The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1980, Volume 26, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Reviews

Richard H. Peterson, Editor

The American West: New Perspectives, New Dimensions. Edited and with an Introduction by Jerome O. Steffen. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979. Index. 283 pages. $14.95.

Reviewed by Gregg R. Hennessey, Archivist for the San Diego Historical Society.

In his introduction to The American West: New Perspectives, New Dimensions, Jerome O. Steffen admits that works on western history “are too often provincial and devoid of conceptual frames of reference.” (p. 4) There are many reasons for these deficiencies, according to Steffen. In particular he mentions that serious scholars ignore the west as an area of study while many of those in the field do not take themselves and their work seriously enough. Nevertheless, Professor Steffen believes there is both hope for and sophistication in western scholarship. His hope is that the essays in this volume will inspire historians to new endeavors in the best tradition of scholarship. The sophistication lies, apparently, in the interdisciplinary nature of the book’s contents. As in any work of this kind, the inspiration and sophistication of the various chapters are mixed.

Some of the themes addressed in this book are standard fare in western history, such as the environment, Native Americans, demographics, and the frontier experience. John Opie’s essay on the role of the environment argues for a new forward looking “ecological thesis” of American history. In contrast to Turner’s backward looking man-centered frontier thesis, Opie suggests that we now see “man as a cultural and biological entity” (p. 11) continuously interacting with the physical world. Opie delivers a sophisticated and speculative essay with provocative suggestions for future research. Reginald Horsman’s article on Native American history is a good, basic historiographical essay with explanations of new scholarly development. The new work is pulling away from examinations of Indian-white relations and is moving toward an Indian-centered history combining anthropological and historical disciplines that will study Native Americans in the context of their own culture and not just in a European context. Geographer John C. Hudson offers a demographic study of North Dakota as a possible model for future population migration studies. Frontier populations, Hudson reminds us, cannot be studied in isolation from the demographic and geographic context that produced them. In a study of frontier environments, Roger G. Baker attempts to offer psychological explanations of Frederick Jackson Turner’s view of frontier behavior. Seeing the new territory as undermanned, new, and unfinished, Baker uses reminiscences to illustrate how and why people acted as they did in the new environment.

Other themes considered in this volume are less traditional areas in western scholarship. The comparative study of frontiers, while not exactly a new field in western history, is now receiving more attention. The essay by Jerome O. Steffen is an attempt to advance research in this area. Instead of the usual approach of comparing the American frontier experience with those of other nations, Steffen proposes separating and comparing various “frontiers” in America such as agriculture, furtrading, ranching, and mining. The author offers an interesting and challenging approach but one with the potential drawback of balkanizing frontier studies. Richard W. Etulain’s study of western fiction and history argues that a major theme in western literature is a search for a usable past. Using Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize winning Angle of Repose (1971) as a paradigm of the western novel as history, Etulain believes that examining the relationship between history and literature will suggest new research possibilities for scholars. The study of urban development in the west, according to Ronald L.F. Davis, needs an analytical framework. His essay reviews the relevant literature from several disciplines and seeks insights into city development in the west. Davis’s analysis leads him to “suggest that the system of private enterprise functioning under the capitalist mode of production” (p. 180) will provide the needed perspective to understand urban growth in the west. Moving beyond strictly urban concerns, Gene M. Gressley, in an article on regionalism, discusses larger issues affecting all of the west such as conservation, land use, and allocation of resources. The serious need for planning and regional cooperation, Gressley demonstrates, is clashing with western individualism and distrust of the federal government and eastern money.

The American West offers a good survey of some of the possibilities in western history, particularly for the undergraduate or the beginning graduate student. Most of the essays provide basic introductions to their topics plus provocative, though not always clear, suggestions for new research. Students should be reminded that not all the opportunities in the field are represented in these essays. Other than the Native American essay, no mention is made of minorities in the west, particularly Chicanos and Asians. Additional themes of interest that could be noted are reform movements such as the Populists, the role of violence, and the relationship between aridity, agriculture, and frontier settlement patterns. The generally good quality of the book’s content is marred by numerous typographical errors throughout the text. Nevertheless, the approaches suggested in this volume offer evidence of the reinvigoration of serious scholarship in western history.