Monday, April 30, 2007

Book Review: "Trails: Toward A New Western History"

Limerick, Patricia Nelson, ed. Trails: Toward a New Western History. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1991.

Trails is a collection of 12 essays by western historians. The central theme of the essays in this book is the new west history movement, which at the time of this book’s publication was in its second decade of existence. Patricia Nelson Limerick, who is the editor of this book as well as the author of several of the essays, designed a series of essays for a traveling interpretive display in the 1980s. The purpose of that display was to bring attention to what Limerick and other western historians believed was a serious problem, the lack of minority points of view in the writing and thinking of the American West. Instead of being simply a collection of 12 essays that support the idea of a new western history, Trails also provides several perspectives from that group of historians that has been termed “old west historians”. The outcome of this (which was the designed purpose) was to foster debate between both camps of western historians and the general public. In the decade and a half since the publication of this book, the perspectives that new western historians advocated for certainly have been adopted and books on various perspectives, not just white male ones, can be purchased at any bookstore.

One myth that is attacked by several of the essayists, who wrote to defend the new west history movement in this book, is the “frontier” which is central to the Turner thesis. The goals of the new west historians clearly state that they wish to create clear-eyed, demythologized, and critical history. In order to do this, historians like Donald Worster argue against Turner and the myths he helped to create, such as the statements made by Turner that frame the development of the West (and therefore the nation) as a process of returning to a primitive condition. The agrarian myth, which will be discussed in more detail, represents the blind optimism that members of the new west circle find distasteful, mainly due to the fact that it lacks a critical approach. The agrarian myth generally refers to the belief in a simple people settling in an extraordinary western land and, once there, being able to build a new and more dignified life than the one they left behind in the East.

The historiographical facet of western history writing is also discussed in this book, as it is necessary to understand how the history of the West changed over time and to trace the origins of many of the myths that new western historians see as erroneous. In discussing the origin of the frontier myth, new west historians wrote that this particular myth grew out of Turner’s personal convictions that the agrarian myth was true and that the historical evidence he had collected for his thesis was proof that the events mentioned in the myth, especially the return to primitive conditions and innocence, had taken place. This is the beginning of western history, according to Donald Worster, who writes an essay on the agrarian myth in Trails. Worster states that western history was born with Turner’s thesis and he also believes that this term is an oxymoron due to the fact that someone who argued that the west had no history created the discipline. This is not to say that Worster shares Turner’s beliefs about the West; rather, he is being ironic. Worster traces the development of western history from Turner through the twentieth century and as he does so, he points out areas where the approaches advocated by the new west history movement could aid in understanding the events of the past. Worster primarily argues against the methods and training of western history students during the early to mid twentieth century; the period when students were educated with the belief that they should not be critical of social, political, or economic motivations; they should be optimistic. This period came to an end at some point during the 1950s with the establishment of increasingly professional graduate level seminars, the introduction of students from diverse socio-economic backgrounds to colleges and universities, and the implementation of new methodologies, especially an emphasis on archival research. The students who graduated during this period went on to train other historians in these more critical methods and this allowed schools of thought such as the new west history movement to become established.

The themes of this new type of history should be mentioned. The first major theme of the new west history is that the conquered and subject peoples of the West must be given a voice in the writing of western history. By leaving out minority voices for such a long period of time, a myth has been created which basically says that white Americans found a place in the West to retreat to without conflicts. By omitting minorities and the conflicts that occurred between the colonizers and the colonized, this is the myth that most Americans come to believe, that no other peoples were in the West when whites arrived. This theme of a multi-cultural perspective is reflected today, nearly four decades after the creation of new west history, by the presence of so many books by female and minority authors on the subject of the West in so many bookstores and libraries. At the Little Bighorn Battlefield visitor center bookstore there are a large number of books about the battle told from the native perspective as well as a large number of books written by authors of Native American heritage.

A second theme of the new west history is that the economic development of the West was an assault on nature and has left behind it much death, depletion and ruin. This theme also seeks to dislodge another popular myth that is associated with the agrarian myth mentioned earlier, namely that the West has long been a place where Americans can go to escape the city and get in touch with nature. When viewed from the perspective of this myth, the West is seen as a place of refuge for white Americans. In reality though, it was and remains just the opposite. The West has been tied to the development of industrialism in this nation. Raw materials such as lumber, stone, valuable minerals, and oil among other things, have all been taken from the West and used in the development of industry. Because of the large role played by the West and its environment in the history of this nation, it should be no surprise that environmental history shares a close kinship with western history. Areas of study by environmental historians of the West include: the role of capitalism, industrialism, population growth, military expenditures, and aimless economic expansion of the region. Having just visited Phoenix in March of this year, I can affirm that there is a great deal of aimless expansion going on in western cities.

A third theme of this new history is that the West has been ruled by concentrated power, though that power has often been hidden behind masks of various types. A major myth that this theme of the new west history hopes to eradicate is the belief that the west did not have much trouble with hierarchy and internal power struggles. This myth owes its origins to early western historians who wrote that easterners held the reins of power in the West, which was a simple democratic place. New arguments regarding power and struggle in the West demonstrate this theme by looking at struggles between races, social classes, genders, and other groups within society. One area of research that new west advocates could tap for examples of concentrated power are the cattle barons and their land organizations which sought to secure water rights in the wake of the Homestead Act.

Dissenters of the new west movement in Trails, notable among them Gerald Thompson and Michael P. Malone, state that the study of western history today is akin to the old parable of the blind men who lack the vision to see all of the elephant so they each think that they see something different when they touch the animal. For historians, this parable can be interpreted to mean that few historians can claim to be masters of the field outside of their specialty: women, mining, military, Indians, and social affairs. These categories represent subfields of western history and today, in the aftermath of this level of specialization, few western historians can identify with the broad field of western or frontier history.

Trails is a great historiographical resource for students of both general American history and especially history of the American West. Throughout this book authors present arguments that are designed to tear down earlier myths created by historians from Turner to the 1960s. While this book has a wonderful and inclusive message about the rewards of a multi-cultural perspective, it should be noted that none of the authors of any of the essays are minorities. I think that this is understandable to a degree; Limerick wanted to engage some of the best-known historians of the West in a debate about being open to minority points of view. From this perspective it is at the least a forgivable exclusion on
Limerick’s part.

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