A BOOK called The Growth of American Thought was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1944. At the end of a chapter on “The Nature of the New Nationalism” the central figure of Mr. Stegner’s book makes a momentary appearance. A passage which all told is nearly two pages long is discussing “the discovery of the West by a group of scientists who revealed it to the rest of the country.” (They revealed it, we are to understand, primarily as interesting scenery.) A paragraph pauses to remark that at the time these scientists made their discovery, the frontier was vanishing but it had “left distinctive traces on the American mind through its cult of action, rough individualism, physical freedom, and adventurous romance.” Here are four fixed and indestructible stereotypes about the West, all of them meaningless. No wonder that on the way to them Mr. Stegner’s subject is dismissed with a sentence which records that “the ethnologist and geologist, John Powell, who explored the Colorado River, the Grand Canyon, and the homeland of Indian tribes of the Southwest, promoted extremely important geological surveys for the federal government.” In his bibliographical notes the historian of American thought adds, “Major John Powell’s Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries is a classic.”
Thus “John Powell” was an explorer who embraced the cult of action, whatever that may be, and went down the Colorado and wrote an adventure story. He also had something to do with geological surveys which were “extremely important” but not important enough to be specified. Our historian perceives in them nothing that bears on the growth of American thought. Nor does he mention the classic which Powell wrote, Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States. Indeed nothing suggests that he has heard of it. It states, and states systematically for the first time, the conditions that control human life and society in forty per cent of the area of the United States. But because the historian of thought approaches the West with a handful of clichés, the conditions of life and society are not important. What counts is the book he names, an “adventurous romance.”
Which is fair enough and no doubt inevitable. True, one historian who understood John Wesley Powell and his importance, Mr. Walter Prescott Webb, had discussed him at length before the one I have quoted wrote his book. But most of his colleagues had not even heard of Powell in 1944, and still haven’t. This un-awareness represents a serious gap in historical thinking — which is the only reason for quoting a prizewinning book here. Otherwise it would be enough to say that Powell was one of those powerfully original. and prophetic minds which, like certain streams in a limestone country, sink out of sight for a time to reappear farther on. It will not do to sum up so briefly. For the reason historians have ignored Powell is that the preconceptions with which they have approached the area Powell figures in correspond exactly to the misconceptions with which the American people and their government approached the West.
Powell’s importance is that seventy-five years ago he pierced through those misconceptions to the realities. His career was an indomitable effort to substitute knowledge for the misconceptions and to get it acted on. He tried to repair the damage they had done to the people and the land and to prevent them from doing further damage. He tried to shape legal and political and social institutions so that they would accord with the necessities of the West. He tried to conserve the West’s natural wealth so that it could play to the full its potential part in the future of the United States. He tried to dissipate illusions about the West, to sweep mirage away. He was a great man and a prophet. Long ago he accomplished great things and now we are beginning to understand him ... even out west.
That is the burden of Mr. Stegner’s memorable book. My part here is to explain why writers of history have for so long failed to understand the massive figure of John Wesley Powell and therefore have failed, rather disastrously, to understand the fundamental meaning of the West in American history.
One of the reasons for that failure is beyond explanation: the tacit classification, the automatic dismissal, of Western history as merely sectional, not national, history. No such limitation has been placed on the experience of the American people in New England, the South, or the Middle West. These sections are taken to be organic in the United States and cannot safely be separated from their functional and reciprocal relationships. When you write Southern history in the round you must deal with such matters as, for instance, the cotton economy, the plantation system, slavery, States’ rights, the tariff, secession, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. They are so clearly national as well as Southern in implication that it would be impossible to write about them without treating them in relation to the experience of the nation as a whole. The same statement holds for the historical study of, say, Southern institutions, Southern politics, and Southern thinking — to ignore their national context would clearly be absurd. Southerners too are acquainted with “action” if not a cult of action, and are known to value “individualism” if not a rough kind of it. We may observe, even, that the South has had some awareness of “physical freedom” and “adventurous romance.” But an intellectual historian would not write a summary which implied that history need inquire no further — would not dismiss Jefferson with a sentence about his governorship of Virginia or Calhoun with one about his term in the legislature of South Carolina.
The experience of the West is just as inseparable from the central energies of American history. Any major Western topic, or any commonplace Western phenomenon, involves those energies the moment it is glanced at. Thus a favorite garment in the West (as in rural places throughout the United States) is a shirt whose trade name is Big Yank. It is a cotton shirt — made of a fiber once grown only in the South but now grown competitively in the West. It is a manufactured article — a product of industry located outside the West. So it cannot safely be dissected out from the national system. And the more you look at it, the more clearly you see that this involvement is complex. You encounter the mercantile-colonial status of the Western economy, the drainage of Western wealth eastward, the compensatory process of federal benefactions, preferential freight rates, and myriad concrete facts related to these — all national in implication. Make the shirt a woolen one and you bring in the tariff, absentee ownership of the West, Eastern control of Western finance, and the stockgrowing portion of Western agriculture. And if you will look at the woolen shirt just a little longer it will lead you straight to the basic conditions of the West.
Unless you are deflected or dazzled by its “adventurous romance.” Or by your historical preconceptions.
The West was the latest and most adventurously romantic of out frontiers, and its history has been written, mostly, as frontier history. When the word “frontier” is used in history it has, to begin with, been raised to a tolerably high degree of abstraction. And its inherent abstractness has been almost immeasurably increased by a hypothesis which has dominated much writing about the West and has colored almost all of it, Frederick Jackson Turner’s theory about the function of “the frontier” in American life. That theory has, I suppose, begotten more pages of American history than any other generalization. Till recently no one dreamed of writing about the West without its help. Indeed its postulate of a specific kind of “frontier” independence, which it derives from the public domain and which it calls the principal energy of American democracy, has heavily buttressed our illusions about the West. So our problem here exists in a medium of pure irony. For, to whatever degree the Turner hypothesis may be applicable to American experience east of the 100th meridian, it fails almost altogether when applied to the West. The study of a single water war, in fact of a single irrigation district, should reveal its irrelevance. Indeed as one who has written extensively of our sacred Western symbol, the covered wagon, I have frequently found myself wondering if the study of a single wagon train ought not to suffice.
But two other facts affect our problem more. In general, historians have been content to postulate that American institutions, orientations, and habits of thought which developed east of the 100th meridian maintained their form and retained their content after reaching the West, whereas in fact a good many important ones did not. In the second place, historians have generally been ignorant of or incurious about natural conditions that determine life in the West, differentiate it from other sections, and have given it different orientations. Since the importance of John Wesley Powell is entirely related to those differences, historians have naturally had no reason to perceive it. Presumably anyone nowadays is well enough informed to understand that the engaging nonsense of William Gilpin, which Mr. Stegner uses so effectively to illuminate Powell’s achievements, is and always was nonsense. But the point is that anyone who is not well grounded in Western geography, topography, and climate could easily be led to dismiss Powell as precisely the kind of eccentric Gilpin was.
Well, there isn’t much rain out west. There is not enough rain to grow crops and so additional water has to be brought to them for irrigation. The additional water falls as snow on the mountains, it melts, and it flows down the brooks to the creeks and down them to the rivers. If you build dams, you can hold the runoff for use when and where it is needed. Then if you construct systems of canals — increasingly complex systems as you take the melted snow farther — you can bring the water to town mains and to the fields that won’t grow crops without it. The historical process which we call the westward movement shattered against these facts. Neither hope nor illusion nor desire nor Act of Congress could change them in the least. But they were even harder for the American people to accept than they have been for historians to understand.
There is no need to describe how the “quarter-section” acquired mystical significance in American thinking — the idea that 160 acres were the ideal family-sized farm, the basis of a yeoman democracy, the buttress of our liberties, and the cornerstone of our economy. It was certainly true, however, that if you owned 160 acres of flat Iowa farmland or rolling Wisconsin prairie, you had, on the average, a farm which would support your family and would require all its exertions to work. So the quarter-section, thought of as the proper homestead unit, became the mystical one. But in the arid regions 160 acres were not a homestead. They were just a mathematical expression whose meanings in relation to agricultural settlement were disastrous.
To begin with, what kind of land? A hundred and sixty acres of redwood or Douglas fir or Western white pine never could be a homestead — but they were a small fortune. Hence the personal and corporate timber frauds which stand high in the record of our national corruption. A hundred and sixty acres of arid range land could not provide forage for enough stock to support a family. Hence two kinds of land fraud, on a large scale by wealthy or corporate stockgrowers to acquire big ranges, on a small scale by poor individuals trying to acquire the self-supporting homesteads that they could not get legally. What about 160 acres of valley farmland with the rich mineral soil of the West and capable of being irrigated? Two considerations: to irrigate so large a tract would usually cost more than an individual owner could afford, and the farming made possible by irrigation would mostly be so intensive that so big a farm could not be worked by a single family.
So the land in the arid country had better be classified, and the unit of ownership, the size of the homestead, had better be adjusted to the realities. Our system had always resisted land-classification for the public domain — the official ruling that standing timber was not farmland — in the interest of speculation and graft. But in the arid country not to classify land would on the one hand facilitate monopolization of land, and on the other hand would perpetuate and institutionalize the bankruptcy of Western homesteaders. And unless the unit of ownership was changed there would be no way of squaring either public or private interests with the immutable facts. But both changes would mean fundamental alteration of our legal and land system, and would produce further changes in many institutions related to them. The sum of change required was so great that the American mind did not take it in — and went on believing that there must be some way of licking climate or that climate would adapt itself to men’s desires. Against this inherited set of mind, the tumultuous and tragic experience of the West could not prevail.
Again, not only what kind of land but whereabouts? A small holding that included a water source could prevent access to the basis of life and so would give its owner the usufructs of a much larger area which he could keep others from owning. Adjoining holdings along a stream could similarly dominate a much larger area. So at small expense (and by fraud) a corporation could keep individual stockgrowers from a really vast area it did not own but could thus make use of. Or a corporation could not only charge its own price for water, that is for life, but could control the terms of settlement with all that settlement implies. Here was another powerful force making for monopoly and speculation. Clearly, that is clearly to us now, the West could exist as a democratic society only if the law relating to the ownership and use of water were changed. The changes required were repugnant to our legal system and our set of mind, and again the experience of the West produced turbulence but not understanding.
Moreover, to bring water to land at any distance from the source was an undertaking expensive beyond the ability of an individual landowner to afford. As the distance increased it would become expensive beyond the ability first of co-operative groups, then of profit-making corporations, and finally of the individual states to afford. At the heyday of “individual enterprise” elsewhere in the United States, therefore, the natural conditions of the West demanded federal action in the procurement of water. And this was repugnant not only to our set of mind but, especially, to our mystical vision of the West, the very citadel, so we insisted on believing, of “rough individualism.”
Furthermore, if in large parts of the West the individual landowner required a homestead of at least four square miles, then the traditional pattern of settlement would result in his living in fearful isolation from his kind. Loneliness, hardship, and social deterioration would inevitably follow. (Which is the history of the high plains down to the automobile and the coming of good roads.) What the Western realities demanded was not the ranch pattern of the Dakotas but the village pattern of the Spanish-American Southwest and of Mormon Utah. And in the arid region the traditional political organization within the states, by counties, would be cumbersome, illogical, and intolerably expensive. Far better to avoid such irrational units and to organize politically in accord with the Western realities, by river valley or watershed.
This does not state all the immutable conditions of the West against which institutions and eventually ideas shattered but it will do here. The history of the West derives from them — a history of experience failing to overcome in time our thinking, our illusions, our sentiments, and our expectations. The results were hardship, suffering, bankruptcy, tragedy, human waste — the overthrow of hope and belief to a degree almost incredible now, and only now beginning to be understood in the historical context.
These principles are described and analyzed, and most of the institutional changes necessary to bring Western society into effective accord with them are stated, in Powell’s Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States. In fact, they are set forth in the first forty-five pages of that monumental and astonishing book, a book which of itself opened a new era in Western and in national thinking. It is one of the most remarkable books ever written by an American. In the whole range of American experience from Jamestown on there is no book more prophetic. It is a scientific prophecy and it has been fulfilled — experimentally proved. Unhappily the experimental proof has consisted of human and social failure and the destruction of land. It is a document as basic as The Federalist but it is a tragic document. For it was published in 1878 and if we could have acted on it in full, incalculable loss would have been prevented and the United States would be happier and wealthier than it is. We did not even make an effective effort to act on it till 1902. Half a century after that beginning, we are still far short of catching up with it. The twist of the knife is that meanwhile irreversible actions went on out west and what we did in error will forever prevent us from catching up with it altogether.
Yet those statements, though true, will not hold of themselves. For meanwhile, before the effective beginning was made, institutions which Powell founded were amassing the knowledge that made the beginning possible. And they were steadily changing American opinion as they added to knowledge — to the treasury of knowledge that is the heritage of all mankind. And they, with what has issued from them, have steadily changed not only American social and political institutions but the structure and functions of the government of the United States. Finally, as this change has progressed it has become a force which, joined with others working in the same direction, has greatly changed our ideas of what government ought to do and how it should do what it ought.
That story, however, is Mr. Stegner’s book. I began by alluding to a gap in historical understanding which has caused distortions in the writing of American history. Mr. Stegner has now filled the central and biggest part of that gap. Henceforth a prizewinning book about American intellectual history will not dismiss Powell as a believer in the cult of action who wrote an adventure story.
Mr. Stegner’s subject is nineteenth century America and the part the West played in creating twentieth century America — wherein, how, but most of all why. He has added a basic book to the small shelf of books that give history basic knowledge of Western experience. As recently as twenty years ago there were no such histories, at least there were none sound enough and understanding enough to be used for interpretation. There are just about enough of them now, they have amassed just about enough basic knowledge, to justify someone in bringing them together to construct a new general synthesis of American history. Any day now we may expect the appearance of a historian with a generalizing mind who is bent on achieving a hypothesis about the West in American history that will square with the facts. When someone achieves it, it will be a more realistic and therefore a more useful theory than Turner’s.