Donald Worster has written several sustained examinations of events or processes in the history of the American West. The two most prominent are a history of the Dust Bowl (Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s, 1979) and a study of the development of irrigation agriculture (Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West, 1986). Under Western Skies—the title recalls Joseph Conrad’s novel Under Western Eyes (1911)—is a collection of eleven essays on topics of Western American history. They include Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis about the closing of the West in 1890, the concept of the West as a region, the cattle rancher’s relationship to the environment (“Cowboy Ecology”), the role of water in semiarid lands (“The Hydraulic West”), the Sioux claim to the Black Hills, “The Great Plough-up” in the southern High Plains that led to the Dust Bowl in the 1930’s, oil in Alaska, and what Worster calls “the Western Identity.” The themes are presented as chapters rather than essays, but some were written as addresses or independent studies with different audiences in mind. Worster, however, never strays far from three main concerns: the writing of regional history, the interaction of people and nature, and the role of natural resources, what he calls “concentrated power.”
Worster’s new book is an important contribution to a contemporary debate about the real nature of the American West; some of the participants are occasionally called “revisionist” historians. Attention has been called to this debate by the news media—for example, an issue of Newsweek(September 30, 1991) and a long summing up by Larry McMurtry in The New Republic (October 22, 1990). One of the most forceful statements of this new history was Patricia Limerick’s bookThe Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (1987). Attacking many of the stereotypes about the Old West as mixtures of myth, wishful thinking, and outright falsification, Limerick asserted that many American habits of thought attached to westward expansion persist “in cheerful defiance of contrary evidence,” and should be treated by the historian “anthropologically.” Worster quotes Limerick approvingly in Under Western Skies, and like her he grounds his history of the West in a careful reading of documents as well as in a concern for economic realities.
The West has always been a subject for myth. In the beginning, when the area of the present Midwest (then the trans-Mississippi West) was first explored by Europeans, it was subject to gross exaggeration and falsification. It was a “perpetual mirage,” in the words of the historian Walter Prescott; it served as a great screen on which the Europeans projected their own desires and preconceptions. Worster notes that the lack of trees always facilitated this process of projection against the landscape: “Here in a landscape generally free of trees, where no forests crowded in and impinged on the view, all physical restraint seemed to be removed.”
One of the first desires projected against the landscape was greed. When explorers asked Native Americans they encountered whether gold or silver existed on their lands, the respondents often said (or the European explorers thought they said) that yes, just beyond the next valley, or the next range, they could find what they were looking for. Early maps, for example those of Guillaume Delisle in the 1780’s and 1790’s, show numerous mines, and these maps were based on written accounts of “relations.” The Jesuits found lumps of copper at their missions on Lake Superior and entertained dreams of creating a sovereign enclave comparable to Paraguay, which they controlled at the time; this would permit them to gain a monopoly on the region’s copper. These episodes belong to the literature of exploration of America, and in this domain no clear distinction can be made between the Midwest, the South, and the West. In addition, the literature of exploration has no single nationality—it was written in French, Spanish, English, and other languages.
Worster is not interested in the earlier period of exploration, but in the settling of the West; he rarely refers to the period before the Civil War. He is, however, concerned with mythology and what he calls false history—these are what he tries to avoid at all costs. Writing about the vision of Josiah Gregg, a nineteenth century traveler in the Southwest, Worster says
I, on the other hand, representing a new generation of western historians, find it harder to take such a favorable view of Gregg’s vision of conquest. That almost transcendental faith in American growth seems far from being justified by the subsequent facts of history.…In this reversal of assessment I am not alone. A growing number of citizens has become skeptical of where some of our national trails and ambitions have led.
Worster even uses the word “pioneers” with reluctance, because it is overladen with self-serving myths and anachronisms. He writes: “Thus, the western story appeared to be not one of pioneers turning their back on a spoiled past but one of competitive, conformist drives to be in the national mainstream.”
If there is a villain in Worster’s book, it is Frederick Jackson Turner, as well as other “frontier scholars” who followed his lead, such as Ray Allen Billington. Worster addresses Turner’s theories directly in his first chapter, “Beyond the Agrarian Myth,” but he also refers to...
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