Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 947

Great River is a sweeping, narrative history. Horgan claimed, “I have wanted to produce a sense of historical experience, rather than a bare record. This required me wherever possible to see events, societies, movements, through human characters in action.” Horgan’s approach to history is biographical, and his major interest is in the people who have been shaped by the region and who have in turn helped to shape it.

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Horgan actually is writing history as a form of biography—a sort of biography of the Rio Grande that stretches from the lives of the Native Americans who inhabited the river valley five hundred years before the Spanish penetrated it to the mid-twentieth century technology of the atomic bomb, which was born in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Horgan wants to present a broad portrait of the land and the lives of the people who have lived there, a kind of geographical, political, and social history.

Horgan’s vision of the history of the Rio Grande region is one built implicitly on a vision of progress. He writes from the perspective of the Anglo-American and presents each of the four phases of habitation in the region as stages in the progress toward the democratic individualism that would eventually be realized when the area became part of the United States after the Mexican War. As he describes the coming of Anglo-Americans to the Rio Grande, for example, he discusses the soldiers serving in Taylor’s army and states,. . . but now once again change, coming with a final sovereignty, was about to make its way along the whole river with an energy and a complexity unknown in the earlier societies of the Indian, the Spaniard and the Mexican.

The vision of the Spanish conquering the Indians and of the Anglo-American dominating the Spanish becomes a movement toward progress as inexorable as the movement of the Rio Grande toward the Gulf of Mexico. Horgan’s vision is, in this particular, ethnocentric and even elitist. His evolutionary view of history seems a bit dated, especially from a cultural stance that values difference and relativism. For example, in discussing the movement of Anglo-Americans into the Rio Grande region, he refers to the energy of these settlers. This energy was founded on an individualism that he did not find in the “anonymous communal arrangement” of the Indians or the inertia of the Spanish state which “allowed the high cultivation of the individual yet denied it any expression that was not in harmony with the prevailing official position of the state.” Horgan never seems to doubt that the vision of civilization put forth by those settlers who came from the United States is, in some sense, superior to the civilization that existed before their arrival.

His vision of the region is dominated by his sense of the place of men and women in geography and history. Although he is writing the biography of a river, he assumes that the landscape has no meaning without the people who inhabit it: “The main physical circumstances of the Rio Grande are timeless. They assume meaning only in terms of people who came to the river.”

Horgan presents the biographies of a number of individuals, including soldiers, cowboys, mountain men, explorers, priests, and presidents. Although he describes the lives of this broad variety of people, his biographical approach as well as the theory of history implicit in the book, which sees the history of the region as a series of progressive steps toward its eventual culmination in Anglo-American civilization and democratic individualism, at times becomes a version of what is often called the “great man theory of history.” This approach demands that the historian spend most of his time on major historical events and the men and women who played leading roles in them. Yet this does not mean that Horgan undervalues those men and women who did not play a major role on the stage of history.

Nowhere is Horgan’s approach to history clearer than in “The United States Rio Grande.” This last section of the work considers three events and the people involved in them in the most detail: the Mexican War, the Civil War, and Pancho Villa’s raid on Columbus, New Mexico. When Horgan presents the Mexican War, he chooses several individuals and then traces their lives as they participate in the events of the war. These men include General Zachary Taylor, the commander of the United States Army in the north, Major Jacob Brown, who commanded Fort Texas and was killed in the shelling, and General Stephen Watts Kearney, who led the march into New Mexico and California. Horgan follows the Mexican War until its conclusion with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (signed on February 2, 1848, and ratified on March 10, 1848). This treaty set the Rio Grande as the border between the United States and Mexico from its mouth to the thirty-second parallel. With the Gadsden Purchase of 1853, the modern boundaries of the continental United States were established. Horgan uses the same method of detailing the lives of people involved with the events as he narrates the history of the Rio Grande during the Civil War and, later, tells the story of Villa’s raid and the retaliation led by General John J. Pershing.

As mentioned earlier, Horgan is not solely concerned with the men and women who played leading roles in the play of history. Perhaps the most substantial contribution of this book is the social history he provides as he details customs and values. He tries to present the worldviews of the various cultures who inhabited the region—their values, attitudes, domestic customs, language, arts, crafts, and sense of themselves as a community.

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Critical Context