An Empire Wilderness

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

AN EMPIRE WILDERNESS: TRAVELS INTO AMERICA’S FUTURE is a book in the spirit of Alexis de Tocqueville’s DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA (1835): Part travelogue and part social commentary, it concerns itself with what American culture is and what it is likely to become.

A contributing editor for ATLANTIC MONTHLY, Robert D. Kaplan takes a intimate, fresh look at the American West. During two trips in the mid-1990’s, he talked to people in thirteen states, Mexico, and British Columbia who represent major ethnic groups and a wide variety of backgrounds. The mosaic of interviews, often complemented by historical and sociological studies, reveals trends that Kaplan thinks will transform twenty-first century America as a whole.

First, a growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots encourages the former to move out of cities into “posturban pods” segregated by class, economics, or race, leaving behind the poor in a dysfunctional hub. Second, people, feeling a growing sense of “placelessness,” spend less time in community involvement than in the global culture fed to them via telecommunications and computer networks.

Most important, this technological connectedness encourages the wealthy and well educated to look beyond borders. The Southwest, for example, is growing closer to northern Mexico and Washington-Oregon to British Columbia. Global culture favors those who possess class or educational qualifications to own and use its technology. The unqualified are doomed to poverty, as well-educated immigrants are hired to fill the best jobs.

With regions looking outward rather than inward to Washington, D.C., the federal government may become little more than a defense contractor and disaster relief agency. The arrangement, Kaplan intimates somewhat gloomily, would not be the United States as late-twentieth century citizens know it.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIV, August, 1998, p. 1956.

Commentary. CVI, November, 1998, p. 65.

Insight on the News. XIV, October 19, 1998, p. 36.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 4, 1998, p. 3.

The Nation. CCLXVI, November 16, 1998, p. 42.

National Review. L, December 7, 1998, p. 63.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, September 6, 1998, p. 4.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, August 24, 1998, p. 39.

The Wall Street Journal. August 27, 1998, p. A12.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, October 18, 1998, p. 4.

An Empire Wilderness

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

A contributing editor for Atlantic Monthly, Robert D. Kaplan is an observer and analyst of modern conflicts. In such best-selling books as Balkan Ghosts (1993) and The Ends of the Earth (1996), he finds that societies are fragmenting along religious, class, or economic lines, that traditional national governments are becoming ineffectual or irrelevant, that police and military units are altering tactics to protect the wealthy from the growing armies of the poor, and that all such change is accelerating because of technology and the urbanization of the world’s population.

In An Empire Wilderness, like a modern Alexis de Tocqueville, Kaplan, reared on the Eastern Seaboard, wanders through territory foreign to him—the West, the region that has always represented America’s deepest hopes and sensibility because it was the frontier and therefore the land of opportunity. The physical frontier ceased to exist by the beginning of the twentieth century, but as Kaplan argues, the West still represents opportunity because, less burdened by traditions and richer in resources than the East, it is more open to change. Kaplan went hunting for trends and, not surprisingly, uncovered signs of not just change but also a transformation of the American political, economic, and racial landscape. Kaplan’s critics charge that he has made a career out of worrying about social trends that seem untethered to traditional order. An Empire Wilderness is sure to encourage such criticism. While humor does sometimes enter the narrative, the evolutions of Western society that Kaplan discerns alarm him.

Whether readers should also feel alarmed is another matter. In his preface, he points out that the book is not a formal, comprehensive study. In fact, although Kaplan cites histories and formal studies by others, his mode of argument is not essentially objective. He recounts two trips that he took through the West and reports what he saw, what he heard Westerners say, and how these shaped his understanding. The book, then, is the “story of an idea as it emerged.” Impressions steer the narrative.

Intimately intellectual, the book has considerable persuasive power. Kaplan is a penetrating observer; unafraid to make value judgments, he is yet sensitive to the subtleties of human interactions. Moreover, his style is supple and moving. He writes lovely scenic descriptions, knows how to let the character of his interviewees emerge from quotations and dialogue, and sometimes interjects analogies that are so unexpected and trenchant that the reader recognizes a powerful, independent intellect in him. Still, personal-point-of-view journalism is inherently selective; if it is to be convincing, it must show readers a large, diverse selection to avoid appearing biased or arbitrary. Here Kaplan shines. He interviewed a great variety of people (or overheard their conversations). During his main expedition, he traveled from St. Louis through Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and into British Columbia before stopping in Oregon. One side trip took him through Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona and deep into Mexico; for a second side trip, he accompanied a busload of students from the military’s Battle Command Training Program to the Civil War battlefields around Vicksburg, Mississippi. The narrative is studded with the remarks of military officers, real-estate developers, law-enforcement officials, academics (especially historians and social scientists), bureaucrats and statistics collectors, drug traffickers, atomic- bomb makers, journalists, writers, poets, politicians, homeless people, economic development promoters, and a cab driver—African Americans, Asian Americans, American Indians, whites, and Latinos. The reader witnesses the diversity of the West along with Kaplan.

The interviews, conversations, and eavesdropping form a mosaic that conveys the dominant theme: America is becoming homogenized, as is everywhere else in the world. Transportation, telecommunication, advertising, and computer technology expose people—wealthy and educated people, at least—to common ideas and modes of thought, thereby drawing them together culturally. As one place in the West becomes like every other place, there is a concomitant loss of local character, a “placelessness,” and less community behavior.

Decentralization comes from this placelessness and from the growing chasm between the haves and the have-nots. The wealthy and the upper middle class move out of cities and into gated communities with their own security guards and shopping malls; they earn their living from the global economy and computer networking. As a result, multinational...

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