Monday, April 1, 2013

Three Ideologies in Search of the American West: Reading Worster, White, and Limerick

I have long had an interest in culture and ideology, those ways of seeing which construct our social, cultural, economic, political, geographic, and demographic “realities”. This paper, written in 1997 for a tutorial with Robert Dykstra, is less about the American West, though I have an interest in the American and Canadian West because I used to live there, less about American West Studies, less about American West Environmental Studies—though I was the first person to teach the Environmental History of the American West at SUNY Albany—and more about the ideologies and the ideological culture, which undergirds academic social sciences and humanities studies.

It was studying religion which more than anything else made me realise just how important ideology is in intellectual culture. When I was a Biblical Studies student I came to realise just how important ideology was in the social and cultural construction of Biblical Studies in all their varieties—conservative evangelical, liberal evangelical, fundamentalist, liberal higher education. I saw firsthand how ideology constructed varying conceptions of the Bible. It wasn’t much of a stretch to carry this recognition of the role polemics and apologetics played in other academic social sciences and humanities disciplines and subdisciplines. This paper reflects my attempt to unpack the role ideology played and plays in academic American West and American West Environmental Studies. I think my analysis has stood the test of time.

By the way, I am a proponent of the functionalist conception of religion. Everything, because everything involves meaning, is akin to religion because they are meaning systems. As meaning systems they construct what is sacred—fieldwork within Cultural Anthropology, statistics in Sociology, archival research in History—and construct what is tabu in each discipline. By and large, raising questions about the “truth” of what Anthropologists, Sociologists, and Historians do, raising the question of whether at the heart of the social sciences and humanities lies ideological apologetics and polemics is a no, no, an act, at worst, of heresy, at best an act of “philosophising”. I plead guilty to disciplinary, multidisciplinary, heresy in this essay. I am sure Dykstra saw it as such.

This essay like all of them during this period in my technological life, was transferred from MSWorks to MSWord at one point and in that process I lost a healthy amount of my footnotes. As a result the footnotes are in a state of disarray. And since I didn’t do anything with this paper after I wrote it I haven’t taken the time or expended the energy to bring the footnotes up to academic snuff. For that I apologise. Enjoy.


As many have noted the study of the American West as a field of historical inquiry is in a state of turmoil today. Those engaged in the study of this region no longer seem to know just what it is and how one should study it. This was not always the case, of course. In the early part of the twentieth century scholars of the West knew what the West was. It was the frontier. To study this West was to study the process whereby America expanded into regions previously unoccupied by all but the “uncivilised” First Peoples. It was the study of how these areas were transformed from wilderness to civilisation, from barbarism to a new peculiarly American culture. Frederick Jackson Turner was the high priest of western studies. It was he who revealed this frontier process, he who saw it as the crucible in which an America distinct from Europe was forged, and it was he who tragically announced its end in 1893. [1]

Even at mid-century students of the west still knew what the West was even if the analyst was not a Turnerian. They knew, with Walter Prescott Webb, that the West was the arid region of the United States to the left of the ninety-eighth meridian (near Webb’s beloved hometown of Austin, Texas). They believed with Webb that Americans had civilised this harsh landscape through their genius for technological innovation. [2]

The gospel of the West as frontier and the gospel of the West as region would dominate the field through the 1960s. [3] At that point, however, something began to happen. America was experiencing what one historian has called a “coming apart”. Civil rights protests that began in the 1950s led to anti-Vietnam war protests. Both of these movements, in turn, revived the women’s rights and environmental movements, and gave birth to Chicano, Hispanic and Indian Rights movements. [4]

This political vitality had an impact on academe as well. Many graduate students had been active in one or the other of these social movements. Upon graduation they began to move into the academy becoming professors of history, of sociology, of anthropology, and so on. They also began to publish. In their courses and through their scholarly analyses they began to question the bases upon which their disciplines were built. “Radical” Sociologists saw the dominance of Parsonian Structural-Functionalism with its ideology of consensus as conservative and reactionary in nature. Anthropologists began to question their own brand of static Functionalism with its failed memory of the spread of capitalism to “primitive” cultures. Historians too began to raise questions about their field. In Western History the “New” Western historians targeted Frederick Jackson Turner since they saw his vision of Western History (a vision that both affected the academy and American popular culture) as a limited and conservative vision of Western History. [5]

This “sectarian” “New Western History” has been led by the gang of three— Donald Worster, Richard White, and Patricia Nelson Limerick. [6] More than anyone else this trinity of scholars has led the revisionist charge against Turner and, to a lesser extent, Webb. Each of these scholars agree that Turner and Webb’s readings of the West were too racist and too teleological. Turner, they say, ignored northern, southern and eastern settlement patterns in the West. He also downplayed the multiculturalism of the region and painted it in too bright a hue. Webb, likewise, they claim, ignored the multicultural reality of the American West and downplayed its dark side.

It is this dark side of the West (history as dystopia) that Worster, White, and Limerick would bring into focus. For them the West is a geographical region which has been settled from south, west, north, and east. It is a land populated by First Peoples, by Spaniards, by Anglos, Hispanics, Asians, and African-Americans; by men and women. It is also a landscape which has been characterised by violence, economic exploitation, environmental devastation, intense racism, and federal governmental power. Unlike Turner’s West, the West of the “New” Western Historians is a region which has never ceased to be in process. [7]

While Worster, White, and Limerick agree on many aspects of what the West is, they are also characterised by different takes on the nature of the region. In the remainder of this paper I will undertake a close reading of selected texts by each of these three scholars. I will focus on how they define the West, the approaches they take in their studies of the West, and the ideologies and narratives that underpin their analyses. [8]

Worster’s West begins and ends with environmental realities (geography as destiny?). His West is the arid region of the Trans-Mississippi United States. For him the West is unique and has required specific economic adaptations to its special ecologies. Worster specifies two specific economic adaptations to the aridity of the West: the hydraulic and the pastoral. [9]

Hydraulic modes of adaptation, writes Worster, refer to the attempt by individuals as well as local, state, and federal authorities to capture water for energy, irrigation, and sustenance purposes. The general absence of water in the West has made its control of paramount importance to the social, economic, political and cultural development of the region. Given that localities and states in the region have been unable to control water on a large scale, they have turned to the federal government to do this. Through its reclamation projects, the federal government has played a crucial role via its building of dams and through its channelling of water and electricity to the regions residents. [10]

Worster is not content to replicate the progressive reading of these large scale federal reclamation projects, however. Many analysts have tended to see Hoover (originally the Boulder Dam) and Grand Coulee Dams, for instance, as indices of progress. They are seen as symbols that American life is getting progressively better. Drawing on the work of Henry Adams and Frankfurt theorist Max Horkheimer, Worster, instead, sees a dark side to these massive structures. For him, they represent domination: the domination of nature and the domination of human beings by other more economically and politically powerful humans. [11]

Worster explores water projects in California to drive home his point. The Central and Imperial Valley water projects, he asserts, did not help average and small farmers in these areas. Rather they benefited big monied agriculturalists. [12] They also benefited the federal government and agencies within the federal bureaucracy. Federal involvement in reclamation projects has allowed it to expand its already extensive control of the West. It is the feds who control the land on which the dams were built and the feds who control the operation of the dams themselves. Two agencies, in particular, have reaped the rewards from reclamation projects, the Bureau of Land Management (originally the Bureau of Reclamation) and the Army Corps of Engineers. Each have expanded as their “expertise” was utilised in reclamation schemes across the West. And as westerners have come to rely even more on this “expertise”, they have become ever more dependent upon the federal government. As Worster notes, all of this is rather ironical for a nation that have tried to live out its myth of self-reliant individualism. [13]

Worster saves his most of his scorn for the idea that these reclamation projects have allowed us to control nature. Though dam builders and proponents of these schemes believed they had tamed the wild and arid West, the historian, or at least the historian Donald Worster, knows better. Nature has only temporarily been stayed. The river that the Hoover Dam helped “tame” will not be domesticated that easily, writes Worster. The utilisation of the water of the Colorado River for irrigation purposes has increased its salinity level significantly. [14] Eventually this will undermine the water’s usefulness for irrigation purposes. In the end, the river that carved the Grand Canyon over the centuries will be able to break through a dam, even Hoover Dam. Ominously, Worster warns that the Colorado is laying down silt and gathering force at this moment to break through this “eighth wonder of the world”. [15]

Worster thus conceives of nature as autonomous. As humans try to imprison her behind walls of concrete and steel, she may seem tranquil in her captivity for the moment. Beneath the surface, however, the laws of nature are working to break the chains put in place by prideful human engineers, government bureaucrats, and political and economic elites. Inevitably, she will break free of her human prison showing humans once and for all (or at least for the moment) just who is in control of nature. [16]

The second ecological adaptation to the West Worster points to is the pastoral mode. Pastoralism, writes Worster, is a type of adaptation emphasising the herding of livestock. Historically such modes of ecological adaptation have varied in form. Some forms of pastoralism have been nomadic in type, others have been sedentary. The form of pastoralism that existed in America was a type strongly tied to market capitalism. This type of pastoralism is characterised by ranches, grasslands on which animals feed, the transportation of these forms of capital to market in order to sell them, and cowboys. [17]

Capitalist pastoralism, claims Worster, had a negative impact on the grasslands of the West. “Pest control” was instituted by local ranchers and the federal government in order to eliminate the species that preyed on the valued animals of these ranches. Species like wolves, bobcats, and mountain lions, for instance, were either decimated or eliminated entirely through such practises. Additionally, animal overgrazing led to the depletion of Western rangelands. A government report indicated that by 1936 52% of the range had declined from its “virgin condition”. [18]

According to Worster, this depletion was less on government controlled lands than on private ones. An exploration of data collected on range land decline indicates that the federal government has managed their lands better than private ranchers. Nevertheless, rangeland decimation remains a significant problem on both private and public lands in the West. Worster hence urges more democracy and openness in range use decision making, at least in the short term. In the long term he calls for more communal and egalitarian practises based on a community’s personal experience, knowledge, and moral suasion. If we do not move in this direction, away from laissez-faire capitalism, we are, he warns, going to destroy both our rangelands and ourselves. [19]

Worster then is as much an Environmental as a Western Historian. In his paper, “Transformations of the Earth: Toward an Agroecological Perspective in History”, he outlines his approach to Environmental History. In this essay Worster delineates three levels of analysis in the study of the interaction between humans and nature: first, the ecological, the structure and distribution of nature in past times, second, modes of production or the interaction between human technology and the environment, and third, the cultural, human perceptions of the environment. Worster perceives the interaction between humans and nature, between these three levels in dialectical terms. Environmental history, then, is, in sum, the story of the effect of the environment on humans and the effect of humans on the environment. He notes that the point where one can explore the three levels and their interactions is in agricultural modes of production, in agroecosystems, the study of human agricultural systems and their impact on the environment over time. The particular agroecosystem on which Worster concentrates is the capitalist one. In particular, he explores how capitalist markets transformed ecosystems from multicultural to monocultural forms (akin to genetic diversity versus genetic homogeny), from ones in which multiple crops were planted on a plot of land to ones in which a single crop was seeded in the fields. He sees this change as particularly devastating for the environment. [20]

While some have criticised Worster for ignoring the role meanings and symbols play in environmental history Worster does emphasise the role of the ideological in some of his writings though this emphasis tends to become submerged in his more theoretically oriented essays. [21] In these works Worster’s interest in such materialist anthropological theorists as Julian Steward and Marvin Harris is foregrounded while his dialecticism tends to fade into the shadows. While it is true that Worster tends, on occasion, to reduce culture to an epiphenomenon of mode of production, particularly in his theoretical essays, culture is an important player in his more substantive and historical narratives. In his book on the dust storms in the Great Plains, for instance, culture almost seems to take on a life of its own despite its capitalist origins. [22]

Worster’s Dust Bowl, a Pulitzer Prize winning history of the devastating environmental crisis that hit the Great Plains in the 1930s, brings together both his material and cultural concerns in a powerful way. In this work cultural and economic explanations play major roles in Worster’s understanding of the origins of dust storms in the Great Plains. [23]

In this book and other of his essays and monographs, Worster blames capitalism, both in its material and ideological forms for the dust storms (capitalism as dystopia). [24] According to Worster, capitalism created an ethos, a culture, predicated on the notion that nature was a commodity which could become a source of profit and a means to create more wealth. [25] From this stemmed other related ideas, namely, that humans had to apply this capital toward constant self-advancement, and that the social system should permit and encourage this continual accumulation of wealth. Farming on the Great Plains, then, became oriented toward the market since this was seen as the mechanism for the continual and progressive accumulation of profit and as the mechanism for human progress. More and more of this fragile environment was ploughed up and planted with one crop, in this case wheat.

Disaster struck, according to Worster’s cautionary tale, when economic and environmental collapse occurred simultaneously on the Plains in the 1930s. The market collapsed in 1929 bringing on the “Great Depression” and equally important, though often ignored by historians and commentators, the ploughing up of the Grasslands combined with drought and the high winds of the West to produce the “Black Blizzards” that sometimes blew Western topsoil as far east as Washington, D.C. Farm production and farm prices collapsed. Economic and environmental disaster had hit the Plains simultaneously. [26]

According to Worster, farmers alone were not to blame for this environmental disaster. They ploughed up more of the Plains on which to plant wheat because they were trapped in a larger economic culture, the ethos of capitalism. They were dependent upon its rewards. They deeply imbibed its values and patterns of thought. They simply did what capitalist culture taught them was best. And even when they faced disaster, many farmers still believed that science, not a rearrangement of society more in harmony with a fragile environment, would get them out of the jam they were in. They were individualistic, materialistic, self-serving, progressivists, insensitive to the fragile environment in which they lived. They were, in sum, the creatures of capitalism and its mythology. [27] Here Worster’s text places an emphasis on culture even when he seems to be exploring changes in the land. His writings, in the final analysis, are as much cultural as material. And they are dialectical, for there is an interactional relationship between nature, economic adaptation, and culture. It is the last two which have a destructive impact on the environment. The environment, in turn, as it deteriorates, has a negative impact on the economics of farming on the Plains and on Plains culture in general.

Worster’s writings are ideological in another way. On one level Worster’s writings explore the ideological aspects of capitalism, namely what myths were generated by capitalist culture and how autonomous were these. On another ideological level we find a prophetic aspect to Worster’s oeuvre.

William Cronon has traced the prophetic quality of the “New” Western and Environmental Historians to Marx. He has noted (rightly I think) that for Marx, modes of production are not only material phenomena, they are also prophetic. The seeds of a future mode of production are present in the current one. For example, Marx believed that the seeds of communist modes of production were sown in capitalist ones. This allowed Marx to prophesy the end of capitalism and the triumph of communism, though he did not sketch out the latter in great detail. Cronon suggests that this same prophetic quality exists in the work of the “New” Western Historians.

Worster’s environmental history, his analysis of human-environment interactions, has, in other words, both a material and a prophetic aspect. His analysis of how modes of production have transformed the earth carries with it a prophecy, a warning to us that if we do not change how we interact with the earth we will one day have no earth to interact with. [28]

Worster himself testifies to the prophetic quality of his writings. He views his work in the context of “speaking truth to power”. Worster maintains that historians can no longer stand on the sidelines while nature is rent asunder and the poor are exploited by the rich and powerful. The “New” Western historians, unlike past Western historians, cannot be cheerleaders for capitalist “progress”, in other words. They must take a critical stance toward such pronouncements, deconstructing them so that “real” progress might be made.

These prophetic qualities of Worster’s analyses become particularly clear in a number of the essays collected in his The Wealth of Nature. [29] In many of the essays reprinted in this book, Worster maintains that unless we do something immediately, unless we turn from our Edenic myths of nature’s unchangableness and eternal abundance, there will be no land left for us to exploit any longer. Soil erosion is just one aspect of the danger of environmental degradation and the consequent devastation that confronts us. Worster hopes that we will draw on the more collectivist aspects of our national culture and mythology, myths represented in the conservationist and preservationist movement, to counteract the excessive individualist tradition that has dominated American culture and is a product of capitalism. He urges that we turn to more collectivist farming methods, more collectivist modes of production that are more in harmony with nature. Additionally, he calls for us to move from monocultural farming back toward multicultural agricultural practises. Only if we do this can we save out earth and also ourselves from annihilation. [30]

Worster’s prophetic side is not only evident in the various essays of The Wealth of Nature. It is also clear in his book on the dust bowl. This monograph is melodramatic as well as the tragic and it is in the ironic chorus of the book that Worster’s prophetic voice comes through very loudly. [31]

Worster’s Dust Bowl is not a detached social scientific history of economic and environmental disaster on the Great Plains in the 1930s. [32] It is the story of good and evil, of triumph and tragedy, and of unintended consequences. Dust Bowl is fundamentally the story of an evil, seemingly omnipresent capitalism, its champions, the people whose minds it conquers, and the consequences this conquest has for the environment. It is a story with villains and heroes, of devilish capitalists and saintly Mennonites.

At the heart of the book is the tragic story of capitalism’s destruction of the Plains environment. This narrative of unnecessary environmental destruction works to make us feel the tragedy of how environmentally unfriendly farming practises negatively impact the Plains. Using irony, the narrative disentangles the unintended consequences human actions has had on the Great Plains as they were guided by the invisible but ever present hand of capitalist ideology. The Plains were ploughed up in the name of market capitalism and its practise of monocultural wheat farming. From this destruction the black blizzards came.

Dust Bowl is not, however, solely the story of environmental destruction. An almost millennial triumph lurks on the margins of capitalist society in the form of the Mennonites. It is the separatist Mennonites, a culture not fully embedded within the capitalist system, and others like them, who point, almost eschatologically, toward the possibility of a more environmentally harmonious and humane American society. It is they who show us that we can disentangle ourselves from the evil of capitalism and its harmful farming practises [33]

Another of the “New” Western Historians has focused on changes in the land as well, Richard White. White’s book, Land Use, Environment, and Social Change is an ecological history of Island County, Washington. [34] This book is the ecological and cultural story of two islands lying in the Puget Sound, Whidby Island and Camano Island, which together constitute todays Island County. According to White, two factors were important in the environmental transformation of the county, technological manipulation and ecological invasion. Both First Peoples, the Salish, and Europeans engaged in both. The Salish utilised fire to extend the range of berries, a source of food, in the forests, and to enlarge the range of bracken, a fern, and camas, a potato like root, Both were important food sources for the First Peoples on the islands. Additionally, the Salish engaged in fishing especially for shellfish and salmon.

Europeans ploughed the land for agriculture, drained its marshes, and cut its forests. With their migration to the islands, the new migrants brought diseases which decimated the Salish population, and they introduced new species such as pigs, cattle, and rats into Whidby and Camano. Their actions, especially their farming and logging practises, changed the ecology of the two islands forever. Wheat was planted reducing the variety of flora in the ploughed over areas. Additionally, farming methods and logging activities allowed foreign species like the Canadian thistle to gain a foothold in Island County and eventually to spread over its length and breadth. [35] Logging transformed a forest dominated by Douglas fir into one in which hemlock and deciduous trees were predominant [36]

So, according to White, both the Salish and the First Peoples manipulated and changed the islands on which they lived. There was, he argues, a major difference in how they perceived the environment, however. The Salish viewed nature in both natural and spiritual terms. For them, nature was populated by spirits and powers that had to be respected. This did not mean that nature could not be manipulated. Clearly the Salish did transform the ecology of the islands. Nineteenth-century Europeans, on the other hand, viewed nature as a commodity. They encouraged plants and animals they perceived as useful and profitable. Forests, likewise, were regarded solely as a resource to be exploited for the profit of the owner. The major difference in the environmental consequences of both cultures was that the Salish never eliminated an entire species or habitat while the Europeans did, capitalism as dystopia. [37]

Another important cultural aspect of Nineteenth-century Europeans was, according to White, their belief that farming was a special way of life. [38] This ideology led the migrants to conclude that logged lands should be and could be opened up for agricultural sale and production. Tragically, those who tried to farm this land found it unproductive. Moreover, when this lack of productivity combined with the limited financial resources of the settlers, both sent them spiralling into an endless cycle of poverty. [39]

Logging and the attempt to farm unproductive land also had social consequences, claims White. Once loggers had felled most of the islands trees, timber companies closed down operations and no longer contributed to the county’s tax base. Moreover, the habitually poverty stricken farmers who were trying to grow crops on unproductive cut over land that had been logged, could not contribute to the islands tax coffers either. Island County, hence, had habitual difficulty raising enough money for schools, road improvements, etc.. [40]

White’s book offers a multifactoral analysis of the consequences of environmental change. His book mixes ecological studies with economic, political, legal, and cultural analysis. In the end, however, it is cultural perceptions of the environment that underpin White’s analysis of environmental change in Island County, Washington.

As with Worster’s narrative, White’s tale of environmental change is a rather depressing one. There are few heroes in his book and a lot of villains. First Peoples, though not romanticised in the narrative, are more heroic in the text than Europeans. For while they did transform the environment, they did not destroy entire ecosystems as the Anglos did. Europeans with their capitalist markets destroyed entire ecosystems such as forests and marshlands. Anglo farmers transformed a multcultural ecology into a monocultural one. European loggers transformed forest land into a sea of stumps or into a new forest of hemlocks and deciduous trees in place of the Douglas Fir forest that had been there before. It is these European transplants and their ideologies which sanctified the yeoman farmer and laissez-faire economics that are the true villains of White’s story. It is they who cause environmental destruction. Only when Anglos come to recognise the value of wilderness for recreational purposes, do they seek to preserve the natural environment. [41]

White’s text might be read as a rather depressing study of the inevitability of environmental change. It is not quite that, however. True, White sees ecological transformation as inevitable. Nevertheless, not every social group brings about environmental change at the same degree of intensity. Clearly, his narrative implies the superiority of First Peoples’ less destructive adaptation to their environment. It does this through a narrative that counterpoints the more harmonious ecological adaptation of the First Peoples with the particularly destructive human-nature interactions of the Anglos. White seems to hold out First Peoples as a model for us today. For White, we need to learn how we can live with nature. We can do this by modelling our interactions with the natural world on that of First Peoples. It is here that one finds White’s utopia, granted a more realistic utopia, but a utopia nevertheless. White’s kingdom of God is a kingdom where humans live with nature, not against it. [42]

Interestingly, the same criticisms that have been levelled by some at Worster, namely that his focus was on the material rather than the dialectical relationship between the material and the ideological, might also be made of White’s book. [43] Yes, White does explore the interaction between nature and humans, but in the final analysis White universalises nature and makes it the final arbiter of right and wrong. [44]

By the time he wrote his monumental history of the West, “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”, White had moved in a more radically dialectical direction. [45] While White defines the West in this tome as a region it is not a region defined geographically but rather a region defined politically. White’s West is an accident of history. It is, in other words, the product of the European conquest of a diverse group of peoples. White’s narrative of the West is the story of how Europeans imposed their language and their customs, whether political, environmental, economic, cultural, and legal, on a region. It is made in the interaction between humans and their environments.

One of the phenomena that White points to, in particular, as defining the American West is the important role the federal government of the United States has played in delineating the socially constructed boundaries of that region. The strong presence of the federal military, the fact that the federal government ended up owning large chunks of the public domain, the fact that so many of the areas of the West remained federal territories run by a growing federal bureaucracy, made the region unique and prophetic. White’s book has a revelatory quality in that it points toward tragic things to come in the United States. It reveals the growth of an evermore centralised federal power and its bureaucracies that seem to trap us in the iron cage that Max Weber held to be a central characteristic of rational bureaucratic cultures (politics and bureaucracy as dystopia).

While Richard White offers us a quite extensive reading of the nature of the American West, even his multifactoral delineation of that region is no match for that of Patricia Nelson Limerick. Limerick ‘s West is perhaps the most wide-ranging of the three. Her West consists of ten characteristics that typify the region. [46] First, it is a region characterised by a lack of water. This aridity, she asserts, inspired a campaign of dam, reservoir, and canal building that was particularly strong in the West. [47] Second, Limerick sees the West as the region of First Peoples par excellence. In no other region of the United States does one find more First Peoples nor does one see the intensity of the difficult relationship between the Indian and Anglo cultures than in the American West. Third, the West alone shares a border with, first, the Spanish regions, and finally the Mexican regions of the Southwest. [48] It is in the West that one can most clearly see the impact of Hispanics. Fourth, the West borders on the Pacific. Because of this it has received the bulk of Asian immigration into the United States and is developing close economic ties with the wider Pacific Basin. Fifth, the West has had and continues to contain large quantities of land under direct federal control. Sixth, largely because of the large amount of land owned and controlled by the federal government and because it has seen intense relations between conquering Americans and a host of conquered peoples, the West is a particularly illuminating case study in federal political expansion. It was in the West that the federal government would first build dams, subsidise private business, sign treaties with First Peoples and others, and defend the region from attack. Seventh, the West has been the site, though not the exclusive site, of dramatic boom-bust economies of mining, lumbering, and drilling industries, as well as of commercial farming. The federal government has tried to moderate this phenomenon but has never quite tamed it. Eighth, the West has had a long-term involvement in mythologisation. The West is the region of the United States that has been most highly romanticised. It has also become heavily dependent on tourism as a result of this romanticisation. Ninth, the West has been the dumping ground of unwanted peoples like the Mormons and the First Peoples, and of unwanted toxic and radioactive wastes. And finally, last but not least, the West, as a result of all of these factors, has demonstrated the unsettled aspects of conquest. This region, in other words, bears the marks of violence, of unresolved fights over legal and political rights, and of environmental degradation. In Limerick the dystopian has become multifactoral.

For Limerick it is this last phenomena that makes the West unique as a region. It is conquest, the mother of all dystopias, that marks off the West from other regions of the United States in the same way that slavery makes the South unique, writes Limerick. It is also conquest that foregrounds the problems with previous interpretive paradigms that have defined the past and even the present study of the region. Why? Because it is this fact of European imperialism that seems to have escaped the pens of Turner and Webb.

Limerick, more than any of the other “New” Western Historians has made a career out of criticising the frontier hypothesis of Frederick Jackson Turner. She sees the frontier hypothesis itself as part of the myth of America, a myth which elides the violence and racism bred by American manifest destiny transforming it into a heroic saga of American pioneer settlement, a saga in which American trailblazers transformed a forbidding landscape into a productive garden. [49]

Limerick, like Worster, has been very forthright with respect to the prophetic qualities of her analysis of Western History and its historiography. In her “Region and Reason” Limerick has made it clear that she hoped that her concentration on the role of conquest in Western History would lead readers, particularly Western readers, to reflect upon their myths of the past, myths reflected and expressed in Turner’s frontier hypothesis. [50] Limerick the prophet hopes that her writings will play a role in the reconstitution of American culture and society from one predicated on Anglo-Saxon male myths and prejudices to one which rejoices in its diversity. All of this, of course, seems perfectly natural for someone who grew up in a period which saw numerous citizens taking part in a fight against racism in the Civil Rights movement and against American conquest or imperialism in the Anti-Vietnam war movement (the activist-academic as romantic hero). [51]

It is clear that the “New” Western Historians see themselves as very different from the “Old” Western Historians that preceded them. But are they really that different from the others they so demonise? [52]

Like Frederick Jackson Turner, the “New” Western Historians sees the West as, in part, a process. Turner saw this process as the transformation of a geographical space from frontier to civilisation. In this transformation a new nation, a nation characterised by a new form of democracy and populated by rugged individualists was created. The “New” Western Historians describe this process as conquest. Worster’s, White’s and Limerick’s conquest occurs in the arid region of the United States and involves the violent conquest of nature and humanity. While the “New” historians differ in terms of their bases for delineating a West from a South, Northeast, or Midwest, Worster and Limerick define the West on a ecological basis, White’s West is defined geographically on the basis of political factors, and while they differ in terms of the dominant conqueror, Worster sees capitalism, Limerick capitalism, racism, and political power, early White capitalism, and late White political factors, each concur that the West was and is a region defined by the process of conquest. [53]

The “Old” and “New” historians are also similar in another way. Each play the role of prophet. In other words, Turner, Worster, White, and Limerick, have an implicit and sometimes explicit ideological subtext in their writings. Turner sees the West as the ever expanding Kingdom of God brought to earth. The frontier, for him, is the space in which the pinnacle of societal progress, American democracy, has been attained. This progress, for Turner, is not irreversible, however, for the end of the frontier in the late nineteenth century raises questions as to whether the United States will be able to maintain its democracy and hence its special character as a beacon of light bearing the highest form of political organisation to the world. There is, then, an ambiguity that resides at the centre of the Turnerian text. [54]

There is an ambiguity in the texts of Worster and Limerick as well. Both of them see the mission of America as somewhat different than Turner. For them America’s mission has been compromised by the violence and exploitation of the processes of conquest. Worster sees capitalism and its consequences of environmental devastation and human inequality as delaying the achievement of America’s true destiny—to achieve ecological harmony and egalitarian communitarianism--and mission—to act as exemplar to the world of how such ecological and social harmony can be attained. [55]

Like Worster, Limerick explores the consequences of American Manifest Destiny and counterpoints it to what she regards as the true American destiny. Her notion of conquest in simply defined in broader stokes than Worster’s. For Limerick conquest is not solely economic. It is also political, cultural, and social. For Limerick, America’s destiny involves the end of conquest and the triumph of equality. America is to be the shining multicultural light to the world (a multicultural “citie on a hill”). It is a suffering servant whose call is to show a troubled and conflict ridden world how it can live as one. [56]

The prophetic aspects of the Whitean text are more complex. The White of Land Use, Environment, and Social Change is very similar to that of Worster. This White recognises the ecological decimation and social and cultural inequality that resulted from capitalism. The White of “Its Your Misfortune and None of My Own”, however, is more ambiguous in terms of his prophetic vision. The White of Misfortune emphasises the role that the federal bureaucracy has played in the creation of the American West. It is not clear whether this bureaucratisation is an iron cage from which we cannot escape or whether it is a phenomenon that can be overcome and thereby allow us to move closer to a nation that is ecologically harmonious and socially equal (liberté, égalité, écologie?). It isn’t clear because White’s later work lacks the teleology that undergirds the texts of Turner, Worster, and Limerick. In White there is little sense of an American mission to the world. [57]

While there are differences of content in the works of the “Old” and “New” Western historians—the “Old” priest-prophet celebrates the process of making America and Americans, the “New” outsider prophets critique the America created in the hope of recreating an America that fits more closely with what they see as its true nature, namely to achieve greater equality between nature and humans as well as humans and other humans—there are similarities of form. Turner, Worster, and Limerick see America as “a light to the world”. For all of them America has a special quality—for Turner this quality is democratisation, for Worster and Limerick it is the more radical equality that results from the end of conquest. In this respect the “New” is not so new. It is only in the Misfortune of Richard White that something “new” perhaps does enter the study of Western History. This is the novelty of the end of teleology and its ideological justification. With White, we witness the end of American millennialism, at least for the moment. [58]

End Notes
1. Frederick Jackson Turner; “The Significance of the Frontier in American History in Turner; The Frontier in American History (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1992). Turner’s essay was originally read at a meeting of the American Historical Association in 1893. Its thesis was not without precedent. Theodore Roosevelt, who would later become President of the United States, was fond of viewing America in frontier terms. To some extent, the thesis is symbolic of how America perceived itself in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is part of the American creation myth. On this see Richard Slotkin’s three volume work on the meaning of the frontier in the American experience: Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (New York: HarperCollins, 1996 [1973]), The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890 (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1986) and Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (New York: HarperCollins, 1992. Also see David Noble’s Historians Against History: The Frontier Thesis and the National Covenant in American Historical Writing Since 1830 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1965).

2. Walter Prescott Webb; The Great Plains (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1931). In this book Webb defined the West as arid, treeless, and flat. The only region that met all of those conditions was Webb’s own Great Plains. Later, in his book The Great Frontier (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964), Webb eliminated two of the three characteristics that defined the West, maintaining that aridity alone defined the region.

3. The processural and the regional views were not necessarily inconsistent. Turner would write of American sectionalism and Webb would write of the West as a frontier. Turner; “The Significance of the Section in American History”; Wisconsin Magazine of History 8 (March 1925), 255-280; and Webb; The Great Frontier. An interesting and excellent study of the paradigms through which the West was viewed may be found in Gerald Nash’s Creating the West: Historical Interpretations 1890-1990 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991). Nash suggests the following as filters through which Western History was read: the West as frontier, the West as region; the West as urban civilisation, and the West as utopia and symbol. While there were other ways to view the West, namely the West as urban and the West as myth and symbol, the frontier and regional paradigms seem to have the most followers. Moreover, each of the other viewpoints could be embedded easily within the frontier and regional interpretative frames.

4. See William O’Neill; Coming Apart: An Informal History of the 1960s (New York: Times Books, 1970), Allen Matusow; The Unravelling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s (New York: Harper and Row, 1984), and William Chafe; The Unfinished Journey: America Since World War II (NYC, Oxford University Press, 1986).

5. See Alvin Gouldner; The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology (New York: Basic, 1970), George Marcus and Michael Fischer; Anthropology as Cultural Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), Eric Wolff; Europe and the People Without History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), Peter Novick; That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), Clyde Barrow; Universities and the Capitalist State (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990), Mary Furner; Advocacy and Objectivity: A Crisis in the Professionalization of American Social Science, 1865-1905 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1975), and Dorothy Ross; The Origins of American Social Science (NYC: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

6. The authority of Worster, White, and Limerick is at once charismatic (grounded in their status within the field and the disciples who flock around them), paternalistic (the fact that they take students under their wing and mentor them), and bureaucratic (grounded in their professorial status and the cultural and social capital of the universities they teach at and graduated from).

7. Worster, White, and Limerick lay out their views of the “New” Western History in Patricia Nelson Limerick, Clyde Millner II, and Charles Rankin (eds.); Trails: Toward a New Western History (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991). Specifically see Worster’s “Beyond the Agrarian Myth”, White’s “Trashing the Trails” and Limerick’s “What on Earth is the New Western History?” in this collection of essays. Worster’s essay is reprinted in his Under Western Skies: Nature and History in the American West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

8. On narratives in Western Environmental History see William Cronon; “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative”; Journal of American History 78:4 (March 1992), pp. 1347-1376. Much of my analyses of the ideological underpinnings of the work of Worster, White, and Limerick was completed before I read Cronon’s fascinating essay.

9. Worster lays out his definition of the West in his collection of essays Under Western Skies (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). See particularly the essay “New West, True West” in this collection. While he does argue that the West is defined by its aridity, he does not ignore the ecological variations that exist in the region.

10. See Worster’s essay “Hoover Dam: A Study in Domination” in Worster; Under Western Skies.

11. Worster; “Hoover Dam: A Study in Domination” in Worster; Under Western Skies, pp. 64-78.

12. Worster; “Hoover Dam: A Study in Domination” in Worster; Under Western Skies, pp. 64-78.

13. Worster; “Hoover Dam: A Study in Domination” in Worster; Under Western Skies, pp. 64-78.

14. Worster; “Hoover Dam: A Study in Domination” in Worster; Under Western Skies p. 76.

15. Worster; “Hoover Dam: A Study in Domination” in Worster; Under Western Skies pp 77-78.

16. Worster; “Hoover Dam: A Study in Domination” in Worster; Under Western Skies, pp. 64-78.

17. Worster; “Cowboy Ecology” in Worster; Under Western Skies, pp. 34-52.

18. Worster; “Cowboy Ecology” in Worster; Under Western Skies, pp. 34-52.

19. Worster; “Cowboy Ecology” in Worster; Under Western Skies, pp. 34-52. Worster’s model community is the Swiss village of Torbel. Here a communitarian and ecological harmonious pastoralism has been practised since the Middle Ages. Worster draws this from Robert Netting’s Balancing on an Alp: Ecological Change and Continuity in a Swiss Mountain Community (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

20. Journal of American History, vol. 76, no. 4 (March 1990), pp. 1087-1106. This essay is also reprinted in Worster’s The Wealth of Nature: Environmental History and the Environmental Imagination, (NYC: Oxford University Press, 1993) as “Transformations of the Earth”.

21. Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979).

22. Worster, Dust Bowl.

23. Worster, Dust Bowl.

24.Worster; Dust Bowl. See also Donald Worster, Under Western Skies, The Wealth of Nature, and Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West (New York: Pantheon, 1985), Worster’s most comprehensive analysis of his hydraulic hypothesis. In Rivers, Worster argues that what defines the American West is the lack of water. Control of this scarce resource, he maintains, reveals a great deal about the West in particular and about America in general.

25. On this and the following see Worster, Dust Bowl, especially p. 6.

26. Not everyone, of course, has attributed the dust storms of the Great Plains to the ploughing up of the Great Plains. James Malin, the first historian to attempt to integrate ecological thought and American History in the 1940s (The Grassland of North America: Prolegomena to its History With Addenda and Postscript (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1967)) did not see any ecological limits to farming the Great Plains (for which he was “demonised” by Worster in Dust Bowl and Nature’s Economy (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1977)).

27. Worster, Dust Bowl.

28. Worster, Dust Bowl.

29. Worster, The Wealth of Nature.

30. Worster, The Wealth of Nature. See especially the following essays, “Americans and the Land”, “Good Farming and the Public Good”, “Arranging a Marriage: Ecology and Agriculture”, “The Shaky Ground of Sustainable Development”, and “Restoring a Natural Order”.

31. Worster, Dust Bowl. I am, of course, borrowing ideas from a variety of sources in undertaking a narrativistic analysis of historical texts. Perhaps more than anyone else Hayden White has focused attention on the existence of narrative structures in historical and social scientific texts. White’s major analysis of narrative structures in social scientific and historical texts can be found in his book Metahistory (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press).

32. I am, of course, begging the question of whether any social scientific analysis can be detached and objective, in the positivistic sense of that term. I would contend, with Max Weber, that a degree of detachment from and understanding of one’s subject is possible and preferable. This does not mean that such an approach is objective. It is not and never can be for, as Weber notes, we approach any subject we study with some value or values.

33. Worster, Dust Bowl.

34. Richard White, Land Use, Environment, and Social Change: The Shaping of Island County, Washington (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1992 [1980])
.
35. White, Land Use.

36. White, Land Use.

37. White, Land Use.

38. Democratic-Republicans like Thomas Jefferson, of course, held to the notion that the independent yeoman farmer was the heart of American democracy.

39. White, Land Use.

40. White, Land Use. In his preface to the 1992 paperback edition of the book, White reflects critically upon what he refers to as his uncritical usage of ecological ideas and concepts. By 1992 White had become convinced that the historical study of the environment had undermined the rather static conceptualisations that characterised ecological thought in the 1970s. History, he claims, has added an important dynamic dimension to ecological studies.

41. White, Land Use.

42. White, Land Use.

43. Worster’s perspective has been both praised and criticised by others. In their responses to Worster’s paper in the Journal of American History Alfred Crosby and Carolyn Merchant respond positively to Worster’s model (Alfred Crosby, “An Enthusiastic Second”, Journal of American History, vol. 76, no. 4 (March 1990), pp. 1107-1110, and Carolyn Merchant, “Gender and Environmental History”, Journal of American History, pp. 1117-1121). Crosby adds a hearty second to Worster’s three-tiered analysis of agroecosystems. Merchant, likewise, seconds Worster’s proposal, but adds that a fourth level of analysis must be added to Worster’s three, namely, the study of the interaction between gender and the environment or modes of reproduction. For Merchant, men and women have interacted quite differently with the natural environment.
It is Richard White and William Cronon who offer a caution to Worster’s approach (Richard White, “Environmental History, Ecology, and Meaning”, Journal of American History, vol. 76, no. 4 (March 1990), pp. 1111-1116; and William Cronon, “Modes of Prophecy and Production: Placing Nature in History”, Journal of American History, pp. 1122-1131). Both writers praise Worster’s attempt to provide a theoretical model for an interdisciplinary environmental history. They go on to suggest, however, that Worster’s focus on modes of production, on food production, is too narrow a focal point for the discipline. By focusing on food production, on material factors, say White and Cronon, Worster underestimates the importance of cultural factors in the study of environmental history. Both point out that you cannot separate the material from the cultural. You cannot, as Cronon argues, separate food production from the meaning food has for its producers.
White is also critical of the determinism he sees in Worster’s model. His hierarchical model makes culture an epiphenomenon of modes of production, of how humans interact with the environment in order to produce food. The presumption is that with a specific mode of production one can expect a particular cultural formation to develop. Again, as both White and Cronon suggest, you cannot separate the material and the cultural, food production from the symbolic meaning such production has. Nor can you assume that a mode of production will lead to a specific cultural formation in every circumstance.
In place of the hierarchical model offered by Worster with its emphasis on agricultural modes of production, White and Cronon urge a model of environmental history which is relational, interactive, and dialectical. Worster, of course, maintains that his model is dialectical. Nevertheless, write White and Cronon, this claim of interactionism is more rhetorical than actual. The material study of food production is just that, material. It explores the physical and technological aspects of farming, not the meaning farming or food has for people. Worster, claims Cronon and White, Worster does not undertake such an analysis of meaning.

44. White recognises this in the introduction to the 1992 edition of Land Use, p. xviii.

45. White; “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own: A New History of the American West (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991).

46. Limerick; The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (NYC: Norton, 1987) and Limerick; “Region and Reason” in Ayres, Limerick, Nissenbaum, and Onuf; All Over the Map: Rethinking America’s Regions (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).

47. In her interesting essay in All Over the Map, “Region and Reason”, Limerick confronts the postmodernist moment in regionalism. Postmodernists, like Ayres (“What we Talk About When we Talk About the South” in the same collection), see regions as purely mental constructs, in other words, as purely arbitrary phenomena. Limerick notes the strength of this reading of regions but argues that she, a Westerner born and bred, still can’t help but feel that the West is a place in a particular geographical space.

48. It is worth pointing out that Limerick tends to ignore those other colonies, countries and cultures with which the American West shares a border, New France, British North America and Canada.

49. Limerick; Legacy and Ayres, Limerick, Nissenbaum, and Onuf; All Over the Map, “The Adventures of the Frontier in the Twentieth Century” in White and Limerick; The Frontier in North American Culture (Berkeley, Cal.: University of California Press, 1994).

50. Limerick; “Region and Reason” in Ayres, Limerick, Nissenbaum, and Onuf; All Over the Map.

51. Gerald Nash has noted that in the wake of American wars an anti-imperialist theme pops up in the writings of American historians. Nash; Creating the West.

52. Nash has explored the novelty of the “New” Western History in Creating the West.

53. Turner; “Significance"; Worster; Dust Bowl, Under Western Skies, and The Wealth of Nature, White; Land Use, White; “Its Your Misfortune”, and Limerick; Legacy; “Region and Reason” in Ayres, Limerick, Nissenbaum, and Onuf; All Over the Map.

54. Turner; “Significance”.

55. Worster; Dust Bowl, Under Western Skies, and The Wealth of Nature; Limerick; Legacy of Conquest, and “Region and Reason” in Ayres, Limerick, Nissenbaum, and Onuf; All Over the Map. On American exceptionalism, mission, and millennialism see Noble; Historians,, Ernest Tuveson; Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), John Wilson; Public Religion in American Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1979), Robert Bellah; The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in a Time of Trail (NYC: Seabury Press, 1975), Sacvan Bercovitch; American Jeremiad (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978), Wilbur Zelinsky; Nation into State: The Shaping of Shifting Symbols of American Nationalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), Catherine Albanese; America: Religion and Religions (Belmont, Cal.: Wadsworth, fourth edition 2006). Needless to say, Worster’s and Limerick’s criticism of Turner’s teleology is rather ironical given their espousal of a form of directed evolution as well.

56. Limerick; Legacy of Conquest; Limerick; “Region and Reason” in Ayres, Limerick, Nissenbaum, and Onuf; All Over the Map.

57. White; Land Use; White; “It’s Your Misfortune”.

58. Turner; “Significance”; Worster; Dust Bowl, Under Western Skies, and The Wealth of Nature, Limerick; Legacy of Conquest and “Region and Reason” in Ayres, Limerick, Nissenbaum, and Onuf; All Over the Map, White; Land Use, and White “It’s Your Misfortune”.

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