There have been revisionist histories of America and the American West at least since the middle of the sixteenth century, when the priest-historian Bartolomé de las Casas accused his fellow Spaniards of the mass murder, essentially the genocide, of millions of Native Americans. In 1879, even as Manifest Destiny and the dream of the open West dominated popular mythology, Henry George warned of the monopolization of western land and concentration of ownership in what Huck Finn was shortly to call "the territory." In 1950 the great literary historian Henry Nash Smith identified the central contradiction in the American agrarian tradition and the romance of the American West:
If nature and the frontier were perfection, what became of civilization and progress? "A system which revolved about a half-mystical conception of nature and held up as an ideal a rudimentary type of agriculture," he wrote, "was powerless to confront issues arising from the advance of technology."
But never has self-conscious revisionism, driven by a new generation of western historians, blossomed as it has in the past decade and a half. These historians--Patricia Nelson Limerick, Richard White, Walter Nugent, Donald Worster, Michael P. Malone--are western both in their interests and in the campuses where most of them teach. Their revisionism is, of course, closely linked with the larger culture wars that have agitated--some would say afflicted--a great many other things, inside the academy and out: the fight in the early 1990s over new national history standards; the broader assault, on the one hand, on Eurocentrism in political outlook and social attitudes; the fear on the other, as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., once put it, that American society is suffering from too much pluribus and not enough unum. Ultimately it has to do with how an increasingly multiracial nation defines itself. What had been fighting words a decade ago has become the conventional wisdom of the history textbook.
One target of the new revisionism was Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier thesis, first enunciated in 1893, that "the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development." It was the frontier, which Turner described as "the meeting point between savagery and civilization," that was "the line of most effective and rapid Americanization." The frontier shaped American democracy. Although Henry Nash Smith pretty well deconstructed a lot of that a half-century ago, the classic frontier drama--the pioneer West of the dime novels, of Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and Buffalo Bill, and of the Hollywood of John Ford, John Wayne, and Gary Cooper--has remained the dominant myth of American development to this day. The Turner thesis, as Patricia Nelson Limerick wrote, was supposed to fit everything into a single scheme: farming, mining, overland trade, fur trade, town founding, merchandizing, logging. And a grand scheme it was. Democracy, Turner argued, was not brought to New England on the Mayflower; the fountainhead of our democratic habits and institutions--the independence, the opportunity, the freedom, the self-reliance--was the frontier experience.
That unifying concept left out a lot, disconnected today's West from the West of the frontier, and reduced a rich and complex story to what was often not much more than jingoistic simplicity. "Turner was, to put it mildly, ethnocentric and nationalistic," Limerick wrote in The Legacy of Conquest, the book that helped set off the rush to revise back in the late 1980s. "English-speaking white men were the stars of his story; Indians, Hispanics, French Canadians, and Asians were at best supporting actors and at worst invisible. Nearly as invisible were women, of all ethnicities... ." Later she would say that much of Turner's work was also racist. And since Turner's perspective was largely midwestern--he taught at Wisconsin (and then later at Harvard)--he almost entirely neglected the arid West. "Deserts, mountains, mines, towns, cities, railroads, territorial government, and the institutions of commerce and finance never found much of a home in his model," Limerick wrote.
But there was also a more general target, a Turnerian drama that, as expressed in a 1982 textbook edited by Ray Allen Billington and Martin Ridge, saw the history of the West as "almost by definition, a triumphal narrative, for it traces a virtually unbroken chain of successes in national expansion." To replace that triumphal procession to the West, the new western historians proclaim (in Donald Worster's words) "a new history, clear-eyed, de-mythologized and critical." In his 1985 book, Rivers of Empire, Worster put the control of water at the center of a story of exploitation and imperial power; he wrote of a "coercive, monolithic, and hierarchical system ruled by a power elite" that belies the myth of the West as a place of individualism and freedom. But most of his co-revisionists scrabble for cohesion. Their central narrative, if they have any, is the conflict of cultures--Indian, Spanish, Anglo, African, Asian--and the restoration of history's desaparecidos, the Indians especially, to their rightful places in a story in which the dark side often overshadows the glory. "The old frontier division into lands of nature and lands of culture," Richard White wrote in an essay called "Trashing the Trails," "made it very hard to see humans on the wrong side of the divide as anything but products of their own inability to cope with nature."
The trouble with the effort, as White also recognized, is that its assault on the old triumphalist drama has so far yielded nothing remotely as powerful and compelling as what it took down. Turner, for all his oversights, his romanticism, and his racialism, sought to explain American democracy; the new western historians don't bother with such grand questions. Often they seem not even to be aware that, beyond all the violence done to people and the environment, democracy is there at all.
For an illustration of what's happened in the past generation, one probably can't do better than Robert V. Hine and John Mack Faragher's The American West: A New Interpretive History, a newly revised version of a college text (by Hine) first published in 1973, which got a rousing send-off from Publishers Weekly as "a stirring and enlightening reexamination of the American West." The new edition, says Faragher, who's done most of the revising, has "substantial new material with a steadier emphasis on Native Americans, the role of ethnicity, environmental issues, and the participation of women"--surely an understatement in a book that's grown from 371 pages to more than 600 pages largely because of the changes in emphasis. Native Americans as hero-victims, their extermination, and successive tales of plunder dominate this edition, followed closely by the eradication of the buffalo, the poisoning of land and water, the exploitation of workers, and the various episodes of racism that marked the history of the West. Turner, who was treated with considerable respect in the earlier edition, is cut to ribbons--his phrase about the frontier being the meeting point between civilization and savagery, says Faragher, "rang with the arrogance of the victors in the centuries-long campaign of colonial conquest." Go to any page of the book, and most likely you'll find vio-lence and abuse--lynchings in San Francisco, burial of the dead at Wounded Knee, Japanese Americans assembling for internment, a recruitment poster for Native-American fighters, slaves being driven to the Mississippi frontier. Of the last five pictures in the book, one is of the Alaska pipeline (associated with the Exxon Valdez oil spill, yet another illustration of how "development had indeed produced disaster"); one is of Forest Service officials conducting a tour of a clear-cut hillside; one is of a Korean merchant defending his property during a Los Angeles riot; and two have to do with the United Farm Workers. Says Faragher in the closing pages of the new edition:
If frontiers are what happens when cultures collide and attempt to work out ways to work together, the postwar period deserves prominence in the annals of American frontier history. Not only were Native Americans resurgent, but Mexican Americans and African Americans mounted an impressive challenge to the ethnic and racial order that had been established during the nineteenth century--the dual labor system, the segregation of minorities, and their exclusion from the political system.
But of course it was the American political and legal traditions--the Constitution, the courts, the civil rights laws (which get hardly a mention)--that made the resurgence possible, and it was the strong national economy and the opportunities it provided that attracted most of those Mexican Americans in the first place. In the earlier edition, the railroads got their due for making travel easier and opening the West, and for the corruption associated with their construction. In the new edition, the corruption remains but the trip West is only hot and dirty. Likewise, the great reclamation projects are noted mostly for how they destroyed watersheds and native lands and didn't help small farmers, but rarely (if ever) for their success in making much of an otherwise uninhabitable region livable and productive. Silicon Valley is mentioned as the base of the new "manufacturing giants" but is not acknowledged as the source of a technology that's revolutionizing the globe. And Faragher does not have the remotest interest in the progressive political institutions--the initiative, the referendum, the recall--that flourished in the West, nor does he note that environmentalism grew out of the West to become a major global movement, nor does he bother with Turner's questions about how the unique institutions of American democracy were formed. He does not point out that it was the West that invented and fostered the great public university systems that remain a model for the world. Populism gets its pages, but progressivism, which received a passing mention in the earlier edition, does not. The role of Mary Lease as "one of a number of remarkable [populist] women" grows from the first edition as do those of other women, but Lease's anti-Semitism (mentioned in 1973) vanishes and her racism, her imperialism, and her plan for an ethnic partitioning of the world in which North Americans would "import vast swarms of Asiatics as [plantation] laborers" are ignored. Faragher is nothing if not politically correct.
The 1973 edition of The American West hadn't spared the dark side of the frontier, but it continued to acknowledge the frontier's power and positive importance, both as myth and as reality. "In the end," it concluded "the frontier united the nation. [It] became our 'road of destiny,' as Willa Cather expressed it. 'Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.' The West with its recurrent cycle of growth from primitive conditions, motivated by and continually selecting its own myths and legends, pervaded American life and will continue tomorrow as it has impressed our yesterdays." That's clumsy enough, but the revised edition, choking on its own prose, seems unable to elaborate any theme except the one-damn-thing-after-another recitation of the violence inflicted on land and people. Its conclusion chops off the second part of the Cather quote and declares that while the "frontier myth" may have become "no more than a refuge for extreme conservatism," it could be "reformulated ... to match the needs and aspirations of a new century." But aside from its declaration that "the Native Americans offer heroic examples of resistance, survival and adaptation" (and that "no story in our history is more inspiring than their tale of persistence and resurgence") and its platitudes about settlers who "were not only male but female, not only white and Anglo, but German, African, Mexican and Asian [and who] stood alone against authority but also welcomed the assistance of an active government," it doesn't suggest much to celebrate. The most compelling example of resurgent Native Americans in recent years has been their success in parlaying huge sums from the proceeds of gambling casinos into political clout at the statehouse. "The struggle to build a humane and equitable society out of the legacies of colonialism continues," Faragher concludes, "and we must continue struggling to resolve the dilemmas of development." Is colonialism really the West's most important legacy, and are the examples of heroic Native Americans really our most promising resource? Is this the way to hook kids on history?
To her great credit, Limerick, who helped start this western revisionism, is careful not to join that kind of stampede. In Something in the Soil, her new collection of essays and lectures, she takes on a few textbooks that got there before Faragher but aren't all that different. She quotes passages about "grasping white behavior," duplicity, and "spirals of hatred" and finds herself saying, "Now just a minute here... . Let's not get carried away; it's really quite a bit more complicated than that." Indeed, if there is a refrain in this collection--pieces about Mormonism, about the gold rush, about the writing of history, about race and ethnicity--it's that after the old triumphalism has been stripped away, it's hard to come to any consistent narrative about anything, and certainly not one that (as in Kevin Costner's movie Dances with Wolves) merely puts the black hats on the guys who used to wear the white hats and vice versa. The problem with Turner, she observes in an elegant piece called "Turnerians All," was not just his generalizations about the frontier but his very faith that historians could be useful in explaining the present and in furthering progress. "The much less familiar question--Was Turner right about the present-day value of historical understanding?--remains the question of consequence."
Limerick, who was once described by Larry McMurtry as having spent "fruitful years" destroying that one sentence in the Billington-Ridge book about "the unbroken chain of successes in national expansion," denies that she's softened her position. "I've only gotten sneakier and more strategic," she told me in a phone conversation. But certainly the tone of anger has modulated: She acknowledges--and surely this new collection bears it out--that she was more comfortable as a Young Turk back in the late 1980s than she is now as "one of the gray guys in the middle." That's, of course, a problem created at least in part by success. As McMurtry points out, a lot of biographers, novelists, critics, and historians--Henry Nash Smith, Leo Marx, Upton Sinclair, Frank Norris, Wallace Stegner, even Walter Prescott Webb--long ago saw the ambiguity and complexity of industrialization and westward expansion (which, with the coming of the railroad, were often indistinguishable). A lot of old timers knew how hard it was and how many were defeated by the effort. The nobility was in the romance and the dream that drove them to it.
But because the revisionists' timing was right, they've moved the center a lot further, at least among the historians and the writers of history texts, and thus in the teaching of history. It's nonetheless hard to see where they've taken the story. Limerick struggles to see the modern West as a continuation of older patterns--attitudes about land and nature, about race, even about progress: Proposition 187, California's anti-immigrant initiative, can be seen as just another episode of alien exclusion; water use and conflicts over the control of federal land remain pervasive issues; the heavy metals from old mines seep into the ground water. For those reasons alone, Turner's assumptions that something ended with the closing of the frontier stood in the way. "The West," as Limerick says, "has had a very full life as an abstraction, an ideal, and a dream. And yet the West is also actual, material and substantial... ."
In some respects, her search for continuity, often relying on anecdotes and thin parallels--for example, that the West still leads the nation in bank robberies reminiscent of the Daltons and James boys--also leads to dead ends. Much of the West is no longer a colony; there are no Indian wars or wars of conquest with Mexico; and while the West is surely a real place, the ongoing and very deep economic and social connections of its immigrants and new citizens with the places they came from--not only Mexico and El Salvador but Hong Kong and Pakistan and India and Iran and Israel--make this new West even more disconnected from its nineteenth-century history than the mythic West of Hollywood.
When I first went to El Paso as a young reporter in the 1950s, what struck me most was the brevity of its history. Less than 30 years passed between Pancho Villa's raids into New Mexico and the testing of the first atomic bomb. I worked for editors who claimed to have covered the Villa story. Whether they actually did isn't important; the fact is, they could have. That brevity may make Limerick's case about continuity more persuasively than anything else. But the continuity for those old editors was still with the mythic West, which, of course, was the thing that so often brought the migrants from the place we call Backeast, and from a lot of other places as well, and so often still does. Kevin Starr, California's ebullient social historian, talks of California as "one of the constituent elements of the American consciousness," a central place in our imagination that goes back to a time long before any European had ever seen it. In a recent talk called "Confessions of a Recovering Mythoholic," he acknowledged that he hadn't been ready to see the noir side of the story that the revisionists are preoccupied with. "What does one say about a genocidal effort to clear the land of natives as if they were vermin?" he asked. What can one do other than apologize?
As he said, one can't repudiate the West's role in the imagination. It's the place of second or third or fourth chances, the place of forgiveness. And since the West--California especially--will be the prime testing ground of our multicultural future, "can we maintain our tradition of democracy, constitutionalism and Western law" even as we accommodate other traditions and other cultures? It's those issues--both the dream and the democratic constitutionalism--that seem so crucially missing from these new western histories. Limerick has often said that the revisionists revived western history, which Turner and his disciples declared finished with the official closing of the frontier in 1890. And they have restored to visibility a long list of important historical figures and groups and ideas that had seemingly been buried. That's useful at a time when the high-decibel celebration of our high-tech boom is again concealing the have-nots, millions of them, in the sweatshops, the kitchens, and the fields. But the new history has not yet created anything equal to the power of the discarded myths in capturing the national imagination, rallying the nation, or sustaining progressive reform. On the contrary, the revisionists seem to need those myths as foils for their own contentions. Triumphalism and the Turner thesis may be gone, but they have not been replaced.
The old history was the creation of people whose compasses had always pointed west. And while many of us experience a strange disorientation when we travel inland from the West Coast--toward the Sierra, the Mojave, the Badlands, toward the great reservations, toward Phoenix and Grand Junction and Salt Lake, going to a West (a frontier?) that lies east of us--no one has yet been able to formulate a perspective on the American experience that turns that 500-year-old compass needle around. "The narrative of the Old Western History," Richard White confessed, "is the story of a journey, a challenge, and a dual transformation of land and people... . One reason the New Western History has failed to displace [it] in the popular imagination is that it lacks an equally gripping and ultimately satisfying narrative." And not only in the popular imagination. The ruckus produced a dozen years ago by what McMurtry called "failure studies" has died down. The revisionists have captured the textbooks, and they have written multiple histories for every imaginable segment in our diverse society. But they do not yet have a coherent American story. Our history itself has become disoriented. ?
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