Saturday, September 3, 2011


Richard White's King Ranch-size volume of  'New Western History' is an interesting, enlightening, sometimes exciting, sometimes boring book that badly needs two things: 1) a proofreader and 2) an author who can write like Patricia Nelson Limerick. I read White's book immediately after Limerick's seminal The Legacy of Conquest, and It's Your Misfortune... suffers from the inevitable  comparison. Most obviously, Limerick is a witty and engaging writer, while White's prose lopes along like an starving pony. (It may seem beside the point to criticize a historian's prose, but it's not. Historians are, by definition, writers, and the quality of their prose should enter into the evaluation of their works.) Passing from medium to content, White's work can be read as an often-ponderous elaboration of ideas presented more snappily--albeit much more summarily--in Limerick's book. In short, The Legacy of Conquest provides the thesis statement of New Western History, and White professorially marshals the facts and stats to support it. While that's probably not an unfair description, it does slight the undeniable strengths of White's book. This is an insanely wide-ranging work that finds interesting and unfamiliar things to say about events as disparate as the California Gold Rush and the Dust Bowl, Japanese-American internment and the fictional life of Billy the Kid, the founding of the National Park system and the slow death of Indian Territory (as what's now Oklahoma was once known). It's probably best not to read this book cover to cover (as I just did) but to treat it as a revisionist encyclopedia of Western history, dipping into the index to find White's take on the Mormon settlement of Utah, the transcontinental railroad, the rise of Reagan, etc. The passages that most interested and intrigued me were White's occasional exemplary asides: he has a wonderful eye for the telling historical anecdote. His account of the California 'Indian hunters' Hi Good and Robert Anderson and Good's richly deserved end reads like a tale taken from Blood Meridian, and his mention of Juan Cortina's War equally piqued my interest. Also, White's brief description of the strict gun control that existed uncontroversially in many Western towns is the best kind of history writing--the kind that complicates our present political uses and abuses of the past.

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