Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water Themes

Marc Reisner


(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Nature versus Technology
The recently popularized genre of revisionist history signifies a shift in the conceptualization of historical narratives, examining thematic structures of the past and present rather than a chronological grand narrative, retelling events through a selected viewpoint of, for example, technological development and theory. Reisner’s book, one of the most popular of this kind, embodies this new approach in its thematic selection of events used to tell a new history of the West. The theme of nature versus technology is an obvious choice in writing from an environmentalist perspective.

In its very title, Cadillac Desert contains an ideological dualism that Reisner explores in his book: one symbolized by a car brand, as an all- American emblem of transportation and exploration, and the other equivalent to nature’s most hostile habitat for humans—and the most difficult one to adapt to their use. The fact that the Great American Desert has been populated and drastically changed to fit human needs is criticized throughout the book, in keeping with a developing environmentalist tradition. Reisner condemns taming the desert and tampering with nature because it can only result in severe damage—to the landscape and to the society attempting to live outside its environmental means.

Although it criticizes all human efforts to conquer the West’s most precious resource, Cadillac Desert also suggests that dams are the most visible points of the conflict between nature and technology. In his descriptions of the water projects in the West, Reisner acknowledges they are both majestic and hideous: ‘‘When visitors were led to the canyon rim to watch Boulder Dam on the rise, there was usually a long moment of silence . . . that expressed proper...

(The entire section is 739 words.)