Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water

by Marc Reisner

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Critical Overview

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Except for an exceptional handful, reviewers of Cadillac Desert have been so persuaded by Reisner’s work as to become unabashed acolytes of his position. This number of devotees has grown over time, as the book has remained immensely popular. Early reviewers, however, immediately compared the book with Rivers of Empire, by Donald Worster, and were more objective. The two works are both revisionist histories. Reisner’s work was welcomed as a good enhancement of Worster’s book; many critics, like Grace Lichtenstein in the Washington Post, say the work ‘‘is a highly partisan, wonderfully readable portrayal of the damming, diverting and dirtying of Western rivers.’’

Dean E. Mann compares the two in some detail in his ‘‘Water and the American West.’’ He notes that while Worster goes to great lengths to work the history of the American West into the theoretical construct of Karl Wittfogel’s ‘‘hydraulic society,’’ Reisner is motivated by his environmentalism to point out the ‘‘wrongheadedness of federal water policy.’’ Thus, where Worster might see federal agencies as tools of a ruling class, Reisner sees stupidity. Mann’s critical objection that the Eastern United States is as ‘‘wrongheaded’’ as the West and other objections are rare among reviews.

More typically, Gladwin Hill, in ‘‘When the Bill for the Marvels Falls Due,’’ wants all taxpayers to read the book so that they will pressure their representatives to stop the wastefulness. By the early 1990s, Cadillac Desert had acquired canonical status. This has led to a new view of the West as a series of pork-barrel projects and environmental degradations. Therefore, reviewers invoke Reisner to sum up western history as, in the words of Gina Maranto for a review of Overtapped Oasis in the New York Times Book Review, ‘‘how the West was plumbed.’’

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