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The historian and novelist Paul Horgan has often been labeled a regionalist writer, but his work is actually more concerned with transcontinental themes than local issues—especially the confrontation between the eastern half of the United States and the western. Nowhere is this confrontation clearer than in Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History. Great River, which won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1954, tells the story of the Rio Grande—a river that begins in the mountains of southwestern Colorado, flows through New Mexico, then becomes the boundary between Texas and Mexico until it finds its outlet in the Gulf of Mexico. Horgan began writing the book in 1940 and spent two years on it before entering the American armed forces to serve in World War II. He resumed writing in 1946 and finished the book in 1954, spending ten years researching and writing what has become his best-known work. Horgan traveled the 1,800 miles of the Rio Grande three times and made dozens of shorter trips in preparation for his book, and the intimate familiarity that he has with the river and its peoples is one of the most striking things about this history.

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As Horgan narrates the history of this region, he focuses on both the river and the people who have lived near it over a 1,000-year period. Horgan’s particular attention is focused on the humans who have lived on or near the Rio Grande and the four cultures that have dominated the region. One of the more exciting aspects of Great River is that Horgan does not produce a bare historical record of the river and its human neighbors but instead creates a sense of the historical experience of the people as well as their social context.

Horgan draws on his skills as a novelist to present this history in a scenic, narrative fashion. Although some historians have faulted Horgan for his decision not to use footnotes or running references in the text itself, the decision exemplifies Horgan’s synthesis of imagination and fact to produce a narrative that would capture the reader’s interest rather than divert that interest with scholarly apparatus. Horgan does include an extensive bibliographic listing of the sources he used in writing Great River.

Nowhere in the United States is water a more important issue than in the arid Southwest, and the Rio Grande is a lifeline that flows through the region, providing a natural focus for the author. Great River is a work of history built upon narrative and descriptive modes of writing. Although he is writing about a river, Horgan’s focus is upon the people who have lived in the region—especially those who have been influential in shaping the region’s history.

Horgan uses the four cultures that have dominated the river valley to organize his account. The work has four major sections: “The Indian Rio Grande,” “The Spanish Rio Grande,” “The Mexican Rio Grande,” and “The United States Rio Grande.” Each section provides insights into the social organization and culture of the group he is describing, then presents the major historical events that shaped that group’s time in the Rio Grande region.

The work begins with a portrait of the Rio Grande itself—a prologue titled “Riverscape” that underscores the importance of landscape in the lives of the people who inhabit a region. Horgan then begins the history of the region itself. For the cultures that have lived in the region, he includes chapters on such things as each culture’s elements of belief, customs, and group behavior. As he describes the Native Americans who made the Rio Grande their home, for example, he presents details about such things as their religious beliefs, homes, clothing, farming and hunting, modes of travel and trade, and attitudes toward death. He thus gives the reader a sense of each culture and the dynamics that drove it and also of how the landscape and its imperatives helped determine group behavior and social dynamics.

Nevertheless, these chapters on the groups—while valuable—are not the source of the history’s energy. That comes from Horgan’s focus on the individuals who have lived in the region. This book uses individuals and episodes of history to convey a sense of the sweep of time and the role of the individual in shaping history. Horgan employs the Rio Grande as a metaphor for the Southwest; in a sense what he is writing is a biography of that region through the biographies of the individuals who have played important roles in its history.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 70

Day, James M. Paul Horgan, 1967.

Gish, Robert. Paul Horgan, 1983.

Kraft, James. “No Quarter Given: An Essay on Paul Horgan,” in Southwestern Historical Quarterly. LXXX (July, 1976), pp. 1-32.

Kraft, James. “A Provisional Bibliography of the Author’s Work,” in Approaches to Writing, 1973.

Milton, John R. “Paul Horgan,” in South Dakota Review. II (Autumn, 1964), pp. 27-32.

Reeve, Frank D. “A Letter to Clio,” in New Mexico Historical Review. XXXI (April, 1956), pp. 102-132.

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