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Volume 10, No. 8 - September 2000  
Table of contents for this issue

The American West
We asked seven historians to recommend the best recent books
about the American West

Scott L. Malcomson, author of One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, forthcoming).

"Quintard Taylor's brilliant In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528 - 1990 (Norton, 1998) artfully avoids the agon of competitive racial heroics, rejecting the lionization of buffalo soldiers, motherly black pioneer women, and black cowboys. His emphasis falls on the black majority -- homesteaders and city dwellers, who belonged to church groups and literary societies, and who read black newspapers. He writes particularly well about the period from the end of the Civil War to the 1970s, touching on postwar movements to establish all-black towns, migration to cities (and the Western segregation common until the 1960s), and the many phases of civil rights activism during the twentieth century. With one book, Taylor changed an entire field, and entirely for the better."

Stephen Aron, associate professor of history at UCLA and author of How the West Was Lost: The Transformation of Kentucky From Daniel Boone to Henry Clay (Johns Hopkins, 1996).

"Like other recent syntheses of Western American history, Robert V. Hine and John Mack Faragher's The American West: A New Interpretive History (Yale, 2000) rejects the triumphalist tenor of Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier history. Instead, the book emphasizes the struggles of Indian peoples, embraces the West's ethnic and gender diversity, espouses environmental change as a theme, and establishes the shaping hand of the federal government. Thus the book has much in common with both The Oxford History of the American West (Oxford, 1994), edited by Clyde Milner II, Carol O'Connor, and Martha Sand weiss, and "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own": A New History of the American West (Oklahoma, 1991), by Richard White. But whereas The Oxford History and "It's Your Misfortune" champion a virtually frontierless approach to the history of the West, Hine and Faragher's book departs from these presentist and regionalist understandings. Adopting a more expansive geographic and chronological vision, the authors recall Turner's conception of an American history in which all parts of the continent were once frontiers and were thus once Wests."

Joy S. Kasson, professor of American studies and English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of Buffalo Bill's Wild West: Celebrity, Memory, and Popular History (Hill & Wang, 2000).

"New scholarship on art and popular culture expands our understanding of the American West and its significance in the national imagination. Alexander Nemerov's remarkable Frederic Remington and Turn-of-the-Century America (Yale, 1995) puts this popular artist at the center of a national dialogue about race, imperialism, social evolution, and immigration. The book is informed by literary theory, psychoanalysis, cultural history, and material culture and suggests new ways of looking at Remington's art. Lee Clark Mitchell provides a similar service in his book Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film (Chicago, 1996). Mitchell's fresh take on the film Western shows how the imagined West raised powerful questions about race, nationalism, social policy, and the meaning of manliness in the twentieth century."

Walter Nugent, professor of history at the University of Notre Dame and author of Into the West: The Story of Its People (Knopf, 1999).

"Two intriguing prizewinners contain new material about the mid-nineteenth-century West. Malcolm Rohrbough's Days of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the American Nation (California, 1997) is the best single volume on this nation-building event. Rohrbough describes the gold rush in all its multicultural anarchy: the journeys to California; the male bonding; the backbreaking work; the building of San Francisco and other towns; how the Indians were run off; and where (scarce) women fit in. He also shows how the gold rush welded California to the United States and how it rearranged left-behind families in the West. Elliott West's The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado (Kansas, 1998) is the best book ever written about the Great Plains. Its hook is the Kansas-to-Denver gold rush of 1859, which West uses to demonstrate the interactions among various populations, species, and landscapes. West's story is complex, but he makes crystal clear the mid century environmental and demographic revolution that occurred in this huge region."

Anne M. Butler, professor of history at Utah State University and author of Gendered Justice in the American West: Women Prisoners in Men's Penitentiaries (Illinois, 1997).

"Real women can rodeo. That's the upshot of Mary Lou LeCompte's Cowgirls of the Rodeo: Pioneer Professional Athletes (Illinois, 1993), a refreshing assessment of women's position in the nineteenth-century American West. LeCompte shows women fully engaged with that part of the Western world dominated by large animals, hard work, business enterprise, and danger. Her book describes women's physical and entrepreneurial achievements, as well as their role in professional athletics. This work addresses overarching regional issues concerning race, class, and gender as historians continue to grapple with the West's meaning in the building of the American experience."

Malcolm Rohrbough, professor of history at the University of Iowa and author of Days of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the American Nation (California, 1997).

"Walter Nugent's Into the West: The Story of Its People (Knopf, 1999) is an account of the European occupation of the vast landscape between the Missouri River and the Pacific Ocean. It addresses the fundamental issues of who came West and why, as well as why the West is the most rapidly growing American region and the most intensely urban. This lively study is a wonderfully human story, full of accounts of individuals and families in this broad and diverse region, peoples who changed this place and were changed by it. Their stories make Into the West a starting point for understanding the American West. In her book The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction (Harvard, 1999), Linda Gordon has written a fascinating account of an incident in a remote Western mining town at the turn of the century. In 1904, New York nuns shepherded forty Irish orphans to an Arizona mining town, where they were to be placed with Roman Catholic families. That the Catholic families were Mexican provoked a racial reaction by the town's Anglo-American population. After a vigilante group kidnapped the children and threatened the nuns, the courts upheld the extralegal actions. This is a compelling account of family and race in the American West at the opening of the twentieth century."

Elliott West, professor of history at the University of Arkansas and author of The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado (Kansas, 1998).

"In Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush (Norton, 2000), Susan Lee Johnson looks at the California rush of 1849 and what happens to conventional notions of gender and ethnic order when thousands of strangers -- mostly males from scores of nations and different cultures -- find themselves tossed together. She also discusses the native Miwok men and women, whose story has been ignored far too often in traditional accounts. Johnson sharpens our awareness of how fluid social relations are and how powerfully some people require clear definitions and boundaries, marking them with bullets and muscles if necessary. Charlene Porsild, in Gamblers and Dreamers: Women, Men, and Community in the Klondike (British Columbia, 1998), takes us to the Yukon in the 1890s, where gold triggered another stampede -- also polyglot and mostly male. She, too, brings native peoples squarely into her history. Her emphasis, however, is on the compulsive conservatism of the camps, the early arrival of families, and the rapid formation of a new community out of traditional allegiances of lineage and culture. Together, these two fine books require us to think much harder about the social and psychological dynamics beneath every human gathering."

John Palattella


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