The Oxford History of the American West.
Edited by Clyde A. Milner II, Carol A. O’Connor, and Martha A. Sandweiss. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Bibliography. Maps and tables. Notes. Index. xiv and 72 pages. $37.50.
Reviewed by Raymond Starr, Professor of History at San Diego State University and author of a forthcoming history of San Diego State University.
Some presses are so good that their imprint on a book is almost a guarantee of a quality publication. Oxford University Press is one of those prestige presses, and their new Oxford History of the American West does nothing to erode their reputation.
The purpose of the book is to illustrate the major revitalization and revision of Western American history which has been ongoing for some time. That re-interpretation of the West has changed the focus of the western experience from the frontier myth approach (celebrating the conquest of the western landscape by white, independent, self-reliant, democratic American men) to an interpretation which stresses conflict, community, all the people (women as well as men; non-Anglos as well as Anglo-Americans), the destruction of the natural environment, the strong role of government (especially the federal government), and the urbanism of the West.
To reflect these new trends in western history, the editors (led by Clyde A. Milner II, editor of the Western Historical Quarterly) have selected a wide range of scholars (from dominant senior historians such as David Weber, Allan Bogue, and Walter Nugent, to a number of younger up-and-coming historians) to write twenty-three essays on as many topics. Their chapters cover traditional chronological periods (the Spanish-Mexican era, for instance) and standard western topics, such as agriculture and violence. But the selections also include many pieces reflective of the new scholarship, including articles on cities, animals and their effect on the environment, landscapes and conservation, the literary, visual, and mythic west, family history and recent immigrants. Many photographs, maps and tables enhance the objectives of the book.
Although each chapter contributes to the overall interpretation of the west as we now know it, each can also stand on its own as an essay on its topic. It is to be expected that there would be variations in the quality of over twenty articles, but in fact, the overall quality is high and surprisingly consistent.
The Oxford History of the American West was written for an educated audience (as the editors put it, people who want an insight into the newest interpretation of large topics, without a mass of details), and it serves a wide range of people. As a synopsis of their topic, the selections have much appeal to the academic. At the same time the good writing and the effort to make the selections readable makes the book appealing for a much broader audience. An example would be the discussion the anthropomorphizing of wild animals and its relationship to the development of hunting, which includes the comment that “Both [the hunters and nature lovers] wanted to save Bambi, but the sportsmen wanted to shoot Bambi when he grew up.” It is unfortunate that the bulk of the volume (over 872 pages weighing in at over six pounds) makes it impossible to read in bed, thus diminishing its appeal for the casual reader!
The Oxford History of the American West is clearly a quality book, a significant book, and an entertaining one. It belongs in the library of anyone serious about the American West.