Saturday, September 6, 2014

Taking Aim at the Sometimes Not-So-Obvious Myths of the West

I am a native Texan, born into a strong, proud ranching family on one side and an entrepreneurial bunch of 19th Century-immigrant Germans on the other. Hard work, self-sufficiency and a feeling that the U.S. government is always looking to take more than it should are religion in my family and remain topics of conversation at holidays. We could be Patricia Nelson Limerick’s poster children for the Westerners who have “woven a net of denial” around their carefully nurtured sense of independence, self-reliance and anti-governmentalism. (96)

It therefore speaks highly of Limerick that I found The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (W.W. Norton & Company: New York, London. 1987. Pp. 396) engaging and frequently convincing. Popular culture often reflects the history of American westward expansion one of two ways, sometimes in the same breath: 1) a glorious fulfilling of Manifest Destiny, making something out of unused, wasted resources, and 2) a decimation of Native Americans and the purity of western wilderness. Limerick turns both approaches upside down by changing the nature of the perspective from which we view Americans’ entry into the West.

Limerick’s goal is to redefine how historians view the West and approach its history. Dismissing Frederick Turner Jackson’s idea of “frontier” as the thing that defined Americanism, Limerick offers a new definition of “frontier”: “Western history has been an ongoing competition for legitimacy—for the right to claim for oneself and sometimes for one’s group the status of legitimate beneficiary of Western resources. This intersection of ethnic diversity with property allocation unifies Western history.” (20, 27) Susan Armitage observes in “’The Legacy of Conquest’, by Patricia Nelson Limerick: A Panel of Appraisal” (Donald Worster et al, Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 3 (August 1989), pp. 303-322), that Limerick renegotiates Western history into a discussion of place rather than process, expanding the possibilities for discussion.

This focus on place serves Limerick well, allowing her first to refute Turner’s idea that, in the final years of the 19th Century, the frontier was gone and that chapter of American history had concluded. She argues that Western history did not end in the 1890s; the nature of “frontier” may have changed, but it did not die. Western history continued into the 20th Century, and indeed continues today. The Dust Bowl, the impact of the New Deal on the West, the challenges of agriculture in an arid climate and the federal subsidizing of farmers, all were encountered (or the groundwork was laid) during the 1800s, continued well into the 1900s, and would be disconnected from Western history in Turner’s thesis. This detachment, Limerick argues, would be inaccurate, omitting much from Western history.

Limerick examines an extensive set of topics as she crafts her argument: intentions, the questions of freedom and conquest, racial and ethnic equality, labor rights, religious intolerance, the role of government, and land management are just a few. While she holds a specific viewpoint, Limerick attempts to present the various perspectives fairly. Often she succeeds; just as often her own opinions creep in, skewing the objectivity of her narrative. I was admittedly sensitive to her treatment of Western farmers and ranchers. She effectively demonstrated how seemingly independent, anti-government-minded Westerners in fact relied heavily on government subsidies and services in a variety of ways. Yet while she convinced me, I also recognized tones of judgment, derision and even condescension toward Westerners in her narrative, tones that were disappointing and unnecessary to her argument. (Brian Balogh’s assertions regarding the power of “invisible” government programs and reach in A Government Out of Sight: The Mystery of National Authority in Nineteenth-Century America (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, New York. 2009. Pp. xi, 414) often came to mind as Limerick berated Westerners’ reliance on federal programs while demonizing government support.)

A Legacy of Conquest provides an insightful, fresh insight on Western history, and is easily recognizable as a game-changer for the field. Limerick achieved her goal of resetting the conversation for the future of Western history, and it will be enjoyable to explore the results of that reset. I will not, however, mention her work at the table next Thanksgiving.

1 comment:

  1. Did my previous comment go through? It looks like it may have been eaten. So in case I'll repeat. :) Great point about Limerick's tone. Did you read the newest version of the book, with her updated preface? I found it interesting that she said that she's really toned down her iconoclasm, and suggesting others do so as well. From what I understand, her current work is working collaboratively with a lot people.


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