Great River Critical Essays

Paul Horgan


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 947 words.)