Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The historian and novelist Paul Horgan has often been labeled a regionalist writer, but his work is actually more concerned with transcontinental themes than local issues—especially the confrontation between the eastern half of the United States and the western. Nowhere is this confrontation clearer than in Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History. Great River, which won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1954, tells the story of the Rio Grande—a river that begins in the mountains of southwestern Colorado, flows through New Mexico, then becomes the boundary between Texas and Mexico until it finds its outlet in the Gulf of Mexico. Horgan began writing the book in 1940 and spent two years on it before entering the American armed forces to serve in World War II. He resumed writing in 1946 and finished the book in 1954, spending ten years researching and writing what has become his best-known work. Horgan traveled the 1,800 miles of the Rio Grande three times and made dozens of shorter trips in preparation for his book, and the intimate familiarity that he has with the river and its peoples is one of the most striking things about this history.

As Horgan narrates the history of this region, he focuses on both the river and the people who have lived near it over a 1,000-year period. Horgan’s particular attention is focused on the humans who have lived on or near the Rio Grande and the four cultures that have dominated the region. One of the more exciting aspects of Great River is that Horgan does not produce a bare historical record of the river and its human neighbors but instead creates a sense of the historical experience of the people as well as their social context.

Horgan draws on his skills as a novelist to present this history in a scenic, narrative fashion. Although some historians have...

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Great River Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Day, James M. Paul Horgan, 1967.

Gish, Robert. Paul Horgan, 1983.

Kraft, James. “No Quarter Given: An Essay on Paul Horgan,” in Southwestern Historical Quarterly. LXXX (July, 1976), pp. 1-32.

Kraft, James. “A Provisional Bibliography of the Author’s Work,” in Approaches to Writing, 1973.

Milton, John R. “Paul Horgan,” in South Dakota Review. II (Autumn, 1964), pp. 27-32.

Reeve, Frank D. “A Letter to Clio,” in New Mexico Historical Review. XXXI (April, 1956), pp. 102-132.