Historians of the West have typically focused on events that opened the great landscape of the American Desert to settlers. Such events included the Lewis and Clark Expedition, wars with the Indians of the Great Plains, and the Homestead Act of 1862. New historians of the American West have been employing a political environmentalism to develop an environmental history, which has led to a number of revisionist approaches to American West narratives.
Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert is such a revisionist history. His focus on the creation of infrastructure to support Western settlement exposes a history, not of rugged individualism and romantic cowboys, but of the construction of a heavily subsidized and tremendously expensive ‘‘hydraulic society,’’ founded on and maintained by the greed and competitiveness that is behind the American Dream. Reisner examines the West’s ecologically dangerous, and ultimately harmful, dependence on dams and aqueducts, as Americans pursue the ideal of taming the Great American Desert. The author focuses on the relentless building of dams and irrigation systems, as well as the corruption behind these developments, to show how the American need to control the environment has affected (and still does affect) the ecological welfare of national resources. Reisner also describes the rivalry between two governmental powers, the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engi neers, in their attempts to transform the nature of the American West.
The year it was published, Reisner’s book became a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1999, Cadillac Desert was placed sixty-first on the Modern Library list of the most notable nonfiction English books of the twentieth century. Reisner’s book has inspired an entire generation of historians and historically aware environmental activists.