The Presence of the Past

SOMETHING IN THE SOIL:Legacies and Reckonings in the New West

In 1987, Patricia Nelson Limerick, history professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, burst onto the scene with the publication of her provocative polemic, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. A snappily written, humorous, accessible synthesis, Legacy explained to reluctant Americans that rather than being a place of happy discovery and rip-roaring adventure, the West was a conquered land, taken from Indians by avaricious whites with a penchant for failure more often than success. Limerick gave voice to a generation of historians tilting at the “frontier thesis” of turn-of-the-century historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who linked America’s democracy to its abundance of “free” Western land. She became spokeswoman for “The New Western History,” a project that produced works critical of old-style narratives which neglected to take into account race, class, gender, and the environment, and refused to acknowledge the ongoing importance of federal power and presence in the West. Since the publication of Legacy, Limerick has received a prestigious “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation, and has used her speaking engagements as occasions to elaborate on her understanding of what really happened in the area stretching between the 98th parallel and the Pacific Coast, the Canadian border and the Rio Grande.

Limerick has gathered these speeches into an edited collection, Something in the Soil, a smorgasbord of sixteen essays from which readers may sample the array of wit and wisdom for which she is best known. The book is divided into five sections, each of which consists of three or four essays, many relying on lighthearted “talking points” or lists, summaries, and generalizations of patterns Limerick elegantly extrapolates from histories that are often complicated and confusing (by my count, the book includes ten such enumerations, including a twelve-point guide to Indian-white wars as well as “The Genius of Juan Bautista de Anza: 13 Heroic Strategies for Today’s People of Ambition”).

In Part I, “Forgetting and Remembering,” she loosely addresses ways Americans have chosen to represent the Western past. In one essay, Limerick looks at U.S.-Indian wars, in another she examines ways Americans have wrangled over the term “frontier,” and in the last, she thinks about textbooks’ obstinate tendency to cling to stories of a westward-moving frontier, despite trends countering this narrative. In Part II, Limerick singles out the lives and careers of three “beleaguered great white men.” She defends her decision to scrutinize Juan Bautista de Anza (who teaches us that we should “dare to be dull”), John Sutter, and Frederick Jackson Turner, because, she writes, “stories of the less powerful cannot make complete sense without an intense reckoning with the stories of those white men who exerted power over others.” The third and, in my opinion, strongest section is Part III, which Limerick devotes to the environment. One essay is her humorous mission statement to environmentalists (“Develop new strategies for rewarding restraint. Encourage the Boy Scouts to give merit badges for not camping, for not carving initials into trees, for not rafting down crowded rivers, for not starting fires by rubbing two sticks together”), another is a close and sensitive reading of Asian responses to American landscape, and a third is a reassessment of the legacy of California’s Gold Rush. Part IV, “The Historian as Dreamer,” meanders disconcertingly from an essay about Mormons and ethnicity, through a largely autobiographical musing about ways to define Californians, and on to two more essays loosely about meaning and spirituality in the West. Limerick sets out her rules for becoming a successful, accessible historian, teacher, and lecturer in three brief essays in Part V. One, first published in The New York Times Magazine, is a mordantly funny send-up of jargon-heavy, academic prose (“Why choose camouflage and insulation over clarity and directness?” she asks).

On the whole, the collection provides some good laughs and pungent insights. I can attest that it is light enough reading to be consumed while using an exercise machine, and engaging enough that non-historians (my mother-in-law, for one) interested in issues of importance to the West (land use, water rights, federal vs. local power, ethnic and racial relations) won’t be bored. Had Limerick simply assembled these essays without trying to consolidate them into some kind of meaningful whole, I would end my review here, concluding that Limerick has provided her readers a pleasant sampling of her interesting mind. Instead, she chooses to adopt a slippery metaphor to give shape to the collection, and she pushes hard to convince readers that it is the job of historians to make their work relevant – defining “relevance” in terms of the work’s ability to inform present-day decision-making and policy. Neither of these strategies serves her well, and so I want to spend a bit of time examining what these decisions do to Something in the Soil.

The metaphor Limerick uses in her title never quite gels. In 1970, she reveals in her introduction, a disgruntled correspondent sent her a nasty letter claiming disdainfully that Limerick’s hometown of Banning, California, “sounds like something in the soil.” Limerick jumps on this phrase, using it to represent a variety of ideas, yet I’m never sure exactly for what the phrase stands. She says she wants to present a “down-to-earth” history of the American West (soil as earthy), wants to allude to the similarities between geological strata and the layering of memory (soil as repository for past experience), and wants to suggest the ways that stories themselves transform the land (soil as environment that humans shape). Is it that stories have transformed the land, or that they are like the land, or both? Limerick concludes this discussion, writing that “the West has had a very full life as an abstraction, an ideal, and a dream. And yet the West is also actual, material, and substantial – ‘something in the soil,’ a set of actual places now holding layer upon layer of memory.” It sounds good, as does everything that Limerick writes, but what, exactly, does it mean?

Limerick is far more clear when she says, up front, that she wrote these essays and presented them publicly as a kind of “field-testing of the New Western History” to “redeem higher education.” “Field-testing,” she explains, entailed running her ideas by non-historians, talking to them, and presenting the abovementioned talking points. This kind of face-to-face interaction between university professors and layfolks will redeem academia, she emphatically insists, especially when scholars are able “to declare the relevance of history to current dilemmas.” She ponders Frederick Jackson Turner’s declamation that the “aim of history, then, is to know the elements of the present by understanding what came into the present from the past. […] The antiquarian strives to bring back the past for the sake of the past; the historian strives to show the present to itself by revealing its origins from the past. The goal of the antiquarian is the dead past; the goal of the historian is the living present.” Clinging to her justification of determined presentism, Limerick insists that historians’ duty is to use extrapolations of past historical events to prod policy makers in the right direction. Academics should be working with public school teachers, planning museum exhibits and documentary films, talking at service clubs and retirement homes, answering questions from journalists, and making research accessible to policymakers, activists, and government officials. Why study the past? To help us navigate the rocky streams of the present into smoother waters of the future, Limerick explains. If historians refuse to do this, she admonishes, they risk being irrelevant and remote.

Limerick – perhaps unconsciously – takes swipes several times at historians who don’t take her own brand of “relevance” to heart. Those working in a monographic mode (doing archival research and compiling findings to tell us about one particular time, place, or people) curry little favor in Something in the Soil. When she discusses Indian-white wars, for instance, Limerick writes that scholars who have tried to relate the confusing histories of specific clashes have turned out “…tales from hell because they are stories so loaded with tiresome detail and pointless plot twists that narrative art bends and breaks under their weight.” Having read many a history in this category, I can concur that they are often Balkan in their intricacy. But here’s the problem: the events, themselves, were tangled and complicated, and the actors confused and confusing. Historians working from archival sources (not just summarizing secondary works or surveying current newspaper headlines) are stuck with their raw material. Yes, it’s their job to make the past as clear as possible, but readers might also have to meet historians half way, and do a bit of brain stretching to follow along. When Limerick surveys American history texts produced in the Nineties, she complains that their authors have for far too long limited themselves to telling the history of the West in the same tired narrative set out by Frederick Jackson Turner. She excuses the textbook authors because, she writes, “it would have taken a particularly determined set of textbook revisers, scholars with time on their hands, to read through all those monographs and assemble a more realistic presentation of the American West. No wonder they took a more economical approach to the use of their time and held on to the old plot of the mobile and vanishing West.” A cheap and unnecessary shot, here, when Limerick might instead credit those intrepid, tireless monographers, digging through dusty archives and dry public records, so that we may know about the very subjects upon which “The New Western History” stands. Readers – even busy, over-extended professors – tackle such histories not to understand better the complexities of modern-day policy-making, but, perhaps, because they just want to know what happened a long time ago.

Limerick has conflated presentism with relevance, a philosophical stand that I, personally, find limiting. I can’t argue with her that academics irritatingly avoid writing in clear prose. I can’t disagree that historians, as a group, need to make a pledge to write about things in ways that make them irresistible to curious readers. I don’t agree, however, that historians need to reduce everything to easily consumable patterns, or to make everything seem pertinent to present concerns. Monographs are important. They explore race, gender, and class in ways that secondary works cannot. There is at least one other option open to historians who wish to connect more firmly with their readers, without wedding themselves to the concept of present relevance. Like Limerick, many historians grappling with a desire to attract general readers have consciously examined their writing styles. Instead of adopting Limerick’s tactic of summarizing secondary works, compiling lists, and connecting the deep past with policy and prediction, they have tinkered with narrative strategy, writing compelling stories about those long dead in ways that make for page-turning, intellectually engaging history. Just a few examples of such works include John Demos’ The Unredeemed Captive, Natalie Zemon Davis’ Women on the Margins, Jill Lepore’s The Name of War, John Mack Faragher’s Daniel Boone, William Cronon’s Changes in the Land, Laurel Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale, Patricia Cline Cohen’s The Murder of Helen Jewett, and Jennifer Price’s Flight Maps. All of these histories dive into archives and take present-day readers on wonderful, readable, accessible tours of the past. Western history can and should do this, too.

Cathy Corman is an assistant professor in the history department at Harvard University, completing “Reading, Writing, and Removal: Native American Literacies, 1824-51,” to be published by the University of California Press.

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