For most of U.S. history, the exploration, conquering, and settling of the West has been extolled as a triumph of American strength and ideals. The heroic determination of trailblazers such as Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the bloody battles with Indians and Mexicans, and the stoic hard work of pioneers and forty-niners are legendary—quintessential elements of an expanding nation locked on the course of manifest destiny. The particular facts of this period and the stories of its denizens long ago merged into a mythic Old West, depicted in Western novels, films, and television shows, and celebrated for the benefit of tourists in towns from Sacramento and Coloma to Santa Fe and San Antonio. Only slightly less romantic have been textbook portrayals of these times, depicting as they do a story of heroic triumph over adversity.
Increasingly, however, revisionist historians and politically sensitive government agencies have attempted to expose the warts of this period. History books, commemorative markers, films, and museum displays now take breaks in their narratives to point out the environmental damage wrought by gold miners, the decimation of native cultures at the hands of white settlers, the corruption and greed of the railroads, and the sexism, racism, hypocrisy, and other turpitudes that tainted the society being established in the Wild West.
Whereas a more complete view of the West’s founding is desirable and even necessary, some of the revisionist efforts have committed the same sin as those they seek to revise, downplaying context and culture and painting the era, and particularly its heretofore heroes, as more corrupt and villainous than they were. It is exceedingly difficult to challenge fairly and convincingly an ensconced myth, particularly since myths, by their nature, rely so heavily on normative considerations. One would hope that a writer shedding new light on a historical subject would resist the temptation to substitute new biases for old ones, and rather offer new interpretations and insights based on new or neglected factual sources. Such is the accomplishment of David Roberts in his portrayal of two of the most significant heroes of their era in the settling of the West.
Roberts, a well-established author with a number of popular works on exploration to his credit, takes as his subjects John C. Frémont and Kit Carson, who in their day were among the country’s most famous figures. That fame, to be sure, was founded in part on somewhat dubious sources: Frémont’s achievements as an explorer were lionized in somewhat self-congratulatory government reports that he dictated to his wife, who in turn likely embellished them stylistically. His trusted friend Carson, who helped to lead some of Frémont’s most important expeditions, was illiterate, and aside from some taciturn memoirs, was depicted in highly fictional dime novels fighting Indians and rescuing frontier women. Subsequent generations examined the men’s lives and sought to separate fact from fiction. Roberts, however, makes a unique contribution by examining the relationship between the two men, as well as their individual accomplishments. Throughout, Roberts performs this task with diligence and flair.
The book has three somewhat ambitious purposes. First, it is a biography of Frémont and Carson. Roberts examines their family histories, their early lives, and, most thoroughly, their years together. He attempts to include psychological dimensions in his portraits and makes lengthy discourses speculating on such matters as Carson’s attitudes toward Native Americans and Frémont’s preoccupation with his place in history.
The biographical facet of the book is complicated by Roberts’s desire to capture the relationship between the two men. Although Roberts asserts that his book is not intended as a “dual biography” but rather as an examination of “four campaigns that epitomize the two explorers’ triumphs and failures,” Roberts nevertheless devotes considerable effort to creating detailed portraits of the two men as individuals. In a sense, A Newer World contains three biographies: Frémont’s, Carson’s, and the team’s. In depicting the duo, Roberts makes much of the contrasts between the two men: Frémont the vain, somewhat pompous military man given to garrulity; Carson the plainspoken, taciturn mountain man. As with other great odd couples in history, Frémont and Carson are portrayed as...
(The entire section is 1813 words.)