Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor
Historians and the American West. Edited by Michael P. Malone. Foreword by Rodman W. Paul. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1983. Introduction. Footnotes. Index. 449 pages. $24.95.
Reviewed by Richard T. Ruetten, Professor of History at San Diego State University, co-author of Quest and Response: Minority Rights and the Truman Administration (1973) and articles on twentieth-century American and western history.
Ever since Frederick Jackson Turner startled fellow historians with his theories of the significance of the frontier and the West in the unfolding of American history, historians have interpreted and reinterpreted the western experience. At various times, collections of essays have appeared with the ambitious goals of reorienting the field or of assessing “the state of the art,” sometimes finding the field in a state of crisis. Michael P. Malone’s Historians and the American West, which consists of seventeen essays of varying quality but with surprisingly little overlap, represents the latest and most successful of this genre. It is also the first to attempt a major assessment of the historiography of the West in the twentieth century.
In his introduction, Malone explains that he asked his seventeen contributors-all well-known historians-to “describe what has been done, how well it has been done, and what needs to be done as we see it” (p. 2). In general, the authors do better with the first charge-“what has been done”-than with the last two. In any event, the contributors cover the familiar themes of Indians, western Spanish borderlands, fur trade and exploration, manifest destiny, mining, transportation, politics, farmers and stockmen, violence, resources and the environment, urbanization, Mormons, women, ethnic minorities, and culture. For readers of the Journal of San Diego History, there is little on California, while San Diego is mentioned only in passing. Throughout the book, the authors repeatedly invoke the giants of western historiography with nineteen index references to Turner, eighteen to Earl Pomeroy, and fifteen to Walter Prescott Webb. On the other hand, Wyoming historian T.A. Larson receives as many references as does Henry Nash Smith, which may reflect the editor’s choice of topics as well as say something about the traditional focus of western history.
Space limitations do not permit an assessment of each contribution. On the whole, they are well written, although Herbert T. Hoover’s essay on American Indians to the Civil War suffers from some stylistic infelicities (e.g., “in superficial but important efforts to interpret the interface,” p. 28). A few seem unnecessarily weak. Donald C. Cutter’s “The Western Spanish Borderlands” is as much an encyclopedic listing of books as an assessment, while Richard Maxwell Brown’s “Historiography of Violence in the American West” has so few comparisons with violence elsewhere that it seems to say little of substance. And what is one to make of Brown’s statement about “the West’s formidable linkage with presidential assassination or assassination attempts” (p. 236) when such acts are probably too random and isolated to establish such a linkage? On the other hand, Thomas G. Alexander’s evaluation of Mormon historiography is delicately handled and especially well done.
Almost without exception, experts in particular fields will learn nothing new from these essays. Taken as a whole, however, Historians and the American West will be valuable to historians and lay people alike if they hope to comprehend the current state of western historiography and the future thrust of research in some specific areas. As to the larger question of the future of the field, this volume is no answer because it does not address it, except tangentially in editor Malone’s introduction. Indeed, despite the strenuous efforts of some of the contributors to make various developments and events appear as something uniquely or particularly western, the overall effect is to demonstrate that the West is less a form of society than a geographical area.