The Great Plains Essay - Critical Essays

Walter Prescott Webb

Critical Evaluation

Since THE GREAT PLAINS was published in 1931 it has become one of the cardinal texts of American Studies, the most significant extension within the United States of the ideas of Frederick Jackson Turner, for despite criticism of both Turner and Webb, their work has served its purpose, that of setting up new frames around known facts and encouraging the exploration of the blank spaces within those borders. But THE GREAT PLAINS belongs in two other contexts. One is the great development of Southwestern studies associated with people like J. Frank Dobie and John Lomax in the first four decades of this century. The second is the canon of the four historical works by Walter Prescott Webb, of which this is the second. The four began with a commissioned history of the Texas Rangers. Contemplation of the effect of the introduction of the six-shooter on the Plains became the germ and center of THE GREAT PLAINS. Webb later turned to consider the imperial-colonial relations of Eastern capital and Western development in DIVIDED WE STAND. Finally he produced his own expanded version of Turner’s “frontier thesis” in THE GREAT FRONTIER, an interpretation of European and world history since 1492 in terms of the influence of the frontier on the metropolis.

The genesis of Webb’s thesis about the Great Plains is briefly described in the preface of this work, in his presidential address in 1958 to the American Historical Society, and in his rejection of Fred A. Shannon’s “Appraisal” of the book for the Social Science Research Council in 1939. “Appraisal,” Webb’s rejection of it, and the conference which involved author and appraiser were the severest testing of the work. The summary of the conference showed that it is impossible to use or even to obtain all the facts needed to support such a general thesis as Webb’s, and that the decision did not affect the growing use of the book by all sorts of people from English students to game wardens. The continuing appeal rests on the scope and novelty of the thesis, as well as on its studied presentation. The orderly sequence of chapters and the clear divisions within chapters are typical of Webb’s work, as is the use of long quotations and epigraphs as well as the use of questions to suggest hypotheses.

Walter Prescott Webb is not a social scientist but an institutional historian whose thesis developed out of and back into his famous Frontier Seminar at the University of Texas. The subtitle, “A Study in Environment and Institutions,” states his intention to study the influence of the former on the latter, and the guiding genius of his work is probably that figure who lurks behind Turner’s thesis: John Wesley Powell, Director of the United States Geological Survey. In accepting the postulate that man does change in response to his environment Webb follows a long line of distinguished historical writers from Buckle and Taine to Ellsworth Huntington; their task has usually been to assert the sudden illumination which contemplation of one historical fact has provided: in Turner’s case the census of 1890; in Webb’s the six-shooter. Although Turner imagined the frontier as a series of bands of...

(The entire section is 1315 words.)