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

Book Review

The Twentieth-Century West: Historical Interpretations.

Edited by Gerald D. Nash and Richard W. Etulain. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989. Bibliography. Index. 454 pages.

Reviewed by Cynthia J. Sturgis, Ph.D. Professor Sturgis teaches U.S. history at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla and researches and reviews in the area of the 20th century West.

This weighty (in every sense of the word) work is intended for the scholarly rather than the casual reader. Those seeking a narrative overview of the twentieth century West should look elsewhere; some might wish to start with Nash’s own breezy and readable introductory work from 1973, The American West in the Twentieth Century: A Short History of an Urban Oasis or other works from this text’s extensive bibliography. The subheading of the current work is instructive, since the articles included in it are either entirely historiographic in approach or blend historiography with a narrative framework. For this reason, few non-academic readers will be likely to complete the entire book, although those with an interest in one of the specific areas addressed (environmental history, Western art and literature, gender and ethnic studies, urban history, politics, and economics) would both enjoy and benefit from perusing individual chapters, all by recognized experts in each field. However, for the scholar — and particularly for graduate students and others searching for new areas of research — it offers stimulating and challenging insights and suggestions. Since California is so often cited as a model, the themes and methodology presented here would be of particular value to historians of this state.

The editors frame the book with essays placing the articles

in a larger historiographic context. The Prologue by cultural historian Richard Etulain grapples directly with the ghost of Frederick Jackson Turner, examining his legacy and its interpreters and noting its implications for studies of the twentieth century, as well as the nineteenth century, West. Etulain notes, correctly, that Turner discussed the value of regional (in Etulain’s words, “in-the-West”) studies as well as frontier (“to-the-West”) ones, but that most scholars have focused on the latter and have thus restricted themselves to the nineteenth century. Etulain discusses the treatment of the twentieth century by historians from Turner onward, providing an effective historiographic background for the articles to follow. He lays out a number of subthemes of Western regional studies, such as “the West as colony” versus “the West as model”, the importance of urbanization, the dominant and hotly debated role of the federal government, the complex interactions of man and environment, and the question of continuities of Eastern culture and economy.

Nash’s Epilogue completes the picture by examining the contributions of the “New Western Historians” in reshaping the field. He notes that changes in the age, ethnicity, and gender of historians, as well as in the professional requirements of the field, have led to an emphasis on specialization rather than generalization. These trends probably preclude, in his view, the creation of an overarching synthesis to shape studies of the twentieth century West, as Turner has dominated histories of the nineteenth; they have also led to a dramatic re-visioning of that earlier perspective. The twentieth century West is urban rather than rural, multicultural and multiracial, with a broader range of gender and age distribution. Both the availability of natural resources and attitudes about their use have changed. The modern West is post-rather than pre-industrial, with less distinctive politics and a more innovative cultural life. Nash points out that new questions have also spawned new approaches, such as those displayed and discussed in the articles included. Those selections make it clear that twentieth century Western history provides exciting opportunities which have only begun to be explored.

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