edit DeVoto’s letters).  DeVoto also contributed the introduction to Stegner’s biography of Powell, and I want to quote from it to indicate DeVoto’s style – and, although I think DeVoto makes his case somewhat outrageously, I think he is thinking is sound:

A book called The Growth of American Thought [by Merle Curti] was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1944.  At the end of a chapter on “The Nature of the New Nationalism” the central figure [John Wesley Powell] of Mr. Stegner’s book makes a momentary appearance.  A passage which all told is nearly two pages long is discussing “the discovery of the West by a group of scientists who revealed it to the rest of the country.”  (They revealed it, we are to understand, primarily as interesting scenery.)  A paragraph pauses to remark that at that time time these scientists made their discovery, the frontier was vanishing but it “had left distinctive traces on the American mind through its cult of action, rough individualism, physical freedom, and adventurous romance.”  Here are four fixed and indestructible stereotypes about the West, all of them meaningless.  No wonder that on the way to them Mr. Stegner’s subject is dismissed with a sentence which records that “the ethnologist and geologist, John Powell, who explored the Colorado River, the Grand Canyon, and the homeland of Indian tribes of the Southwest, promoted extremely important geological surveys for the federal government.”[…]

Thus “John Powell” was an explorer who embraced the cult of action, whatever that may be, and went down the Colorado and wrote an adventure story.  He also had something to do with geological surveys which were “extremely important” but not important enough to be specified.  Our historian perceives in them nothing that bears on the growth of American thought.[…] Because the historian of thought approaches the West with a handful of clichés, the conditions of life and society are not important.  What counts is […] an “adventurous romance.”[…]

The reason historians have ignored Powell is that the preconceptions with which they have approach the area Powell figures in correspond exactly to the misconceptions with which the American people and their government approached the West. […]  My part here is to explain why writers of history have for so long failed to understand the massive figure of John Wesley Powell and therefore have failed, rather disastrously, to understand the fundamental meaning of the West in American history.

One of the reasons for that failure is beyond explanation:  the tacit classification, the automatic dismissal, of Western history as merely sectional, not national, history.  No such limitation has been placed on the experience of the American people in New England, the South, or the Middle West.  These sections are taken to be organic in the United States and cannot safely be separated from their functional and reciprocal relationships.  When you write Southern history in the round you must deal with such matters as, for instance, the cotton economy, the plantation system, slavery, States’ rights, the tariff, secession, the Civil War, and Reconstruction.  They are so clearly national as well as Southern in implication that it would be impossible to write about them without treating them in relation to the experience of the nation as a whole.  The same statement holds for the historical study of, say, Southern institutions, Southern politics, and Southern thinking – to ignore their national context would clearly be absurd.  Southerners too are acquainted with “action” if not a cult of action, and are known to value “individualism” if not a rough kind of it.  We may observe, even, that the South has some awareness of “physical freedom” and “adventurous romance.”  But an intellectual historian would not write a summary that implied that history need inquire no further – would not dismiss Jefferson with a sentence about his governorship of Virginia or Calhoun with one about his term in the legislature of South Carolina.[…]

The West was the latest and most adventurously romantic of our frontiers, and its history has been written, mostly, as frontier history.  When the word “frontier” is used in history it has, to begin with, been raised to a tolerably high degree of abstraction.  And its inherent abstractness has been almost immeasurably increased by a hypothesis which has dominated much writing about the West and has colored almost all of it, Frederick Jackson Turner’s theory of the function of the “the frontier” in American life.  That theory has, I suppose, begotten more pages of American history than any other generalization.  Till recently no one dreamed of writing about the West without its help.  Indeed its postulate of a specific kind of “frontier” independence, which it derives from the public domain and which it calls the principal energy of American democracy, has heavily buttressed our illusions about the West.  So our problem here exists in a medium of pure irony.  For, to whatever degree the Turner hypothesis may be applicable to the American experience east of the 100th meridian, it fails almost altogether when applied to the West.  The study of a single water war, in fact of a single irrigation district, should reveal its irrelevance.[…]

A small holding that included a water source could prevent access to the basis of life and so give its owner the usufructs of a much larger area which he could keep others from owning.  Adjoining holdings along a stream could similarly dominate a much larger area.  So at a small expense (and by fraud) a corporation could keep individual stockgrowers from a really vast area it did not own but could thus make use of.  Or a corporation could not only charge its own price for water, that is for life, but could control the terms of settlement with all that settlement implies.  Here was another powerful force making for monopoly and speculation.  Clearly, that is clearly to us now, the West could exist as a democratic society only if the law relating to the ownership and use of water were changed.  The changes required were repugnant to our legal system and our set of mind, and again the experience of the West produced turbulence but not understanding.

Moreover, to bring water to land at any distance from the source was an undertaking expensive  beyond the ability of an individual landowner to afford.  As the distance increased it would become expensive beyond the ability first of co-operative groups, then of profit-making corporations, and finally of the individual states to afford.  At they heyday of “individual enterprise” elsewhere in the United States, therefore, the natural conditions of the West demanded federal action in the procurement of water.  And this was repugnant not only to our set of mind but, especially, to our mystical vision of the West, the very citadel, so we insisted on believing, of “rough individualism.”[…]

These principles are described and analyzed, and most of the institutional changes necessary to bring Western society into effective accord with them are stated in Powell’s Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States.  In fact, they are set forth in the first forty-five pages of that monumental and astonishing book, a book which of itself opened a new era in Western and in national thinking.  It is one of the most remarkable books ever written by an American.  In the whole range of American experience from Jamestown on there is no book more prophetic.  It is a scientific prophecy and it has been fulfilled – experimentally proved.  Unhappily the experimental proof has consisted of human and social failure and the destruction of land.  It is a document as basic as The Federalist but it is a tragic document.  For it was published in 1878 and if we could have acted on it in full, incalculable loss would have been prevented and the United States would be happier and wealthier than it is.  We did not even make an effective effort to act on it till 1902.  Half a century after that beginning, we are still far short of catching up with it.  The twist of the knife is that meanwhile irreversible actions went on out west and what we did in error will forever prevent us from catching up with it altogether.[…]

Any day now we may expect the appearance of a historian with a generalizing mind who is bent on achieving a hypothesis about the West in American history that will square with the facts.  When someone achieves it, it will be a more realistic and therefore a more useful theory than Turner’s.

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