The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1993, Volume 39, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Writing Western History: Essays on Major Western Historians.

By Richard W. Etulain. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991. 370 pages.

Reviewed by John E. Baur, Professor of History at California State University, Northridge and author of The Health Seekers of Southern California, 1870-1900 (San Marino, 1959).

According to Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893 the frontier was gone. Would its great impacts on America’s development cease or continue? As the writers show, several important literary figures and traveling observers followed by professional writers commented on the West well before the frontier ended. Turner now sought “understanding ourselves” to be more than settlers in a transplanted Europe. Of the frontier historians we meet, most come from the West of their day and only in very recent years have those without Western roots been outstanding, as their biographies indicate. Several interpreters regret they could not include other historians due to lack of space.

Turner and his interpretations are treated in a section by William Cronon and Michael C. Steiner. At the time, Hubert Howe Bancroft of California used a staff of about fifty to turn out the Pacific Coast’s story, virtually on the assembly line. Turner studied regions as well as frontiers, for he realized that regions were not fleeting frontiers in America’s development.

Elliot West explains Walter Prescott Webb’s discovery of the exceptional Great Plains frontier as dry and treeless contrasted to Turner’s “forests and free land.” Turner’s student, Frederic Logan Paxson, sought to conceptualize Turner’s West, but seldom studied beyond the Trans-Appalachian area and was not the revisionist that clarifiers of Turner sought. Herbert E. Bolton added the authenticity of foreign archives by including the Spanish Southwest and its geographic interpretation to a then “Anglo” viewpoint. A true iconoclast, James C. Malin revised the interpretation of violent Kansas of the 1850s. He believed that no view could be definitive.

By mid-century Henry Nash Smith’s provocative, Virgin Land, was influential through the presentation of literature as a molder of Western images and actions. He discussed Manifest Destiny, the National Road and Garden of the West among the images from nineteenth century writers.

By 1949, Ray A. Billington dedicated his career to being posthumous spokesman for Turner. He pointed out that critics modified but never replaced Turner. He argued that Turner believed that the frontier was not the only determinant of America’s development, but an additive to earlier ones, which stressed America’s world origins. Continuous growth of democratic society in the West had given America institutions and characteristics not evolved elsewhere in the world. While Billington said that the frontier could not be defined, he described frontiersmen as materialistic, mobile, versatile, wasteful, believers in democracy and optimistic. In later years he emphasized Turner’s social and physical environment in a combination of land and people — thus freeing Turner from environmental determinism. While Turner and Billington recognized America’s racism, they felt that the frontiersmen considered all men equal. In the 1950s, Earl Pomeroy showed the influence of cities and commerce by demonstrating the continuity of the Federal government on the frontier and how its institutions clashed with local ones. He saw Turner as myth maker, for the real frontier was cosmopolitan and sophisticated.

Today, facets of the frontier rise, reflective of our time, including studies of women, urban history, art, and appropriately the twentieth Century West. Each field has its relatively young and fruitful writers. Scholars study blacks, Indians and Latin Americans.

In conclusion, Etulain foresees the probability of Western historiography as the richness of Western studies reveals itself. It seems that Turner was a good trail blazer. It was not his purpose to be a sophisticated highway engineer. These are with us now.