Saturday, May 05, 2007

Kit Carson and Western History

I was more than a bit shocked by these admissions on the progressive side of the blogosphere that people didn't know who Kit Carson was. In some of the various posts relating to this, quite a few people in comments admit that they don't know who he is either.

This is disturbing to me on multiple levels. One thing I find remarkable about it all is that the progressive side of the blogosphere has such great knowledge of American history. These are people who can debate the intricacies of Reconstruction policy or the details on American legal history or the Great Society or nearly everything else. But in thinking about all this, I realized that none of these increasingly important thinkers ever make western history central to their larger narratives of American history.

Why is this? Have we western historians not done a good job in recent years demonstrating that our stories are central to any narrative of American history? I really wonder. In the late 1980s and 1990s, western history hit a high point. 4 of its leading scholars won MacArthur Grants. Western history books were taught in all sorts of courses that did not center on the west. But by the late 1990s, it was clear that this upswing had hit its high point. When I was taking western history graduate seminars in the late 90s and early part of this decade, the focus was almost exclusively on the debates of the New Western History, and while occasionally newer works were read, it was hard to see what overarching narrative they were pushing.

Western history is as important to understanding American history as African-American history, legal history, political history, gender history, or any of the subfields that are more generally studied today. I think the importance of the Native American experience goes without saying. If there is one subfield within western history that remains central to everyone's narratives of American history, it's this. But also, the majority of Chicano history in the United States is in the American West. Environmental history tells many of its most vital stories in the West. The history of extractive industry is largely western--mining, lumber, cattle, ranching, etc. Moreover, what examinations of western history provide is a view into the rawest of American history. It is in the American West where many of the pat cliches of American history fall by the wayside and American greed is seen at its fullest. At the same time, the American West has produced far more than its share of myths that have shaped certain ideas about American identity that are worth studying.

I'm going to just provide a brief list of 9 books that I think are key for any understanding of western history. You can disagree with these and argue for others, but I stand by these selections.

1. Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest. This is actually a bit complicated, since Limerick has sold out hard. In fact, she's sold out as hard as one can. She has moved from this amazing work to attacking Bill Moyers in the press after he went after James Watt. Why? She is friends with Watt now!!! Whoa. But this 1987 work shows the centrality of racial prejudice and environmental exploitation in American history and is a must read for anyone serious about making western history part of an overarching progressive narrative.

2. William Cronon, Nature's Metropolis. Arguably one of the 10 best books I've ever read. Cronon shows how the West became part of an overall American capitalist nation by examining how products came and went from Chicago to its surrounding hinterlands. It's basically applicable in one way or another to any American city. It does a lot of other amazing things too, particularly relating to the abstraction of the environment into products. It's just great.

3. Richard White, The Middle Ground. Some would include his western textbook, It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own," but I find that less satisfying that The Middle Ground. About the Ohio Valley when it was the American West, it shows how Native Americans were able to make a go of it with the British and French but the Americans with their greed and rapacious desire for land completely crushed these civilizations after the American Revolution. A first rate book and very depressing.

4. Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire. Many people have read a similar book, Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert. Both books deal with the creation of water empires in the American West. Reisner's is a better read but Worster places the American water empire in a broader theoretical context. Some have questioned his use of theory, but in any case, it shows how undemocratic the American West has been in order to control water. He also shows the precarious state of the West and how no society has been able to control water and expand its civilization forever. Scary.

The first 4 are sort of classics of the New Western History that made the American West so central to narratives of American history in the 80s and early 90s. The last 6 are also highly recommended.

5. Gunther Peck, Reinventing Free Labor--an excellent look at environmental and labor history in the West and how different immigrant groups struggled to survive here.

6. Karl Jacoby, Crimes Against Nature--a superb look at how our National Parks were carved out of human-occupied areas and how narratives became constructed about these places that they were somehow "natural" and not affected by humans, when in fact these are as human-constructed of places as any city.

7. Sarah Deutsch, No Separate Refuge--a great book about how Hispanos of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado found their lives thrown upside down by the onslaught of American capitalism. It also provides an excellent gendered analysis of these issues.

8. Susan Johnson, Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush--one of the best books I've ever read on western history. Johnson demonstrates the complexities of life in the gold fields, the level of exploitation and racism, environmental damage, and even levels of homosexuality. You can't ask for more from a book.

9. Mike Davis, City of Quartz. Davis is just a great writer. Prolific as hell too. This is a first rate book about class, race, and ecology in Los Angeles. A great book that discusses what I would argue are a lot of core themes in western history and their effects on the present. I'd also recommend Ecology of Fear, also about LA. Also, his Late Victorian Holocausts is a scary book about how imperialist policies created famine in the developing world.